Friday, June 10, 2011

What is justice?

In 1843 General Charles Napier conquered Sind and installed the order of British colonial rule, no doubt to bring the blessings of civilization to the "inferior races". When the British came, one of the colonial impositions they instituted was the prohibition of sati - of widows being cremated on their husbands' funeral pyres. They were shrewd enough to tolerate a number of native peculiarities, but not the burning of widows. The Brahmans of Sind, however, defended sati as an age-old custom. General Napier's response was as simple as it was arrogant: "My nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom!" 
Sometimes this story is told as a polemical tool to underline the clear moral superiority of certain practices over others. It is possible, however, to see it as an extreme case of competing, indeed clashing, justices...
Miroslav Volf begins his chapter on Oppression and Justice in Exclusion and Embrace with this story. It certainly got my attention!

One mans justice is another man's (or woman's) injustice. Volf reviews three dominant ways of dealing with the issue of clashing justices
  • the universalist affirmation that there is just one justice 
  • the postmodern claim that there are a rich plurality of justices; they all need to be embraced
  • the communitarian approach of placing justice within a tradition (Alasdair MacIntyre)
But, to the Christian the very character of the tri-une God and the gospel defines justice. (See for example Romans 3:25-26. This is my emphasis, not Volf's. Also, note that justice and righteousness are interchanged in different translations; but that underscores the point).

So shouldn't that make it all clear? Christian's should go for the first option above. But, Volf goes on (p. 198):
the argument from the character of God to universal justice and universal peace is incontrovertible. To be a follower of Jesus Christ means both to affirm that God's justice transcends all cultural construals of justice and to strive for that justice (Matthew 6:33)....
The question is whether Christians who want to uphold God's universal justice can judge between cultures with divine infallibility. The answers is that they cannot.  
For one, Christians stand inside a culture, inside a tradition, inside an interest group. Unlike God's Knowledge, their knowledge is limited and distorted. There judgements about what is just in concrete situations are inescapably particular. We must therefore distinguish between our idea of God's justice and God's justice itself.
This is quite humbling and should check us before we start off on some of our self-righteous rants about "injustices" we have experienced.... But it does seem to me there may be less ambiguity about issues we are less directly involved in...

I will try and summarise later Volf's proposals of possible ways forward.

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