Social justice at the heart of faith?
The utter barbarism of the attacks by followers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shocked and appalled the entire world. Even after the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in 2001 and the long war in Iraq, with all their horror and suffering, we were not prepared for such indiscriminate cruelty and savagery, supposedly in the name of religion. How could anyone in the 21st century invoke the name of God to murder innocent and defenceless men, women and children?
Some people will blame religion generally as the cause of such heartless intolerance, rather than seeing ISIS as a perverted interpretation of Islam. In the minds of some secularist thinkers, all religions are illusionary and inhuman, the product of weak-kneed superstition.
My response to such charges is to insist that all religions must be judged by how well they advance human wellbeing, but not just in material terms. Religion of course especially looks to the spiritual, social and moral dimensions of life. Most fundamentally religion offers a framework of meaning, affirming the values needed to sustain communities. Through their teaching and ritual, they offer another precious resource, the motivation to live one’s life well, to live the good life, even in the face of suffering and death. Indeed one of their greatest strengths is to give meaning to suffering, and the hope of a life beyond death.
If religions are to be taken seriously in an increasingly secular world, it is vital to bring to the fore concern for human wellbeing in its totality, not as a propagandist tool to deflect criticism, but as central to our belief in who God is.
In our increasingly metropolitan world, people of all religions are living more closely together, not least in Australia itself. We have a renewed sense of the imperative to become familiar with other religions and cultures, not just out of a superficial politeness, but recognising that we can all learn something from others, and rejoice in this colourful tapestry of peoples. Is this diversity not part of God’s grace-filled plan for humankind?
Hence in startling new and more comprehensive ways, we seek the common good. The global warming issue has reinforced our conviction that we are all in this together, perhaps as never before.
God and human wellbeing
The religious traditions stemming from the Hebrew Scriptures have much to tell us about God and human wellbeing, especially the Jewish and Christian traditions which see God as intensely concerned about human beings, as reflected in the ancient metaphors for God as our saviour, redeemer or shepherd.
It is curious, though, that some religious rhetoric and practices can become so otherworldly or even politically driven that they appear to discount the importance of living in peace and justice. The Catholic Church in the landmark document from the Second Vatican Council, The Church in the Modern World, deplored this gap between religious piety and social responsibility as one of the most serious errors of our time. Other Christian and Jewish traditions also insist on the critical importance of what many people now call social justice as an essential aspect of our faith and love of God.
Social justice or Realpolitik
You will not find the words ‘social justice’ in the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. Some people may indeed think that religious belief has little or nothing to do with the worlds of social, economic and political affairs. Yet people who read their Scriptures attentively find that these texts repeatedly highlight what we today recognise as elements of social justice. Indeed to know and practise justice is to know and love God.
If we are to secure a lasting peace in the world, particularly where tensions among religious traditions are inflamed, it is becoming increasingly vital to purify religious views with the aid of a renewed commitment to the wellbeing of all people, to universal social justice. Founding commitment to social justice in one’s conception of God anchors that commitment securely. In contrast, some reject the very idea of social justice, and instead favour philosophical rationalisations for Realpolitik, for political power or self-interest.
In the view of the theologian, Lisa Sowle Cahill, it is not otherworldliness that is the biggest threat to renewed ethics of commitment to the poor, but political realism. She wrote in her 2013 book, Global Justice, Christology and Christian Ethics:
Political realism is the idea not only that the overriding motive of moral and political behaviour is self-interest, but that self-interest is politically normative. While self-interest is indeed a powerful (and often valid) motivator, human beings and societies are capable of altruism and solidarity.
Yet with increasing secularisation in parts of the world, many people have lost familiarity with the Bible and its messages at a time when the great dialogue of religions is opening up on a global scale. How can we use this moment for all religious traditions to drink deeply from their own wells, and bring to the global table renewed commitments to social justice? It has become urgent that communities of faith lead the way in repudiating violence and oppression by promoting peace, universal human rights and justice for all peoples.
The visit to Jerusalem in May 2014 of Pope Francis with his Argentinian friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, expressed a hope that, despite the daunting challenges, our religious traditions could walk together under God, purified with growing understanding and respect.
Interpreting our Scriptures
A great impediment to recovering the Bible’s stress on social justice is that the Scriptures can be interpreted in such different ways. Historically they have been used to justify horrific bloodshed and oppression, as we well know. There are texts in the Scriptures that shock us, reminding us that the Bible reflects a slow development in moral conscience and about issues that today we consider in terms of human rights. Moreover, one can easily fall into the trap of cherry picking what will serve one’s self-interest and ignore the rest.
In other ways we are one of the most fortunate generations ever to have had such ready access to excellent scholarship about the Bible, enabling us to interpret it afresh in the light of our times, as each generation must. Yet we also realise that the meaning of the Bible is not self-evident. It has grown out of ancient traditions and events reaching back to the dawn of civilisation in the ancient Middle East, out of tribal cultures competing at times fiercely for existence. Out of this long and often painful past, conceptions of God and what God asks of human beings took different paths, some still cheek by jowl, even within the Scriptures.
Over time people came to highlight the moral implications of belief more fully. We are still on such a journey today as we discover more clearly what it means to be human beings in the light of historical experience, modern science and changing circumstances.
Social justice in the Bible?
The modern term ‘social justice’ encapsulates succinctly qualities stemming from the very heart of God: mercy (rahamim), loving kindness (hesed), justice and law (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedakah). God commands believers to show these same qualities in our care for the poor and destitute. In the words of Jeremiah, “I am the Lord, I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these I delight” (9: 24).
