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Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph


Daniel Chetti is Director of Programmes at the South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI), Bangalore, India. M. P. Joseph teaches Ethics at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by The Christava Sahitya Samiti, Cross Junction, Tiruvalla 689 101, Kerala, in collaboration with The Board of Theological Text books Programe in South Asia, Copyright 1998. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 13: The Struggle for Justice and Peace, by Jose Miguez Bonino


(Jose Miguez Bonino is a Methodist theologian from Argentina who has been active on the ecumenical movement, serving on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.)

"Justice and Peace" the conjunction symbolizes a dream, an aspiration that has haunted humankind throughout history. The Hebrew Psalmist expresses it poetically:

Love and loyalty met together, justice and peace have kissed each other (Ps. 85:10)

Sometimes the vision has taken the shape of a religious hope: the heavenly Jerusalem", the new land where righteousness dwells, the new age’. In the Guarani indigenous tradition, in Brazil and Paraguay, it was seen as the pilgrimage to "a land without evils." Or it takes the shape of a political utopia: Plato’s Republic or More’s Utopia.

The impact of these visions on the life of peoples seems to be diverse and at times ambiguous:

It has strengthened people as they had to endure the hardship of the present time and to persist in the efforts to reach the expected future. We are here close to the biblical idea of ‘patience’ (hypomone), resistance. It has at times led to passivity, resignation to injustice, violence and oppression, postponing the solution of all problems to ‘that day’;

It has inspired hope, beckoning from the future, awakening a restlessness in relation to existing conditions and inspiring the quest for changes that would move in the direction of hope;

Sometimes it has triggered conflict and even violence, when apocalyptic hope has led to violent attempts to ‘force in’ the ‘new age’ by a messianic group which conceives itself as the divine (or historically appointed) bearer of the new age.

1. Some Biblical Insights

It is Interesting and worth noting that we don’t find in the Bible general definitions of peace and justice but rather an endless number of concrete acts and events in which God and human beings ‘act justly’ or ‘unjustly’, thus, for instance,

David is ‘more just’ than Saul because he does not take the occasion to revenge himself for the latter’s attempt to kill him -- for faithfulness to the ‘royal status’ of Saul (the Lord’s anointed, I Sam. 24:18).

God reveals his ‘justice’ by leading ‘the peasantry of Israel’ to victory, making the land free and safe again for his people (the Song of Deborah, Judges 5:11, one of the earliest Old Testament poetic compositions that has reached us.).

We will look in vain for universal laws or definitions of an ideal justice that can then be applied to concrete cases. Even the ‘law’ is understood as ‘signposts’ or ‘indications’ of the best way to organize human relations for the people. When we put together these concrete indications we find some common elements which help us to understand what ‘justice’ is.

Justice is essentially a concept of relation, referring to "the real relation between two . . . and not the relation between an object, subject to the judgement of an idea" (von Rad). In other terms: people belong to a family, to a community (tribe), a people, a form of work, or they are foreigners. To be ‘loyal’ to the relation Involved is to be ‘just’; to falsify these relationships is to be ‘unjust’.

Those relationships, however, are defined in relation to an overarching and all-encompassing relation; the ‘alliance’ that God has established and defined in his action of calling, liberating, protecting and leading the people. God’s own action is the paradigm of loyalty and therefore of ‘justice’.

This paradigm, however, is not a definition but a story of ‘the mighty acts of deliverance’, from the Exodus, reaching back to patriarchs and forward to the new land, etc.

‘Justice’ has therefore a ‘tendency’; it ‘tilts’ towards those who need deliverance -- the poor, the oppressed, the defenseless (widow, orphan, foreigner). And therefore the king, the judge, the father or common men and women are ‘just’ when they act in favor of the weaker , mistreated or defenseless.

When all relationships are justly realized, we can, in biblical terms, speak of peace (shalom). "Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors which make communal harmony joyous and effective" (Ref. to Ezek. 34:25-29a; Walter Brueggemann, Living Towards a Vision. Biblical Reflections on Shalom, 1976, p. 16) But, again, one must guard against making this definition a description of an ideal utopia. It is, rather, bringing together the concrete struggles at every level of human life.

