In the letters of the Apostle Paul, the righteousness of God is made manifest in Jesus Christ. That is, God has put things right in Jesus Christ. God’s righteousness, God’s justice has been done in history and will be ultimately completed in Christ’s return.
In Paul, God’s righteousness involves at least three major dimensions of God’s justice.
The first of these is deliverance or liberation. Paul sees the basic human condition as one of captivity. In his writing we are in bondage to sin, the flesh, the elementary powers of the cosmos, and death. In God’s act in Christ, we are set free from these four types of captivity.
The second characteristic of God’s act in Christ is that of mercy. As Paul says, while we were sinners, God showed mercy and sent Christ in our behalf. Much more could be said, but it is clear that in Paul’s gospel mercy is intrinsic to God’s righteousness. Mercy lies at the very heart of a Christian justice.
The third characteristic of God’s act in Christ is that of reconciliation. As Paul says, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Self. Reconciliation, like liberation and mercy, resides at the very center of God’s righteousness, of what God has done in Christ. Obviously, a Christian justice of this magnitude requires formation of our sensibilities and our dispositions. It requires a capacity to talk the talk and walk the walk of a Christian justice. In terms of talking the talk this means being shaped in a fluency that can challenge and undermine the dominating vocabularies and concepts that hold us captive, but it also calls us to articulate words of deliverance, of charity and forgiveness, and of rapport and concert.
At the same time, a Christian justice requires more than the skills of language alone, but also those of a great range of other practices in the doing of justice. It is not enough to talk about or know about justice, because walking the walk of justice requires know how in this work, which typically means doing apprenticeship with able practitioners. The doing of justice can be seen as a highly skilled trade, one that requires training, practice, and years of hard work.
Having said all these things about a Christian justice, we must remember that we live in a world with others. What does our faith tradition teach us about other faith traditions, and those of no faith tradition? What is the relationship of the Christian community to these others? It is striking how much of Jesus’ teaching calls us to respond positively to, and to learn from, others. See the stories about the good Samaritan, the Syrophoenician woman, the Canaanite woman, and the Centurion, to name only a few. It is clear from Jesus’ instruction that we learn what love is, and what faith is, from those who are other.
Further, it is clear that it is not my job to tell God what God has revealed to other traditions. This is decidedly above my pay grade. The task of the church is to reach out to those who are other, to learn from them, and to seek with them a justice of the common good.
Again, Paul in his writing teaches us time after time that we are to seek the good of all. To seek the good of all is a persistent mandate in his teaching.
It is crucial in seeking the common good to realize that we do not know what that is, at least in the beginning of our efforts. The common good is a process, a discovery. It is grass roots work; it is down on the ground conversations with flesh and blood people. We have far too many elitist strategies thought up abstractly, and then imposed on other people’s lives.
Broad-based organizing offers an important approach to engaging people in determining what our communities need and, by that very process, becoming active citizens in the search for the common good.
We live in a time in which wealth and power dominate our lives. Legislators are bought off through campaign finance; legislation and social policy benefit the ultra rich at the expense of the middle class and the poor; government of the people, by the people, and for the people is in great peril; and inequalities of wealth and income are at an all-time high. It is a crucial moment for organized citizens to work out of the deepest wellsprings of their traditions to pursue a justice for all. A vitally important part of this work involves a church committed to a Christian justice for the common good.
Tex Sample is a specialist in church and society, a much sought-after lecturer, storyteller, workshop leader, and consultant. He is also the Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Professor Emeritus of Church and Society at The Saint Paul School of Theology. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His latest work, A Christian Justice for the Common Good, is available at Cokesbury.