In our Catholic Thinking series, this month Prof Anne Tuohy of The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand, Te Pūtahi Katorika ki Aotearoa, discusses Justice.
The recent shootings in Christchurch have required New Zealanders to face the shocking reality of violence against innocents on an unprecedented scale. Sadly, our society is no stranger to violence against innocents – as the alarming rate of the abuse and death of children in our country testifies. But violence on the scale witnessed by the mosque shootings on March 15 was a new experience for us as a nation today.
An essential part of the process of dealing with violent actions is the consideration of justice. Justice explores the best way of expressing social values and framing social actions in order to structure our response to harmful and destructive events. How we understand justice informs what punishment we judge to be an appropriate or proportionate response to these events. It also shapes what rights and considerations we believe both the victims and the perpetrators of these events should be afforded. Perhaps most importantly, justice asks us to carefully consider what our responses to violence and prejudice say about us as a people and as a nation.
Our secular concept of justice comes primarily from the Greek philosophers who sought to regulate the relationships among groups of people and codify the responsibilities between the state and its citizens. Their key aim was to preserve the status quo. When things went wrong, the State would deal out the punishments or rewards they considered necessary to re-establish the harmony of the polis and restore the original situation. Along with Greek philosophy, a range of biblical concepts have found their way into the ideals that underpin our secular understanding of justice. The most familiar connection between biblical justice and secular justice can be found in the principles of Social Justice. The regulation of workers’ rights and attention to more equitable access to community services reflects some of the influence of Social Justice principles on secular understandings of justice. However, while Social Justice principles may be familiar to many Catholics, the biblical foundations they arose from are often less well known.
“The most familiar connection between biblical justice and secular justice can be found in the principles of Social Justice.”
The source of biblical justice rests in God and in order to understand what biblical justice entails we need to understand what our tradition says about the nature and attributes of God. Insight into who this God is can be found in the three biblical concepts of:
- covenant; and
- the prophets.
The biblical tradition believes creation reflects the presence and activity of God. Creation has an inner harmony and balance that is relational and interconnected. Essentially, our tradition teaches that creation is animated with the spirit of God’s promise and grace. The human person emerges from within the rhythm and order of creation itself as God draws the transcendent order and the material reality of creation together. This gives human life a God-given dignity, which is both gift and responsibility. Carrying as it does the spark of the transcendent, the dignity and gift of human life is not reliant on function or status; it belongs to every human person in equal measure and equal regard.
The second concept that underpins the biblical understanding of justice is Covenant. Covenant is central to all biblical traditions because it was in and through the Covenant with Moses that the ‘People of God’ emerged. This Covenant was marked by a particular and intimate relationship with God and required the attributes of this particular God be authentically reflected in everyone’s lives. So in Ex 6:3-7 God invites Israel into relationship: ‘I will be your God and you will be My people’ and outlines what this means in and for their personal and collective lives: ‘you will be holy as I am Holy; you will be merciful as I am Merciful; you will be just as I am Just’. In other words, the lives of the ‘People of God’ must be fundamentally relational and be marked by the Covenantal attributes of holiness, mercy and justice.
“The lives of the ‘People of God’ must be fundamentally relational and be marked by the Covenantal attributes of holiness, mercy and justice.”
Bringing both creation and Covenant together is the prophetic tradition. The prophet’s role was to call the People of God back to the ‘right relationship’ or authentic expression of their Covenant with God. They drew attention to the terms of the Covenant and announced how the concrete responsibilities of our relationship with God should be lived out. Essentially, the prophetic call to holiness or right relationship has to do with personal conversion and social transformation. This is clearly expressed in Mt 25:34-40 where the Covenantal responsibilities of holiness, mercy and justice are plainly outlined, ‘…I was hungry and you fed me, I was sick and you looked after me, in prison and you visited me…’ So, the prophetic tradition insists in light of our intimate relationship with God, we are called to reflect the attributes of God in the attitudes and actions that guide our lives.
Violent and destructive actions change the lives of those affected forever and these lives can never be returned to their original state. When we rightly seek justice in response to events that devastate our lives, we need to consider what our responses say about us as a people and as a nation. Both research and experience tell us that if we understand justice as vengeance then we do not actually get justice, but rather we experience more violence.
“Biblical justice seeks the restoration of human life and dignity through concrete actions that nourish relationships and facilitate healing.”
The key focus of justice from a biblical perspective is healing. Biblical justice seeks the restoration of human life and dignity through concrete actions that nourish relationships and facilitate healing. In the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings we saw our Muslim sisters and brothers live out the very best of our shared biblical heritage as together New Zealand sought to respond to this unprecedented attack with actions that affirmed human dignity, began building connections and sought to nourish and heal relationships. There was no appeal for vengeance and no talk of retribution. Rather, the whole community came together to mourn the devastating loss and begin the journey towards healing.
Professor Anne Tuohy is Dean of Theology, Consulting Professor, TCI, Wellington.