This is the third in a three-part series offering theological reflections on some issues raised by the Occupy movement. The first can be found here and the second here.
In the previous posts I’ve explored the way justice is prized in the biblical literature. To conclude this short series I want to return briefly to the puzzle I started with: why is it that Martin Luther King’s (thoroughly biblical) demands for justice strikes us today — even those of us who profess to be Christians — as somewhat naïve and perhaps even deserving of suspicion?
Is it that we have fundamentally lost our moral bearings and no longer care about justice? I don’t think that’s quite right. We do still care about justice—both individually and collectively. (Even bankers, it turns out, have moral intuitions about fairness and desert.)
It’s not so much that we’ve forgotten all about justice; it’s just that justice has slipped down our list of priorities. This is evidence of a subtle reorientation of the basic theological horizons of society: In the place of divine justice and mercy, economic growth has become our primary source of hope. Our faith is now firmly in free markets (alongside scientific and technological innovation) to provide for us a happy and prosperous future. And as a consequence, economists have become our high priests, periodically prescribing for us the sacrifices required to ensure economic growth (bailouts, stimulus packages, austerity measures, etc.).
One consequence of this theological reorientation is that our imaginative grip on the role of government has changed. We tend no longer to demand that governments order their activity above all else to the goals of justice and righteousness. Indeed, such demands seem to us potentially irresponsible insofar as they threaten to curb economic growth. The imperatives of justice compete with the things we truly believe to be the source of life and happiness, and so we keep them on a short leash. The ideal of government as an agent of justice to punish wrongdoing and to prevent injustice has thus become marginal for us. In its place we now tend to imagine government first and foremost as the manager of the economy and as a provider of services.
The shift has been gradual and it remains partial — we haven’t given up the previous cultural paradigm entirely — but it has been a marked shift all the same. Indeed, it is so deeply entrenched in our thinking that it has become second nature to us to size up our elected representatives almost entirely based upon their performance as managers of the economy and providers of services. Come election time, every politician knows that it would be electoral suicide not to promise economic growth and better — or at least more efficient — provision of health care, schools, roads and so on. These are the fixed parameters of public debate.
It goes without saying that economic growth and technological development have in many ways been a great blessing and have brought about staggering improvements in the quality of life. And if (and this is a big ‘if’) we can find ways to sustain economic development within the ecological limits of our planet and the moral limits of care, respect and solidarity, it may continue to be a path that we can and should pursue. But this should not obscure the underlying issue. Claims of justice have been displaced from the position of primacy given to them by the Christian tradition, and this is no mere oversight but is entirely consistent with the new reigning theology of our ‘secular’ world.
For those of us who are Christians, then, we need to reflect soberly and honestly on where our deep faith lies. We who confess faith in God and claim to share his concern for justice and righteousness — practically, what do we put our faith in? What do we support with our money, our voice and our vote? Are we prepared to choose justice over increases in our own personal material wealth and wellbeing? Are we prepared even to countenance decreases in our wealth and limits on our lifestyles for the sake of justice? And do we ultimately believe that this is the more excellent way — not just for us but for everyone?
Managing the economy and providing services are important, of course. But before all else the gospel teaches us that we need our institutions of public justice to answer the muted cries of those who are exploited and cast aside; and, today more than ever, that we need them to respond to the silent groans of the creation whose capacity to extend hospitality to the human race and all living things is being over-taxed in myriad ways that we are only now beginning to understand. We cannot execute these tasks merely as private citizens; we must also execute them collectively through public institutions that act in our name.
Dr Matheson Russell is lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Auckland.