Shalom appears in the Bible innumerable times, mostly in reference to very specific conditions. In sum, we can speak of (a) a relation to nature -- the animal kingdom, the calming of a storm, rain and fruitfulness of the land; (b) the social and political community -- the overcoming of economic injustice, oppression, cheating or bribing, conflict and lack of compassion; (c) the wellbeing of persons in the community -- an aspect assumed in the critique of things that hinder it (covetousness, anger, jealousy) and depicted as family and communal harmony.

This peace is always threatened; it has to be created again and again over against the forces of destruction -- sword and drought, wild animals, enemies, evil people. Therefore the community needs to pray and work for peace. It is a gift of God that has to be constantly maintained by doing ‘justice’, i.e. by keeping loyalty to the requirement of the relationships with creation, the community, the family (for instance, the jubilee).

We can close this brief biblical recollection with three very simple reflections that can help us to make a future step in the consideration of our subject:

(1) In the Bible, the divine, the cosmic and the human are never separated in the consideration of justice and peace. Separating these dimensions (worship without justice and false security when God and the neighbor are rejected) is precisely the injustice and betrayal of the covenant that is denounced by the prophets. The consequence will be God’s wrath and punishment and the absence of shalom both in their relation to God, to nature and in the community.

(2) The ‘utopia’ of peace and justice (i.e., the expectation of ‘a new age’) is not an ideal construction from which certain consequences are derived for specific situations but, on the contrary, it is the coming together in a vision of the specific struggle of the community to solve the conflicts, contradictions and difficulties that they find in everyday life -- political, social, religious, economic.

(3) Injustice and lack of peace are, therefore, fundamentally betrayals of the right relationships. Consequently, someone is wronged in these acts: fundamentally the sand and the neighbor and, as a consequence, God who has pledged himself as the defender of both. Those who are wronged, then, become the ‘test’ and the ‘measure’ of justice and peace. Both in the Old and in the New Testament, they are the poor, the oppressed, the unprotected, the despised, in their dominant forms of the time: the poor, the orphan, the widow, the foreigner, the sick, etc.).

2. From the Reverse Side of History

These last lines bring us to the bottom line in the emergence of liberation theologies -- whether Korean, Philippians, South African, Black, Tamil or Latin American. We have all learned, and perhaps this is our only contribution, that God’s purpose and action are best, and perhaps only, understood when we stand by the side of ‘the little ones’. And God has not taught us that primarily through theological reflection or clever hermeneutics but through an encounter with the massive reality of poverty, deprivation and marginalization. Thus, these theologies are not, in the first place, a reflection but a sense of consternation, a cry of compassion and anger, a prayer and a commitment. Then reflection, analysis, study followed. In it we recovered the rich heritage of the Scriptures, the prophets, above all of Jesus Christ and the line that has run, sometimes more visibly, sometimes almost lost, throughout the history of the Christian community. Peace and justice can only be understood, re-created and defended from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. Of course, reflection had to be informed by understanding and here all the instruments of human social sciences had to be recognized. And they have to be constantly corrected, and made more precise and inclusive. Besides, theologians and ethicists have to recognize that most of us do not naturally have the perspective of the poor. By birth some and by formation and education most, belong to non-poor (which does not necessarily mean ‘rich’). Some of our churches and institutions are also caught in this dilemma. For many of us and for many of our churches to take this perspective means a conversion and a learning process. In this learning process I would suggest three ‘tracks’ of thought:

In the first place, the poor teach us how our world is and who we are.

The ‘non-poor’, as a whole, are convinced that our world, the world as we see and live in, is the real world. To be sure, we know that there are, unfortunately, "islands of poverty" with which we have to deal. The poor show us the real world (encompassing more than two thirds of the human race, and growing) is an ocean of poverty where you can find a few islands of wealth and comfort (not infrequently threatened by rising tides);

From the perspective of that ocean, things look very different. The world, its organization, its economy, its politics, its growing ‘globalization’ do not appear as rational, logical, normal, fundamentally acceptable, but as unjust, irrational and absurd. An organization of society which fails to provide for the needs of the vast majority "where there is no room for all", can hardly be considered rational.

