Living in the tension between the ages
Living in the tension between the ages

Living in the tension between the ages

Proximate justice recognizes the tradeoffs that occur in this imperfect world, and allows us to respond with compassion and justice.
March 7 th 2008
Living in the tension between the ages

Both as someone who has been involved for several years in the practical work of community organizing and now as a doctoral student studying how the "already, not yet" presence of the kingdom of God should impinge on believers' responses to suffering, I found this article deeply thought provoking. That it was able to speak to both worlds I have inhabited illustrates that it is "theology with its feet on the ground" (as a friend of mine used to say). It intersects profoundly with where we are living right now, on the sharp edge of the intersection between two ages: "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15), yet we "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons" (Romans 8:23). "Proximate justice" resonates with nothing less than the eschatological tension that underlies our condition of being in the world, yet not of it.

I'd like to test the usefulness of "proximate justice" as a tool in identifying and combating four temptations that either derail the believer's pursuit of the kingdom of God or distort the way they pursue that kingdom. If all four types of temptation tend to collapse the tension of living between the ages, the idea of proximate justice strives to guard that tension and keep it taut. Framing the idea of proximate justice like this can help us recognize several ways it can be useful to those "on the ground" engaging in the Sisyphus-like task of publicly witnessing to the "already-not yet" kingdom. It also points us towards a potential blind spot in its use that needs some clarification.

Proximate justice recognizes the tradeoffs that occur in this imperfect world, and allows us to respond with compassion and justice.

In my experience doing community organizing in various urban contexts, I have repeatedly experienced two idolatrous temptations that derail the pursuit of the kingdom of God by believers (these are not the only two, mind you, but they are important).

There is the temptation to whitewash the present age, denying the pervasive effects of sin on the structures that govern our social life together. Perhaps, such an attitude will admit the effect of sin on individual lives, but it refuses to see that even the good and necessary institutions which allow our life together have often been tainted and distorted by the fall. In every city where I have worked (Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia), I have had to negotiate gentrification. Gentrification occurs when middle class people move into neighborhoods that had been underdeveloped economically. This is a blessing to be sure, but a mixed one. As money reenters the community and businesses begin to take an interest in reinvesting in it, property taxes and rent sky-rocket. This, in turn, means that current residents are often unable to continue living there, and are either displaced or become homeless. In Chicago, I worked as a public advocate for displaced residents. In St. Louis and Atlanta, I was a part of various church community outreach programs that ministered to those affected by displacement. Both of these roles involved trying to convince Christians in the church and in the public square that that they should take an interest in the plight of the displaced. A major obstacle to this effort was the refusal to believe that the market might affect the lives of individuals in a way that was unmerciful or unjust.

Within this context, the idea of "proximate justice" seems a helpful tool: if the market and other such institutions reflect perfect justice or if (roughly equivalent) they are morally neutral in their effects, then Christians can remain uninvolved. Yet if we begin to recognize that markets and other human institutions are inseparable from the human beings who participate in them, directed and tainted by human interests, strengths, and weaknesses, then we can see clearly and realistically both the positive and detrimental effects of complex structural phenomena like gentrification. A proper understanding of "proximate justice" refuses to allow us either to glorify or to demonize the present. It schools us in a realism that refuses to reify human institutions as divine or to conflate the present with the kingdom come. It recognizes the tradeoffs that occur in this imperfect world, and allows us to respond with compassion and justice.

There is the temptation to equate efforts done in the present with the advent of the future kingdom. Those operating in the public square are often tempted to either make or believe the claim that a given political "solution" will bring total salvation from a particular societal or international ill. One need only watch the present election cycle to see evidence of this, or note the inflated claims about the possibility of success made in the run-up to the present war in Iraq. On the ground things simply do not work this way. There are always unintended side effects to every finite human action, always winners and losers, always interests and concerns that have been unjustly privileged or improperly suppressed. "Proximate justice" allows us to have a godly skepticism towards such inflated claims. Even as we recognize, to use Francis Schaeffer's language, that we must be "co-belligerents" with adherents to various ideologies, it teaches us caution and skepticism toward their respective soteriologies. There is only one King who brings salvation, and he is not Caesar. Yet this also means that we will be willing to work together with people from across the ideological spectrum to achieve targeted proximate goals.