The prophets and psalms repeatedly emphasise God’s concern for human wellbeing, especially those who are most vulnerable. This concern jumps off the pages in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Critically important is the insistence that all people are made in the image of God. Indeed, human beings are the only image of God that God tolerates in the whole of creation.
The prophets and psalms repeatedly emphasise God’s concern for human wellbeing, especially those who are most vulnerable.- Fr Bruce Duncan CSsR
In this perspective, human dignity is rooted in the very being of God, and must always be respected. Everyone, without exception, is thus special in God’s eyes, and despite all the differences in talents and abilities, we are all radically equal before God. Such a belief gives a depth to human worth far beyond what a purely secular or political perspective can offer. It also enhances the meaning and motivation for our commitment to the wellbeing of others, and gives us confidence in the ultimate triumph of goodness, even though we may not live to see it.
God despises piety that ignores justice
The Hebrew prophets railed against religious observances that ignored the plight of the hungry and oppressed. God is not fooled by displays of religious fervour or ritual that do not embody genuine commitment to helping the poor. With astonishing vehemence, Amos about 734 BCE rejected such a shallow and misleading piety:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5: 21, 24).
Isaiah wrote about 700 BCE:
What to me are the multitudes of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of burnt offerings… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1: 1, 16-17).
Again in Isaiah we read:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (58: 6-7).
Jeremiah wrote in similar vein about 600 BCE:
Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood... (22: 3-4).
Like many similar passages, Psalm 11 (12): 5 captures God’s passionate concern for the oppressed: “‘For the poor who are oppressed and the needy who groan I myself will arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will grant them the salvation for which they thirst.’”
Jesus and Jewish tradition
Jesus Christ was thoroughly imbued with the Hebrew Scriptures and these themes are extremely prominent in his teachings. Matthew 25: 31-40 captures most powerfully Jesus’ intense identification with the poor and distressed. In the long parable about the Last Judgment, the ‘Son of Man’ judges people not on religious observance but on how they treated the hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers or prisoners, saying whenever they helped or ignored ‘one of the least of these’, they did it to him. Nor does the judge appear interested in what religious labels people wear.
One of the significant advances among Christians has been the growing recognition of how deeply immersed was Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures, and how extensively he drew from them in his words and actions. Indeed, the entire New Testament grew out these Jewish origins and cannot be adequately understood apart from them. Pope Francis has reiterated this, decrying anti-Semitism and in his popular style saying in June 2014 ‘inside every Christian lives a Jew’.
When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, he was echoing key passages from many Scriptural texts, including Psalm 146, expressing God’s solidarity with the poor and outcasts.
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour [the Jubilee] (Luke 4: 18-19).
For Jesus, social concern for the struggling and the destitute was absolutely central to his religious belief and what God asked of us. No Jewish person would have been surprised at Jesus saying that the greatest commandment was to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind, and that the second was like it: ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.’ (Matthew 22: 34-40).
But what did challenge people of his day, as it does ours, was to define one’s neighbour as the foreigner, the outsider, the one belonging to an alien tribe or group, race or religion. The neighbour was not a member of our kin, culture or language, but someone in dire need of help. This was the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), but even many Christians miss how radical a demand Jesus was making.
Just as strikingly, Jesus says in Matthew 24-25: ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’
Pursuing the human good today
Every generation faces the task or reinterpreting the Scriptures in the light of its contemporary world. Today we face challenges of immense consequence, following the rapid changes in processes of globalisation, with both their promise and threat. The promise is the opportunity for the human race to realise much more fully universal human rights, with more widespread social equity. The demand for greater equity is being more widely recognised as very urgent, and is a central concern for Pope Francis, among many others. Given that we have such material abundance globally, we need to build an institutional framework ensuring a sustainable future for humanity.
But if we do things badly, particularly with climate change and arms control, and if we fail to raise adequately the living standards of people in developing countries, the consequences for vast numbers of people could be dire indeed. There have been population collapses before in history.
Jewish and Christian traditions have a critical contribution to make in reaffirming the God-given demand for solidarity among peoples and pursuit of the common good. The common good is not an abstract idea without content, but looks to the fulfilment of all human beings insofar as that is possible in various circumstances, giving priority to those who are most disadvantaged.
What the human good of persons entails has been spelt out in considerable detail in programs like the UN Millennium Development Goals, concentrating on the most immediate material and social needs, but leading to higher levels of political, aesthetic and spiritual development. There was an astonishing international consensus about the urgency of achieving these goals to drive back levels of hunger, acute poverty and disadvantage. Every nation on earth committed to striving to attain these goals, with impressive but mixed results, partly because of the failure to fund them adequately. The al-Qaeda attacks, the invasion of Iraq and the Global Financial Crisis also undermined more far-reaching achievements.
The launch of the Sustainable Development Goals from 2015 will be another chance for the world to continue the rapid alleviation of hunger and poverty.
This astonishing effort to alleviate hunger and poverty globally coheres intimately with our religious commitment to care for widows and orphans, as the Bible puts it. What is different is that we have opportunities and resources to do this on a scale undreamed of by earlier generations.- Bruce Duncan CSsR
These programs demonstrate that while there will always be debate about aspects of what the human good entails, there is widespread agreement about most of the basic essentials. This astonishing effort to alleviate hunger and poverty globally coheres intimately with our religious commitment to care for widows and orphans, as the Bible puts it. What is different is that we have opportunities and resources to do this on a scale undreamed of by earlier generations. It thus calls for greater collaboration among Christians and Jews, along with people of other beliefs, to enhance human wellbeing as much as we can, knowing that it is God we serve in the distressed of the earth.
Faith, values, & social policy - Fr Bruce Duncan C.Ss.R
Photo: The Good Samaritan; art4god.com