Your generous support of the Art House America Blog is welcome and tax-exempt.

Please use the PayPal link below:

Contact specific locations with questions via e-mail:
North (Twin Cities)
AHA is a 501(c)3


The Oxymoron of Proximate Justice

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

Several years ago, Steve Garber, Director of The Washington Institute and friend to so many, offered us an uncomfortable oxymoron through his article, “Making Peace with Proximate Justice.” 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?

Recently, I had the opportunity to rethink the oxymoron of proximate justice as I heard Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, speak in Boston 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 for over 30 years now. When he says there is a revival of justice 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.

I wonder whether “proximate justice” 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.

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 the book Political Holiness: a Spirituality of Liberation, Pedro Casaldáliga and José María 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 acknowledgment of humility and faith — faith that this work of bringing about the Kingdom is not entirely on our shoulders after all. 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 in the Gordon in Lynn program, engaged in community development work, know all too well these dual tendencies — the idolatry of our justice work on the one hand, or the cynicism that paralyzes on the other. As they study the complexities of injustice, travel to the developing world to visit people, learn about the production of goods, and return here for urban engagement, Christian students are especially exposed to the “bad news” of glaring examples of injustice. They are also mindful of the ways we play a part in all of 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, sex trafficking, or 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 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; 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 for our work in the community an important foundation that encourages us away from the tendencies toward idolatry and despair:

“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-honoring 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 realize the injustice within our urban public schools; she couldn’t believe 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 within her a love for the theater. Her strongest desire was to change the system right away. But as she came to a better understanding of 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 theater program with one of our community partners to teach theater 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 13 girls.

She’s making peace with proximate justice.

This article first appeared in Comment, the opinion journal of Cardus.

Christen lives with her husband, Chris (finishing a PhD at Boston College in philosophy and aesthetics), and three little ones in Lynn, MA. She's the Associate Director of Gordon in Lynn, a creative urban partnership between Gordon College and the city of Lynn. Christen studied theology, the arts, and community economic development for a Masters at Regent College and Simon Fraser University. A painter during the narrow margins of her life, her passions include the intersection of beauty, justice, and community. This article was also published in Stillpoint.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

Reader Comments (7)

Interesting thoughts, but you're treading on quicksand. Let me suggest three examples.

The term "social justice" has Marxist roots, and while I've not met anyone yet who can define it in a current context it gets bandied about unquestioned these days. That's a dangerous proposition which can just as easily result in oppression and tyranny as it can improvements to the human condition. It sounds good in principle, but depending on who is deciding what's "just" it may be just the opposite.

Second, "Fair trade" is another fuzzy feel-good; in economic terms there's no such thing in the abstract; a "fair trade" is when a willing buyer and willing seller agree to a concrete trade at a given price. If it's coerced it's not trade, and if it's of free will only the parties to the transaction can determine if the price is "fair". For a third party to pass judgment on the transaction of willing participants is in many ways arrogant and a hindrance to progress.

Finally, while inner city schools dropping art and music programs is certainly sad and unfortunate, to call it an issue of "justice" demeans the term. No two schools anywhere are exactly alike, so there can be no single standard of educational "justice". If the option was to drop reading and math instead, who's to say the best ("most just?") decision wasn't made.

I don't disagree with any of the sentiment in this piece (not sure who would), but I think words matter and the term "justice" has been treated, well, unjustly. As Christians we know that justice is in the purview of God alone, and none of us really want His conception of justice on this earth; if we had it, we would all immediately be reduced to dust. No, we want our own, human and ethnocentric notion of justice for others while we extend grace to ourselves.

Let us, so long as God gives us breath, exhibit grace, mercy and love to others. But let's no longer misappropriate the absolute term "justice" to serve our subjective ends. True justice is a great and terrible thing, and it belongs in the creator's hand alone.

