What Is Good and Right: Acting in Justice
One of my favourite scripture passages comes from the Old Testament, from Micah 6:8. Micah answers the questions of the people, who want to know how to please God, with this: God has shown you, the people, what is good and right. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. It’s one of the few times where the righteous path is summed up in such a short, succinct – and yet powerful – way; the other perhaps being when Jesus lays out the two most important commandments, loving God and loving your neighbour. This will be a series of three posts that looks at the three things commanded of us in Micah 6:8, something that I’ve been wanting to think more closely on for a while.
Justice, mercy, humility. The three things that are good and right according to Micah 6:8.
Justice is perhaps the idea out of these three that has been the most compromised, the most co-opted and the most misused for purposes that have nothing to do with justice. We often think of justice as it happens in the judicial arena, do the courts mete out justice, what is the punishment that best suits the crime? Not only does thinking this way this lay justice on the doorstep of some vague criminal system that most of us with privilege rarely have to navigate or interact with outside of the front page of the news, but it has nothing to do with the verse – how do you act justly? Asking this also highlights the action aspect – one cannot be just, one must act just; as we are reminded in Romans, there is no one who is just, no not one.
The answer acting justly lies beyond the initial Sunday School answers that quickly spring to mind for those of us who grew up in religious families. This is because these answers focus on the individual level – you, as in individual, need to share with other individuals, be kind to other individuals, speak honestly to other individuals, etc… There is scriptural basis for this but I also think that our emphasizing this form of justice is borne out of the neoliberal environment that our current brand of Christianity has been steeped in.
What does neoliberal individualism espouse? It’s most obvious example and manifestation is perhaps the American Dream – that any one individual, through their own hard work and merit, can succeed at an individual level. In this, there are no particular responsibilities to others – every person is an island and relationships can either hinder, support, or are there to be manipulated for personal gain.
This thinking manifests itself in human rights – every individual has particular rights that are to be respected at the cost of all else. It manifests itself in justice – every individual should be treated fairly and should individually bear the cost and responsibility if they don’t treat others fairly.
But to understand justice, we need to understand injustice – particularly as something that runs much deeper than the individual. Just as injustice runs deeper than the individual level, justice does the same. Injustice is far more than you treating someone badly. Is it unjust that African or Latin American farmers are slaves to crops such as coffee and sugar, selling it for pennies so that Western consumers can have cheap commodities? Is it unjust that women are, across the board, paid less than their male counterparts? Is it unjust that Indigenous people in Canada are jailed at an absurdly high rate, while their education, housing, and health care are underfunded at an equally absurd level? We all play a role in perpetuating these systems of injustice, so to act justly we must also address these injustices at that level.
Why don’t we do this more often? Because it’s difficult. It’s relatively easy to see justice as giving money to a downtown shelter because it is measurable and tangible. The solution or ‘justice’ is simple and immediate; there is a gratification that immediately resonates. It is much harder and much more complex to address the systems of power that force people into the streets, that take away their homes and make them experience homelessness, that subject them to daily violence and, in many cases, support and condone this violence. It is justice that doesn’t happen with the click of a key. Violence against women or those with gender and sexual diversities won’t be solved by ‘liking’ a Facebook status or cutting a cheque. Justice is rarely simple or easy to enact.
Justice demands a commitment to engagement with the systems of injustice at a long term and sustained level. It demands complex interrogation of our selves and our relationships (personal, economic, social) to reveal how we actually participate in and perpetuate injustice. It demands time, effort, and sacrifice. For those of us with privilege, that sacrifice will be much greater.
Acting justly is not easy and it’s a life time project, a journey of sorts. I’m not saying that the more traditional acts of justice are wrong per say (though many times, the things that we think may bring justice might actually be part of systems of injustice…), but that we need to expand how we imagine justice and engage more creatively, more sustainably, and more intimately with these forms of justice. May I suggest that growing a garden is justice. So is civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws. So is respecting and protecting the environment. So is teaching our children to reject patriarchal gender norms. So is resisting the prison industrial complex. So is not driving a car. So is supporting local businesses. So is supporting public housing. So is paying taxes. So is honoring Indigenous treaties that were signed. So is changing much of the language we use. So is fighting for migrant access to social services (Deuteronomy 24:17). So is…
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