Spirituality and Justice

Fri, 12/01/2006

By: Miceal O’Neill, O.Carm.

We did not speak much about “justice and peace” before the 1960s. The two words came together in the Scriptures (Psalm 85:10-11), but nowhere else. It was Pope Paul VI who enunciated the truism, “without justice there can be no peace.” The Catholic bishops at the 1971 Synod of Bishops stated, “the work of justice is an integral part of the preaching of the Gospel.”

In the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council numerous members of the Church took up interest in the work of justice and peace. People began to believe that the commitment to justice would become stronger and that it would change the world. The 1970s put an end to many hopes. In the face of disappointment and disillusionment some gave up. Others looked for deeper motivations and deeper energies in order to be able to continue. It is at this point that we see the emergence of a very serious consideration of the spirituality of justice and peace.

What is Spirituality?

I take “spirituality” to mean what motivates a person and the way of life that results from that motivation. Insofar as everyone is moved to act by some kind of motivation everyone has spirituality. We talk about a Christian spirituality because we believe that we are moved by Christ. Christian Spirituality is the domain of the Holy Spirit. It is what happens to us when the Spirit speaks in our hearts. Belief in the reality of a Christian spirituality depends on the belief that God’s Spirit acts in the world.

We can see that Christian spirituality is motivation, which comes from Christ, but we still have to recognize that each one of us experiences Christ in a different way and learns from Him in a different way. Different Christian spiritualities are different ways of ordering the values of the Gospel to form a way a life that is recognizable, describable, and transmittable.

The quest for justice is common to all forms of Christian life. The ways of understanding justice and pursuing it will differ from person to person, from place to place and from community to community.

Levels of Motivation

Growth into the maturity of the Christian life is a growth into deeper levels of motivation.

Take any aspect of our lives and examine the motivations that shape it. For example, an examination of how we pray will show that it is possible for people to pray simply because they like to pray. They like the words they read, the songs they sing, the people who share their prayer, the feeling of goodness it gives them, the encounter with God in peace. To pray in this way is a great gift, but prayer is not always like that. It does not give us immediate satisfaction. It can be very dry.

Some people pray because they are convinced of the value of prayer. They believe that prayer is effective: it changes their lives, it brings them into a relationship with God, and it moves them beyond themselves. They believe they have a duty to pray, even when it is dry. To pray in this way is a great gift. It can give meaning and direction to life, but it can also become a source of pride, a system of defense or a false source of security.

Some people pray because God prays in them. It is no longer simply his or her own desire, or their conviction that is at work. God speaks to them and draws them into such union with Him that all their own faculties are caught up in God. They come to something deeper than all that they like, deeper than all that they believe. They have come to union of mind and will with God. This is the contemplative dimension that is capable of affecting every aspect of human life and shapes all human faculties and endeavors.

The same kind of thinking applies to all that we do: our life, our commitment to the poor, our work for justice and peace. It is helpful to know why we chose to get involved in the work of justice, just as it is important to know from where our energy comes for this work. The deeper our motivations, the more long lasting and enduring will our commitment be.

The Many Faces of Justice

Justice sounds like a good word until it appears in the title of a military campaign such as Operation Justice. The English translations of the scriptures often use the word righteousness where we might be inclined to use the word justice. There are different ways of understanding what justice means. Here are some of the more commonly held views:

Retributive Justice: This kind of justice demands that the person who does what is good must be rewarded; the person who does what is wrong must be punished.

Distributive Justice: This kind of justice has to do with the needs, the rights and obligations of the human person in society. Society has the responsibility to ensure that each member receives what is necessary for his or her dignified human existence.

Justice as Righteousness relates to people’s character. It is a quality of the person. The just person possesses many of the qualities that we associate with goodness and moral rectitude.

Justice as right relationships between people, between, people and creation, between people and God. The quest for justice is the effort to build constructive and liberating relationships between all of these. Right relationships are those in which the participants grow as persons. This kind of justice is known as Restorative Justice that is based on the belief that there can be no justice in the case of injury until the injured and injurer have been restored. This restoration comes about when the two parties meet and reveal the truth to one another.

Finally justice can be understood as God’s way of being and acting. In God’s way of doing things there are all of the other four understanding of justice, but with the added element of gratuitousness. It is both God’s gift and something for which people have to work. This way of justice always seeks the good. It is always salvific.. Therefore the quest for justice in this sense is the effort to know the will of God and to unite our will with God’s will.

Justice and the Poor

There is a very close relationship between what is happening to the poor and the work of justice.

We talk about the real poor as the materially poor, those who do not enjoy the good things of the earth freely, and in a measure that is adequate to their human dignity.

There are the poor by conviction. They are the people who are not born poor, but choose a life of poverty in order to be close to the poor and share their hopes and their struggle.

There are the poor in spirit, the anawim, of the Bible. They are the people who recognize and accept their dependence on God and who serve Him faithfully.

The Cry of the Poor

There is a cry in the world. It is the cry of every human being. It is also the cry of the whole of creation (Romans 8). God is revealed in the Scriptures as the God who hears the cry of the poor (Exodus 3:8). The cry that we encounter in the scripture and the cry in creation may be related to the cry that St. Paul describes when he talks about the cry that is given by the Holy Spirit, the cry that is too deep for words (Romans 8:26). To recognize that deepest cry, wherever it occurs, and to listen to it, becomes the definition of the prophetic task of the Christian. There is a cry also deep in the heart of the Gospel, the cry of Jesus, mourning over Jerusalem, searching for God at the moment of death. That too is the cry to which we are called to listen.