January 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve McKee

It seems that Steve is responding less to Yates’ article and more to general sentiments he believes Christians naively display and deploy regarding ‘justice.’ If, nevertheless, he believes that Yates is standing in ‘quicksand,’ then one is left wondering on what terra firma Steve purports to plant himself. He raises concerns regarding the use of the term ‘justice,’ and justifies this critique by referring to Marxist ideology, fair-trade ambiguities, and divine retribution. Grace, mercy, and love, by contrast, are terms Steve is content to harness for the purpose of affirming the sentiment of Yates’ piece while emphasizing the need to refrain from misappropriations of ‘justice.’ So doing, Steve purports to speak on behalf of an understanding of ‘justice’ that he himself enjoys, and does not reflect on the manner in which the meanings of his own terms might also be contingent. To be frustrated by a bumper-sticker appeal to ‘justice’ is one thing, but to insist on a requisite jettisoning of the term and its affiliated ideas is rather obtuse. Let us admit that we are creatures thrown into language, and that our use of language is always already bound up with tradition, culture, and translation.

My sense is that when Yates uses the term ‘justice’ she has in mind a biblical theology that takes seriously advent of the kingdom of God in the city of man – a meaning of righteousness and redemption that is relevant to the conditions of life now-lived and not just the eternal destiny of souls. Such justice is something different from charity, on one hand, and something broader than Marxist conceptions of class struggle and perpetual social revolution on the other. Steve appears to assume that the only available biblical conception of justice is one tethered to divine retribution and vengeance. I find this perplexing. The Exodus narrative, for example, and/or the concerns evident in Amos, suggest that the God of law and prophecy is deeply committed to the status of the poor and alien. One could go so far as to say that God’s warnings of vengeance are to some extent inspired by the lack of social justice evident in the Hebrew way of life. If we are not in agreement on this biblical precedent then I fear this discussion falters from the start.

That the phrase ‘social justice’ is freighted with Marxist sensibilities, and thus intrinsically problematic, of course rings true to a certain extent, but is not an adequate reason to dismiss Yates’ position (or the language of it). The charge of Marxism amounts to a red-herring, insofar as it assumes (1) all of Marx’s ideas about justice are terrible because of the fascist use to which they were put, and (2) it allows Marx to color the term ‘justice’ in a way that is more decisive than the Christian and philosophical traditions preceding him. That Christians speak the language of ‘social justice’ need not imply they unwittingly endorse a program of state-coerced distribution of goods, that they are communists, that they oppose free enterprise outright, or that they support proletariat revolution. Before there was Marx there was a rather self-evident theology of social justice in the thought and practices of, for example, John Wesley, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, and many of the church fathers. I understand we may be tired of hearing ‘social justice’ bantered about in the seemingly unreflective domain of the public square, and that we must never take our terms for Christian vocation lightly, but let us not forget that terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ are also ubiquitous, and have a severe history haunting them (see, for example, the French Revolution). To be sure, ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ are also adulterated by Christian discourses that privilege a therapeutic and/or prosperity gospel, but does this imply we must take our leave from their doctrinal touchstones as well?

At the heart of Yates’ ‘sentiment,’ I believe, is the notion that people living around us are caught up in social realities that are not entirely of their own making or design, and that there are very good ‘Christian’ reasons to be concerned about these realities. That is, the life of the polis is not per se invested in human flourishing, institutions are not per se invested in advancing the common good, public policy and urban planning are not per se the best arbiters of fairness, and free markets are not per se synonymous with biblical ethics. And that God, though we cannot deduce his interests in full, is in fact interested in the social sphere and not just the other-worldly redemption of souls. God is a god of the living, and one of the ways we join him in this genitive is by speaking in terms of ‘justice.’ Contra Steve, I would say we most certainly ‘do’ what God’s conception of justice on this earth. We want it in the full restorative sense of the term. I was under the impression that this desire was precisely what is implied by the entirety of Christian discipleship, missions, community, worship, and day-to-day practice.

We should remain mindful of how we use the term ‘justice,’ and of its ideological cargo (I would be in agreement with Steve on this point), but I tend to think we have a biblical theology and tradition that does give us a place to stand and a lot of vital work to do in that place.

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJJ McRae

Thanks to all contributors for a valuable discussion.