It seems, therefore, perfectly understandable that such a human society be shot through with conflict (as any family would under similar conditions). When we look at it in this way, the problems of our world -- internal and international conflicts, delinquency, terrorism, widespread violence -- do not appear any more as strange and mysterious phenomena, due to the irrationality and wickedness of a few, but as the ‘logical’ and foreseeable expression of an ‘unviable’ family, organized in a perverse and self-destructive way;

In Christian terms, nobody who has heard our Lord Jesus Christ speaking in the gospels will dare to think that the Creator and Father/Mother of all women and men can be satisfied with this organization of the family. It then becomes clear why the Bible speaks of the mercy and the judgement of God: God’s compassion for the poor and oppressed, God’s wrath and judgement for a world in which the larger part of God’s children are condemned to hunger, deprivation, marginalization and death.

In the second place, we see that the poor are neither necessarily passive nor powerless. As they become aware of the irrationality of their situation, they can discover their possibilities and assume their historical role. It has to be recognized that the deterioration of conditions and the process of mass marginalization produced by the globalization of the economic model is producing a certain amount of demoralization in certain Third World areas and that some too sanguine expectations of the Sixties and Seventies have to be reassessed. But we cannot simply accept the defeatist pessimism which has become so mesmerized by the apparent omnipotence of the technological knowledge and globalization of the system that gives up all hope of change.

The self-confidence of prominent spokespeople and main actors of the dominant system has began to hesitate and they have had to recognize some of the problems and shortcomings, particularly at three points: First, the inadequacy of the ‘market’ to solve by itself some of the serious threats to human survival, like the deterioration of the environment and the depletion of the energy resources. Second, the need for some political role of institutions -- national and international -- in order to prevent the increasing marginalization and destruction of a growing number of people. Thirdly, the insufficiency of the system to produce by itself the relation between economic growth and democratic participation. Although this has not led such people to seriously work for the necessary changes, it is undermining the self-confidence that has been one of the main aspects of the neo-liberal ideology.

It is also important to recognize that this drama is not only being played in the ‘larger’ but also (and perhaps more importantly) in the ‘small’ local stages of history. We are beginning to recognize the meaning and value of ‘small victories’ -- the birth of a new community, a local election, the struggle for the installation of running water in a neighborhood. To bring together these small triumphs and to relate them to a larger struggle, to discover forms of organization, tactics and strategies, is a long and difficult effort, fought through with failures, mistakes and, why not, defections and betrayals. But people, like in the past, show their resourcefulness and their resolution.

As Christians and churches, we must see as an act of God’s grace and forgiveness as well as a call to discipleship and commitment that we -- who many times have been indifferent to the suffering of the poor, or allied with their domination -- are allowed to join in the struggle for justice. It cannot be taken for granted that we have such a place. But experience shows that the Good News that God accepts us in God’s struggle and that -- most of the time -- the poor make room for us in it, is really true. Not as an avant-garde, but as useful and even necessary participants. If we fail to take this place, God will find other participants. But we will have missed our salvation!

Finally, we begin to discover ‘the logic of hope’ over against the ‘technical reason’ that forecloses the horizon.

The developed Western world is more and more captive of a fatalistic ideology that we can call ‘possibilism’ (usually defended as realism’) according to which the future cannot be anything but the result of the operation of the forces and tendencies already visible in our present reality. It can only be perceived through the technical instruments today at our disposal. This really means that the future can only be ‘rationally’ perceived as the projection of the present. This is particularly important with reference to social, economic and political reality, that is, the ‘world’ as it presently functions. Recent discussions on economics seem to be the best illustration of this ideology; our hopes are rationalized by the data that we can feed into our computers. Everything else is ‘irrational’ and ‘unreal’.

The poor, in their struggle, on the other hand, have to believe in another logic; the possibility of the emergence of the ‘new’ which they perceive as the only possibility for their own survival. It is a logic born on the logic of life itself, which cannot be verified by the data fed into the computer but that introduces a new datum; the very existence and struggle of the poor. There is nothing intrinsically irrational in it, since that datum is already present in reality, although hidden from the ‘organs of perception’ privileged in our construction of ‘scenarios’.

