The oxymoron of proximate justice

To be sure, we don't strive for proximate justice. Who wants to strive for an incomplete or imperfect kingdom? . . . We need an understanding of proximate justice to help us wait.
March 7 th 2008

Oxymorons always unsettle me. They compel me to mull them over in my mind, again and again, attempting to unpack layers juxtaposing two contradictory terms.

Proximate justice is an uncomfortable oxymoron at first. Isn't justice, by its very nature, meant to be full and absolute, right or wrong? Doesn't the integrity of the term demand our full commitment, our faith in the possibility of real justice?

The other day I had the opportunity to hear Jim Wallis speak at a luncheon in Boston. He's on his book tour for The Great Awakening. One thing I appreciate about Wallis is that he is extremely consistent and persistent. He's talked about wedding personal faith with social justice now for over thirty years. And so when he says there is a revival of justice happening across the country, I'm inclined to take the man at his word. According to Wallis, revivals of justice occur when "Billy Graham meets Martin Luther King," and toward this end, Wallis has inspired folks to join grassroots movements that push political structures from below while praying for open doors from above.

As I considered proximate justice during the lunch though, I wondered whether it would be a compelling selling-point for signing people on to a movement. Movements have an all-or-nothing feel to them, and it's likely the burden our abolitionist, social gospel, or civil rights predecessors felt at times: that they were the ones who had to bring the Kingdom of God here, and now.

Wallis's conclusion with "prayer as key" made me think that he and Garber might still have a point of connection. We do need an understanding of proximate justice to keep us from utter despair and cynicism, especially when the daily grind of working to bring about the kingdom wears us out. At the same time, we could use it as a corrective from taking ourselves or our cause too seriously.

In Political Holiness: A Spirituality of Liberation, Pedro Casaldaliga and Jose Maria Vigil warn us of the idol of justice. They write, "Social justice (however important it may be, and it is) can also be an idol, and we have to purify ourselves from it in order to declare clearly that God alone suffices, and in this way give justice too the fullness of its meaning." Perhaps proximate justice is ultimately an acknowledgement of humility and faith: faith that this work of bringing about the Kingdom is not entirely on our shoulders after all, that there is a rhythm of work, and then rest, signaled by prayer, contemplation, and weekly Sabbaths.

To be sure, we don't strive for proximate justice. Who wants to strive for an incomplete or imperfect kingdom? By its very definition, shalom means all things as they should be, in right relationship. But we do need an understanding of proximate justice to help us wait until then, even as we strive daily toward shalom in all corners of creation.

My students from Gordon College, engaged in community development work, know all too well these dual tendencies: toward the idolatry of our justice work or the cynicism that paralyzes. Studying the complexities of injustice, travelling to the developing world to visit people, learning about the production of goods, and returning here for urban engagement, Christian students are especially exposed to the "bad news," to glaring examples of injustice. They are also mindful of the ways we play a part in all this, like no other generation before us. They are simultaneously driven to right an injustice (fair trade coffee only on campus now!) and stalled by the fear that nothing will ever change. This then is the predicament: Why do anything if it will be tainted by some injustice—if the landfill will increase, if CO2 will be emitted, if a child will be subject to sweatshop labor or sexual trafficking, HIV/AIDS?

We can't work to see these issues approximately solved. We want justice in that child's life completely, not approximately. What motivation based on compromise would sign us up for a justice revival or even compel us to go to work day in and day out? But, as Garber suggests, that mindset is not sustainable, and can be sinful when we shoulder it alone. We must remember that we will not see complete justice this side of heaven. We strive to climb to the mountain summit, not just below it; but we rest often because without resting, there's no way we could keep going. It's just too hard.

Our students start their year reading a selection of Paul Marshall's book, Heaven is Not My Home, because it provides an important foundation for our work in the community that encourages us away from the tendencies toward idolatry and despair. He writes:

Our works, here and now, are not all transitory. The good that we have done will not simply disappear and be forgotten. This world is not a passing and futile phase; it will be taken up in God's new world. Our good buildings, our great inventions, our acts of healing, our best writings, our creative art, our finest clothes, our greatest treasures will not simply pass away. If they represent the greatest works of God's image-bearers, they will adorn the world to come.

Our works for justice, the God-honouring parts, are not all in vain and will not all disappear. This is truly good and life-giving news, news we must remind ourselves of day in and day out within our various vocations.

Recently, one of our students came to the realization of the injustice within our urban public schools. She couldn't believe that art and music had been cut from many of the younger grades. Her middle-class upbringing had been richly blessed by the arts and fostered in her a love for the theatre. Her strongest desire was to change the system right away! But, understanding more the complexities that go into these injustices, she knew change wouldn't happen quickly. With her desire for systemic change still in mind, she set about establishing a theatre program within one of our community partners to teach theatre to young girls. Knowing that so many thousands of children in Lynn could benefit from arts-enrichment like this, she's making peace with her corner of creation: the essential work of teaching drama to thirteen girls.

She's making peace with proximate justice.

 

Christen Borgman Yates is an artist and associate director of Theological Horizons. During graduate school, she studied theology, art and community development at Regent College and Simon Fraser University, both in Vancouver, British Columbia. She lives and works in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband and four children.

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