I’m struck by the fact that McKee doesn’t seem too concerned about the central claim that Yates is making: making peace with proximate justice. Surely that’s the more important point—even if Yates were to grant the points on social justice, fair trade, or education cuts, her essential argument would remain—and for those people in the trenches doing justice work, this is a real and vital concern. Accordingly, offering her perspective to those continuing the “strong and slow boring of hard boards” that is justice work is an important service.

McKee’s own position seems to stem from a strongly liberal individualist perspective: justice is to be understood largely procedurally, trade is fair so long as both parties can offer formal consent, etc. While of course he is quite right to request clarity on terms, to dismiss social justice, fair trade, or educational justice so easily is a mistake. Generally, McKee seems blind to the structural realities within which our individual decisions and relationships are made: “social” justice is a justice that is concerned also with such structures, “fair” trade is concerned with the structural inequalities that result in unfair bargaining positions, educational “justice” insists that differences between communities in their ability to educate their children are not accidents, but, at least in part, the result of factors beyond the control of community members.

The attention to social structures is not simply Marxist, as McRae rightly points out. To suggest that the achievement of justice requires the participation of institutions and bodies larger than the individual is hardly a radical notion. McRae mentions Wesley, Luther, Augustine. But the recognition of social structures and their effects can in fact be found in the thought of practically everyone—with the exception perhaps of the liberal capitalist thinkers to whom McKee remains in debt. For me at least, the choice of whose ground is likely to be the more secure would not be a difficult one.

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Brink

JJ, there are some points you make with which I concur, others with which I take issue, and still others about which I have no idea what you mean. Whether that's due to obtuseness (mine), verbosity (yours) or some measure of both, I suppose would be best judged by another reader (assuming anyone is following our fascinating conversation). I do not, however, have the time or inclination to take them on one by one, and I suspect with that you would agree.

Somehow, however, the fact that we're debating terms whose very definitions elude us reinforces my larger concern. Until someone can specifically define social justice, for example, or fair trade, I can't know whether or to what extent we agree or disagree. As such it is at best ill-advised and at worst ill-intended to use such terms. That is my overarching point, and I both hope and believe that there is no lack of clarity in that statement.

Now you may reply so as not to leave me with the last word, and I will be content to leave it at that. Blogs are wonderful vehicles for making a point but terrible vehicles for debate.

January 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve McKee

Dear Steve, I agree with you that Blogs are not the ideal forum for debate--especially if you're requesting clinical precision for terms like social justice, proximate justice and fair trade. So, I would invite you outside the Blog into real life. I'd invite you to a suburban private school that costs the price of college tuition for your son's or daughter's attendance--and there are some who can afford it. Then, we'd visit a public school in a wealthy suburban community. Not quite the small classes and assisting teacher interns, but more than adequate. Finally, to public schools in any large city where overflowing classes without books and resources are being disciplined more than taught by frenzied teachers. What word would you use to describe the disparity in life preparation? Then, we could visit coffee estates in Central America or places where our jeans and clothes are made--and live for a day in the homes of those slaving to get by. From there we might spend a few days with the rich who benefit from exploitation. Wouldn't you and I then be talking about "fairness" or "justice?" And if, motivated by Christen's article, you and I succeeded in bringing about some small change, wouldn't you call that "proximate"--small but significant? Dean Borgman

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDean Borgman

No, Dean, we would be talking about love and charity and economic development that comes from the rule of law and free exchange. You can't talk about justice keeping only outputs in mind. There are varying inputs as well, such as the poor kid who busted his chops to learn and grow and ultimately be able to afford to send his kids to better schools vs. the rich kid who chose drugs and welfare and put his kids in a rotten position in life. Should we love and help and give to the poor, in the spirit of Christ and charity? Of course. But should we claim that our puny minds can begin to fathom what's "just" and "unjust".?That's just human arrogance, which history has shown leads to tyranny and death.

