Diogenes Allen teaches philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary. This article is excerpted from his contribution to The Truth about Jesus, edited by Donald Armstrong III and published this month (March, 1998) by Eerdmans.
His newest book is Love: Christian Romance, Marriage and Friendship (Cowley, 1987). This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 17, 1988, p. 156. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Although there is a conflict between our love and our fear of justice, for those who love God that conflict is absorbed by God’s purity.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6) I misunderstood this text for years, for I did not know what righteousness meant. I vaguely associated it with being good or pure, or with obeying the Ten Commandments. Righteousness is not a central concern of the churches with which I normally associate, nor is it something after which most people I know can be said to hunger and thirst.
But I recently learned to my surprise that the Greek word translated as “righteousness” is the same word that Plato uses. In English versions of his dialogues the word is translated as ‘‘justice.” It is justice that we are to hunger and thirst after.
I could not agree more. Wrongdoing is rampant. No prophet is needed to make us realize that. Justice is something we can hunger and thirst for, and it is encouraging that Jesus promised we shall be satisfied.
Plato, however, had an odd way of talking about justice, which has led me to understand what Jesus said in a new way. Plato said that we are to love justice itself. What would it be to love justice itself’? Usually, when we are treated fairly, we do not love justice itself, for we find such treatment pleasant. Our attention is so occupied by the pleasure that we do not attend to the goodness of Justice itself. When we are treated unfairly, we are indirectly aware of the goodness of justice — we realize that justice matters because of the harm we suffer from injustice. But we do not yet love justice itself. To love justice is to desire to become perfectly just — that is, to become like or assimilated to what we love.
Many Christians are prone to accept too facilely Christ as the bearer of our sins and evil. In other words, we may not yet have reached the place in our development in which we hunger and thirst after justice. We must come to love justice.
A way to test whether we truly love justice is to ask ourselves whether we heartily desire that the consequences of the evil we do fall directly and solely on ourselves. To do so would be to love justice itself. If we perform this test honestly, we become aware of the fact that we also desire to be saved from justice. We do not want the consequences of the evil we do to fall directly on ourselves and no one else. We are caught in a contradiction — loving justice and yet fearful of it. We are in a condition from which we can respond to a supernatural remedy.
When we have a passion for justice, then, to be consistent, we must desire that the consequences of all the evil we do fall directly and solely on ourselves. But then we find that justice is too horrible even to contemplate. Nonetheless, to keep returning in our thoughts to this inability fully to desire that justice be exercised on ourselves gives us access to a path that leads us to the cross of Christ. Christ’s passion enables us to love justice with all our heart and not to shrink from the truth about ourselves that justice reveals.
Ludwig Wittgenstein noted: “Nobody can truthfully say of himself that he is filth. Because if I do say it, though it can be true in a sense, this is not a truth by which I myself can be penetrated: otherwise I should either have to go mad or change myself” (Culture and Value, amended second edition, edited by G. H. von Wright [Oxford University Press, 1980]) Is “filth” too strong? Is it a just evaluation? Does it not fail to take into account our moral achievements, our merits, our greatness, our reality as human beings, which must be respected? Those assessments are all compatible with a self-evaluation that issues in such words as ‘filth.” because to love justice passionately leads to such expressions. as any glance at the words used by saintly people about themselves would show.
We can truthfully say it of ourselves, however, because we are loved by one who loves us in spite of our failures to be just. His love enables us to speak truthfully about ourselves because it is the love of one who is wholly just. who innocently suffers the consequences of other people’s injustices, and who as the creative Word of God has the power and authority to identify with every victim of injustice and, as the one who suffers at our hands, grants us absolution from our evil. In our self-evaluation we may truly believe that we are filth because we believe that we can be changed, and in fact are being changed.
The removal of evil can be experienced by anyone. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, he explicitly claimed that the Son of Man is present in every human being (“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” [Matt. 25:40]) We are not able to perceive him in every human being with our sense organs, but we are able to experience the effects of a purity present in each person, insofar as each person bears the image of God. (In Colossians 1:15 Christ is said to be the very image of God.)
I remember seeing a colleague walking past my house one day. He was a colorless person who used to affect outlandish dress in an effort to make himself interesting. I looked at him with scorn and with a sense of superiority, thinking how glad I was not to be like him. Then it occurred to me that we were essentially alike, both creatures, made in God’s image. Our essential status was the same. However great our differences, they did not alter that essential status in the least. My scorn and sense of superiority immediately disappeared. Some of my evil — my unjust attitude toward another person — was taken away when I attended to the image of God that each of us bears.
Pascal distinguishes three orders: those of the body, the intellect and the heart. Jesus does not have the greatness of the order of the body, as did Alexander the Great, nor the greatness of the order of the intellect, as did Albert Einstein. According to Pascal, Jesus’ greatness is his humility. He did not measure himself by the cultural standards of his day, as did some others, who scoffed at the fact that he was a carpenter (Mark 6:3), nor by the greatness of the order of the intellect (his education was that which could be gained at the local synagogue school) Some of the creatures made by the Word of God are greater in these respects than the one who is the Word of God incarnate, and that one is not ashamed of his inferiority.
Pascal says that holiness belongs to the order of the heart. Jesus’ greatness is also his ability to make us holy. Holiness is freedom from the burden of evil, and the state of being full of charity. To pay attention to him either indirectly, by attending to his image which we all bear, or directly, by attending to him as portrayed in the Scriptures and by praying, has the effect of relieving some of the burden of evil we carry and enabling our love for others to increase.
Personal piety and social concern, which have been divided for so long in Christianity. will meet when we all come to love justice itself; for then we shall meet in Christ because we shall all realize our need to be relieved of the burden of evil.