Saturday, December 03, 2011

Two horizons of hope: justice vs economic growth II

Guest series by Matheson Russell

This is the second in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The first can be found here and the third here.

The one essential and foundational task of government, according to the biblical texts discussed in the previous post, is the execution of justice and the promotion of righteousness. Contingency planning is expected; but, surprisingly perhaps, economic prosperity and even military success are not centrally expected of kings or governments. Such happy outcomes are typically attributed to divine providence and not to human skill or virtue; material prosperity and military victory are characteristically interpreted as the sign of God’s blessing or favour, but — importantly — they are never considered the automatic consequence of good government.

Nowhere is this priority of justice and righteousness over riches and security more forcefully and starkly proclaimed than by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
We can draw a straight line from the message of Jesus to the message of Martin Luther King. Both share a deeply-held conviction—let’s call it a faith—that the highest social good, the thing to be pursued above all else, is justice and righteousness; that in this lies true riches and security; that walking down this path is what demonstrates a genuine faith in God.

All of the great civilizations have esteemed justice and elevated it as an ideal, and contemporary Western nations are certainly no exception. But what is so profoundly challenging about the biblical texts for us today is how relentlessly they maintain the view that life without justice is barely tolerable, barely human, and that justice and righteousness are to be prized above all as the most fundamental social goods.

I’m not sure that we hold quite the same view today. But, again, why is that?
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.