And your very argument is unjust to me, implying as it does that I'm not already living in "real life". Thats what gets me about proclamations like these--you have NO IDEA what I do and give, just as I have no idea of what you do and give. Once we start passing judgment on what's "fair" or "just" outside of our intimate sphere of relationships (and even within them, since only God sees the heart) we are treading dangerous ground. We don't know if a given person is suffering from injustice or justly suffering, any more that we know if OJ did or didn't commit the heinous crimes of which he was accused. We don't have the information to pass judgment and to do so is arrogant and dangerous. That is the sum and substance of my argument.

I'll go anywhere in the world with you and, yes, I'm sure my heart will break. But instead of self-righteously proclaiming "the rich" exploitative, I'll lend a hand of charity and work for a world of stability and opportunity so that those who choose to can lift up their lives and the lives of their children (which, in case you're wondering, I already do). That's what America's founding fathers did, and the system they created, while imperfect, resulted in the most wealth for the most people in history--so much wealth that those who choose to can spend theirs getting Ph.Ds so they can attack the very hand that fed them.

I'm tired of self-righteous condemnations of a system that works better than anything ever tried in is fallen world. Those very kids in public inner city schools are wealthier than 98% of everybody who has ever lived, and if we were to keep our meddling hands out of their lives and allow their parents the freedom to choose they could escape the prisons-called-schools in which well-meaning but misguided do-gooders have trapped them.

I suspect you are a man of goodwill, and I would hope you would consider me one as well. I just hate it when we who are not omniscient give in to the temptation of proclaiming this "just" and that "unfair". Neither you nor I know what we need to know to make those pronouncements, and it is in that spirit which we should humbly give and love and serve as God leads each of us. We each have a hard enough time living up to what He calls us to be and do. The last thing we need is to take on His role of judging others. I'll let those who care to go on having intellectual conversations about proximate justice and fair trade. Meantime, I will minister to the poor and needy in front of me and use the gifts and talents with which I have been graciously (you might say "unjustly") blessed to work for a world in which individuals making good choices and working hard can lift themselves higher and higher.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve McKee

Hi Steve and others,

Let's try to take a step back for a minute. Maybe we should all count to ten or something.

I don't think anyone on this thread so far is judging you, Steve, though I suppose I could be wrong on that. At least, I'm not reading anyone's responses in a way that intends offense to you. I certainly don't think anyone (least of all, Dean Borgman) is saying that you have been "unjustly" blessed.

I think there are a couple of salient points here that need to perhaps be sussed out. Steve, your larger point linguistically seems to be that since you haven't seen a concrete definition of the term "social justice," it is not a term that we can honestly use. I think what JJ is probably saying is that there are an awful lot of terms we all use that similarly lack an ironclad definition. "Love" comes to mind, oddly enough, as does "charity" and "grace," though most of us throw those words around pretty casually. So I think it's fair to proceed talking about "social justice" even if we're still working through and hashing out what it all means. Can we at least agree to try and do that corporately?

The second larger point that I *think* you're trying to make here (and please forgive me if I'm misrepresenting you) is this: who are *we* to declare something as just or unjust? Only God can truly do that! Is that a fair representation of your thoughts?

I would very humbly submit two things in light of this:

First, that this is true of *anything*. Who am I to declare that I love my wife? Only God really knows what it means to love her. My love is, quite necessarily, incomplete and imperfect. Yet God has seemingly called me to a life that includes a mission of learning how to love her. I honestly believe that God wants to use me in this task, even though sometimes I thwart God's efforts in this love. But I don't think that means I should not take part either in the act of attempting to love her, nor in the act of helping figure out what it even *means* to love her! I very much believe God uses us as agents in defining these terms.

Secondly, I would submit that we *all* play a role in defining "justice" every single day, no matter what, by our actions. You mention the idea of "fair trade," and you say, "in economic terms there's no such thing in the abstract; a 'fair trade' is when a willing buyer and willing seller agree to a concrete trade at a given price. If it's coerced it's not trade, and if it's of free will only the parties to the transaction can determine if the price is 'fair'. For a third party to pass judgment on the transaction of willing participants is in many ways arrogant and a hindrance to progress."

