Saturday, October 14, 2006

Can We Create Justice? Or Joy?

A few weeks ago, I sang a hymn called "A Place at the Table." It had powerful themes of justice and inclusion, reiterating the Lutheran dogma that all are indeed welcome at the table, regardless of age, power or wealth (not to mention race, ethnicity or sexuality). However, I couldn't help but notice the lyrics of the refrain, and it gave me pause as I sang them: "And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy."

On the face of it, I suppose the lyric implies that Christians have an obligation to help create a just society, to work on behalf of those who cannot help themselves, and in this way be the light of Christ in the world. Equally, we are to take seriously what Jesus said when he told us that he came so that his joy may remain in us and our joy may be full. When we are a joyful people, no doubt that will help make us creators of joy.

I worry, though, about some of the deeper assumptions, and some of the places this exact language may take us. First, if we are creators of justice, where does this leave God in the mix? Final justice belongs to God alone, does it not? Especially because our own sense of justice is flawed. We are saint and sinner after all. The assumption that God will be ever so happy with the justice that we create seems both arrogant and immature, forgetting the vast amount of human suffering that we have created, sometimes, maybe even often, in the name of justice.

We should remind ourselves of all the dictators that makes such grandiose promises of justice, only to commit human rights violations and mass murder in the process of achieving that view of justice. The idea that we can create justice is awfully tempting, but it can also become an idol. When we believe fully in our ability to decide what is just, we are in prime position to go down a very slippery slope where the winners win and the losers lose because of how we define justice.

Second, do we, as humans, have a good justice track record? Does our legal system always create perfect justice? Is there even a monolithic understanding of justice among all judges, lawyers and lawmakers? Not even close. Just as ten Lutherans share eleven opinions on justification, ten lawyers also, I'm sure, share eleven opinions on what defines justice. Part of what defines the American legal system is a dogmatic focus on defending the Constitution first, not our own biased understandings of justice. That is why in one courtroom, two lawyers with two equally impressive law degrees, working on the same case, will make two completely different arguments about what justice is as understand it in the Constitution. Yet, we are supposed to make God delight in our creation of justice? Perhaps God delights in our attempts. God delighting in the creation is harder for me to imagine.

Finally, this focus on justice seems to neglect a sentiment even more powerful than justice, and even more in our "control": mercy. Mercy picks up where justice leaves off, because justice is so arbitrarily defined. I’ve written more about this here.

Mercy, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more likely goal for us to achieve. Human justice, and therefore social justice, is a highly imperfect art, full of loopholes, prejudices and differences of opinion. Mercy, however, can pick up the slack. I wonder, if we are going to go about the business of pleasing God, what would do it more: to be merciful, or to be just? Or more to the point, which are we more likely and able to achieve?

Addendum: For an amazing commentary on this subject, check out Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

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