Friday, August 10, 2007

Justice & Joy

A continuation of earlier, abbreviated, post on joy.

In the Prophet Isaiah (56.1-2) we read,

Thus says the Lord:

“Keep justice, and do righteousness,

For soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds fast,

Who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

Later in the same chapter, Isaiah articulates more fully the demands of justice, righteousness and the right worship of God. Included here is an active concern for the welfare of the stranger in our midst (v.3) and the man who has been maimed in the service of false gods. All can, and should, find a home among God’s Chosen People (v. 5):

For thus says the Lord:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

Who choose the things that please me

And hold fast to my covenant,

I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off.

As the strangers, the outsiders who has left their own people and has come to live with the People of God, if we all (like the eunuchs) can find our shame lifted if we “join [our]selves to the Lord, . . . minister to him, . . . love the name of the Lord, and . . . be his servants, . . . [keep] the Sabbath and not profane it, and hold fast [God’s] covenant” (v. 6). Like Israel, the stranger and the eunuch—the outsider and the maimed—we can all find a place on God’s “holy mountain” and they will be “joyful.”

Isaiah concludes his consideration of God’s promise in this way (v. 8):

Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.

The prophet then contrasts the character of the powers of this world with God’s. The powers of this world, are “beasts” who “come to devour” their neighbor (v 9); they are blind watchmen “without knowledge” and “dumb dogs” that “cannot bark” and who neglect their duties in favor of “slumber” (v. 10).

They are ravenous dogs who “never have enough;” “shepherds” who “have no understanding” and who have departed from the ways of divine justice and righteousness in favor “of their own way” (v. 11). They are drunken fools whose lives lead nowhere because they are blinded to the proper goal of human life (v.12):

“Come,” they say, “let us get wine, let us fill ourselves with strong drink;

And tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.”

Taking Isaiah, and God, at his word, it is our commitment to the works of justice that is a key to a life of joy. Justice, giving to each that which is his/her due, is the starting point not only for joy, but also for the spirit of hospitality that characterizes our communion with Christ and our neighbor.

For most of us, and by us I mean those of us who have lived in the West since the usually cultural upheaval that of the last century, when we think of justice we think largely of "procedural justice" or "fairness" of process. For us justice, for good and ill, is a question of law.

One the one hand, justice understood in this way, as procedural justice, is an insufficient basis for a life of joyful hospitality and human flourishing that Isaiah describes and which we are promised in Christ. Too often, process and procedures become an end in themselves and detached, and even antithetical, to any higher human purpose. Certainly this kind of procedural justice is not enough for a dynamic Christian life.

But, on the other hand, the lack of justice, and especially procedural justice, is not a good thing either since its absence undermines a life of Christian joy. Why is this?

Procedural justice helps us create a life that is constant and predictable; in this sense, the false leaders that Isaiah castigate are on to something, though like all heretics they error not so much in content as emphasis. It is important for human beings that today look like yesterday and that tomorrow look like today. This is way, humanly speaking, the God Who transcends all our understanding, Who is Himself in St Augustine’s words, “ever ancient, ever new,” says of Himself, not only that He is the “Alpha and the Omega,” (Rev 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13), but “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13.8).

A sound anthropology understands that the constancy and predictability that procedural justice secures, are the psychological and social foundation of faith in both its developmental (i.e., basic trust) and religious (I trust God, Christ, the Church--I depend upon them because they are dependable, i.e., predictable) senses.

When in the Church’s life procedural justice, or a basic fairness of process as the hallmark of our relationships with one another, is absent, the Church is seen as unpredictable, untrustworthy, literally unbelievable--no longer a credible object of faith. In the Creed we profess faith not only in God, but in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” If the Church’s internal life is not characterized by procedural justice, if we do not live in a way that seeks to secure the good of each other, then we undermine the very cooperation that a joyful life requires. If our relationships our not cooperative, collaborative and order toward the good of each, then they become contrary, secretive, and ultimately predatory in ways great, and more frequently, small.

It is easy to say minimize the significance of administrative matters in the life of the Church. Indeed, as I have pointed out, there are even some in the Church who would take satisfaction in saying that the shortcomings of the Orthodox Church are merely administrative or procedural in nature. But would St Paul agree with this view? Good Jew that he was, I think he would forcefully disagree. In fact he does go so far as to list administration (kubernesis) as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12.28).

The spiritual life is an act of transcendence that not only moves us beyond our current form of life toward God, it also a movement within, to the foundations of our life in God. Joy, hospitality, communion with God and neighbor, our own and other people’s flourishing are all transcendent realities and as such cannot be chosen. They are, as it were, the “surplus of meaning” that we encounter in a personal and communal life well and properly lived. The great irony of the spiritual life is that a life of transcendence requires a basis—a foundation or starting point—that the person and community must always move beyond, but never leave behind.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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