But what if the nature of the transaction violates God's moral code? "The laborer deserves his wages," according to the New Testament. But what if those wages are not enough to support the laborer's family? Let's go further: what if the economic system is designed or tweaked in such a way that the laborers will *never* really be able to provide any sort of life for their children, and thus *never* be able to "lift themselves higher and higher", regardless of how good their choices are or how hard they work? Do we not have a responsibility under those circumstances to help change that system so that the laborer can indeed provide a "living wage," as it were? This is not to say that the agents who actively participate in creating and sustaining the broken system are in any way necessarily nefarious (though some of them may, in fact, be), it is only to say that there is already in place an economic system that has "decided" what is just and what is not. But what if we were to participate in changing that economic system because we decide that its definition of "just" is simply not what we hold to be "fair"? If the "founding fathers" of the American Constitution created something incredibly invaluable for a society, it is the notion that we together as a people are continually in the process of "forming a more perfect union". That is, we change the law when we find it to be unjust! The American Constitution has absolutely no problem whatsoever with the enslavement of the African race. Yet over time, the balance of American society decided that what had once been considered "fair" and "just" really was, in fact, not. All of us are constantly creating a notion of what should be considered "fair" and "just". You are, and I am.

Apologies for the length of this response, but please indulge me just a bit more, and I hope I can illuminate the discussion.

As a bit of background here, I currently live in a third world country. I am an American, as is my wife, but we live and serve in a very poor society--actually, a US Territory called American Samoa. (Believe me, I do not wear this as a badge of pride, however--it's just where we are in life right now, by choice.) There are two tuna canneries here, because most of the world's tuna live in the waters to the northwest of us, and since we are a US Protectorate, Starkist can ship tuna to the US from here and avoid any import duties. My wife and I know numerous people who work at the canneries, and we've also been allowed to tour the facility during operation with the Kiwi who runs the floor. In some ways, the working conditions are better than one might think, but allow me to say this: there is no way you would want yourself or anyone you love to work there. But that's not the point. Here's the real kicker. How much does a can of tuna cost in the US? When I lived in North Carolina, I'm pretty sure I could get a can of Starkist tuna for 49 cents. Wanna know how much it is here? $1.55 for one can. Let me impress this upon the readers here: if you work at the canneries in American Samoa, you CANNOT afford to BUY a can of the tuna you just canned. You simply can't afford it. You live on ramen noodles (they call it "sei mein," but it's ramen noodles) and canned mackerel that is cheaper than tuna, but contains so many purines that the levels of gout in this society are simply staggering. How is this "fair"? How is this "just"? By *anyone's* definition?

It would seem to me that in this specific case in American Samoa, what would be "fair" and "just" would be to either (a) pay the laborers more, or (b) give them some tuna to take home with them to feed their kids with. Neither of these things is going to happen, though. Wanna know why? Because then a can of tuna in North Carolina or Tennessee or Massachusetts might have to cost 59 cents. I know this is part of the trade deal, I know this is part of capitalism, but that doesn't make it "fair", and it certainly isn't in line with the teachings of either the New or the Old Testaments. The "contract" these workers have entered into here would pass the test of your "fair trade" definition: the workers have not been coerced into the deal of working for such a low wage. But honestly, what else are they going to do? Grow taro and breadfruit in the backyard and fish off the reef? Those are the only real options, and let me tell you, the reef ain't that healthy here anymore. There aren't nearly the numbers of fish that there used to be even two generations ago around this island. There are numbers to prove it. There's absolutely no way to support the 70,000 people who live on the island of Tutuila (where my wife and I live) on reef fishing, breadfruit, taro, and coconut.

Anyways, I'm not trying to have a go at you, Steve, and I really hope it doesn't feel that way to you. I also recognize the economic forces at work here, and I understand that this isn't an easy task. But I again submit that each one of us is an active participant in creating and sustaining the economic system surrounding us, and that we can vote both with our dollars as well as our ballots as to what kind of system we believe is more "fair" and more in line with the teachings that Jesus espoused during his time on earth.

Thanks to all for reading this, and I hope this discussion can continue to bear fruit.


January 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark Williams

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>