While the concept of proximate justice seems particularly apt in guarding the 'not yet' aspect of the kingdom, it doesn't seem to me that it is a tool meant to guard the 'already.'

Having looked at the beneficial way "proximate justice" guards believers against temptations that derail the pursuit of the kingdom of God, how well does it guard the way believers pursue the kingdom? Let me outline briefly two more temptations (I will then discuss them together, as they have a common root).

There is the temptation in the face of failure to abdicate all civic responsibility. When the expectation that an action will succeed is let down, and when there is no corresponding conception of the intrinsic value of such action (the worth it contains regardless of whether or not it succeeds), disillusionment inevitably follows.

Precisely because the ends we achieve in this age are always relative and "proximate," it is tempting to compromise ethically when choosing means to accomplish those ends. To use a rather mundane example, while I was organizing for a campaign that supported an affordable housing bill that was to go before a state congress, I was pressured to inflate the empirical claims I was using—to "spin" the evidence. The end (while surely incremental and "proximate") seemed just. Couldn't the use of such means be proximate in an analogous way?

Both of these temptations, interestingly enough, have a common root. They both assume that action only has instrumental value, that it is only worthwhile when it achieves results. When action fails or is potentially ineffective, they tell us to just quit or cheat. Does the concept of proximate justice help us deal with these two types of temptations?

It helps partially with the first, in that proximate justice prepares us to accept that our actions will not always succeed. Yet those who experience repeated failure in attaining even proximate goals are still susceptible to the temptation to despair. This points to a deeper issue: if we only value actions as means to certain ends, even proximate ends, can any meaning be given to failed attempts?

Looking at the second temptation, it is not clear to me how understanding that our ends must be proximate helps us in being faithful in the means we choose to use. It does open us up to consider incremental changes as viable options, curbing naïve messianic impulses. But this doesn't help us determine which means we should use to change things incrementally.

It is worth pausing here a moment to reflect on the fact that each set of temptations corresponds to a way that the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of the kingdom can be relaxed. The first set tempts us to believe that the kingdom has always already arrived, collapsing any account of the "not yet." The second set, on the other hand, tempts us to defer the presence of the kingdom entirely by using means that do not bear witness to (and in fact actively contradict) the presence of the kingdom in our lives. While the concept of proximate justice seems particularly apt in guarding the "not yet" aspect of the kingdom, it doesn't seem to me that it is a tool meant to guard the "already." But the "already" is important as well: believers are called not merely to pursue the proximate goals of the kingdom (which will only ever be partially realized, thus respecting the "not yet"), but are also called to reflect that kingdom faithfully (as "already" with us as a presence that is reflected in the lives of believers as a foretaste of the coming kingdom). Proximate justice, then, seems necessary but not sufficient. We could say that while proximate justice is our "end," faithfulness should be our "means."

Having faithfulness as our "means" suggests that we value certain actions as good in and of themselves, even when no proximate end arises from them. For instance, refusing intentionally to target civilians might compromise a war effort or ensure that a war will be more costly and last longer than would be ideal. Yet traditional just war theory has been careful to include this inviolable side-constraint on believers' pursuit of justice in a time of war. As we attempt to achieve justice, we must at the same time faithfully reflect the kingdom of God. That is, we are called to seek proximate justice justly. Just war, then, is never only an attempt at proximate justice, but also a way of making sure that the values of the kingdom are reflected in the very way Christians go about seeking justice.

Balancing an emphasis on proximate justice with the idea of faithfulness allows believers involved in public life to recognize that their actions on behalf of the kingdom are meaningful as reflections of that kingdom even when they fail entirely to bring proximate justice. It also gives us permission to engage in actions for the sake of faithfulness which are not politically savvy and may even appear foolish to others working with us. (An example of this might be an advocate of housing for the homeless taking time during the day of a "big vote" on housing policy to cease frantic lobbying and spend some time eating together with men and women at a local shelter). Finally, it serves as a necessary check against the temptation to "do evil that good may come" (Romans 3:8). Faithfulness need not be set over against the search for proximate justice, but we do well to remember that it is a necessary ingredient in the way we seek it.

Rob Burns
Rob Burns

Rob Burns is in Scotland, working toward a Ph.D. on the role and significance of suffering in human life.


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