In Christian terms, only this perspective is possible. The Bible speaks of a God who does ‘new’ things, which are ‘marvelous in our sight’: the barren women conceives and gives birth, water springs from the rock, five pieces of bread and two fishes feed a multitude, the world is created from nothing and Jesus is raised from the dead. Of this God as the living God we must admit that we seem to know very little. For the poor it is the only God that counts. If this is true, the claim of the present system that ‘it is the only alternative’ is not only false but ‘heretical’. If God is the God of Scriptures, the God of Jesus Christ, there is no situation in which ‘there is no alternative’. And this is the basic premise for the possibility of finding alternatives.

3. Is There an Agenda?

Oppression is a complex reality. It has many names and faces. The struggle against it has to be also multifaceted. As Christian people and churches engage in this struggle, they have to decide where and in which ways their participation can be most meaningful. While such quest is difficult and will have to be reorganized many times, we can suggest some tentative criteria to be considered.

First of all, we should canvass the different ‘names’ of oppression: (i) The experience of dependence and the struggle for national determination took in the Sixties the form of creating the organizations of the Third World countries and the UN attempts to define a more just New International Economic Order . These attempts were to a large extent frustrated through the opposition of the powerful states and the -- frequently induced or forced -- resignation of the Third World countries. The issue, however, is by no means irrelevant. The foreign debt continues to be an issue and new voices have began to sound the need to look for ways to face it; (ii) At the national level two questions are concentrating increasing attention: one is the reassessment of the necessary role of the state to correct the distortions of a runaway market (currently discussed in Europe and in the discussions about the role the initiatives of ‘an active state has played in the economic development of Asian countries); the other is the need for a ‘participative democracy over against a purely representative formal democracy: in this sense the need to strengthen civil society with its intermediate organizations becomes an important concern; (iii) the struggle for collective and personal identity in a society in which forced immigration, dehumanizing conditions in urban marginal situations, and foreign cultural aggression and massification in many forms produce a degrading type of poverty where communal, family and personal identity are eroded and even destroyed.

Secondly, we have to look at ways in which Christians personally and Christian churches and organizations can most significantly enter the struggle. In a general sense, one can speak of four areas of struggle: (i) the system of economic exploitation and social stratification (racial segregation, women’s working conditions, unemployment and the new legislation of ‘flexibility and ‘deregulation); (ii) the ideology (the way of representing the world, social relations, etc.) that justifies the system -- the new ideologies of race superiority, the religious legitimation of competition and the so-called free market as the only and sufficient way of organizing human life (iii) the ways in which the consciousness of the oppressed, is led to interject this ideology of domination and to develop a feeling of self-denial and self-devaluation; (iv) the atomization of the society through the weakening and destruction of neighborhood, workers and local cultural manifestations. Although the struggle must be carried at every one of these aspects, I would suggest that churches and educational, cultural and even recreational institutions have their best possibilities in areas iii and iv. I will just mention some possibilities in order to open a conversation.

As international or internationally-related institutions, they have the possibility of developing networks of concern, solidarity and mutual support among peoples and groups engaged in struggle for justice and peace in different parts of the world.

Both at the international and national level there is a ‘prophetic ministry which can be exercised as taking positions on fundamental issues and making them public (it has been done on issues of discrimination and segregation). This includes -- particularly for Christians -- the denunciation of the idolatry of absolute claims for a particular economic system or the myth of the ‘only one alternative. Sometimes this can be done through ‘symbolic action’.

The task of re-socialization, particularly in relation to children and youth by offering concrete possibilities of association for specific goals (neighborhood, recreation, environmental issues, etc.) and new styles of personal and communal life. This has to do with values, attitudes, styles of relation, views of work, sex, leisure. etc. We all know there is a primary socialization that develops in the first years (basically in the home) and a second socialization, which reaches a significant point in adolescence and youth and which takes place through church, neighborhood, school recreation as a struggle for identity and personhood.

In these rather general notes we have tried first to look at some of the basic points of departure for a Christian consideration of issues of justice and peace. Then, a brief review of the issues from the specific consideration of the situation of the poor as a test for Christian commitment, and finally, some ways in which the Christian community and churches can participate in these struggles. Certainly, there are a number of problems and issues to be considered. The only purpose of these notes is to stimulate a discussion which has already a significant history in ecumenical life but has to be re-entered again and again in the changing conditions and demands of our societies.

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