Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Peace and Justice

This past weekend I wrote an issue of FaithLink, an online curriculum available at www.cokesbury.com/faithlink. The topic was Peace with Justice Sunday, one of the special Sundays designated in The United Methodist Church.

Among other things, I was interested in the biblical conceptions of peace and justice. The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words tsedaq, dikaios, and justitia all translate as “justice” but also as “righteousness.”

We tend to think of righteousness as a personal quality of integrity. Justice can be both personal and public, but our desires for justice do take on personal qualities: I want my own rights respected; I want suitable compensation and satisfaction for some wrong done to me (or a loved one).

But now there’s a dilemma. For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t want to criticize the notions of individual rights and legal justice. Those things are fundamental; plenty of the Torah laws have to do with legal definitions and what we would call tort. But the dilemma is the temptation to dualism: splitting reality into different sectors like the public and the private (as pointed out at the site www.basden.demon.co.uk/xn/tesdeq.html). The biblical conception of tsedeq/dikaios, reflected in the Torah and throughout both testaments, unites the public and private. Justice is based on right relationships within the world and between the world and God.

(The Jewish practice of righteousness, which has influenced me over the years, is explained at: http://www.jewfaq.org/tzedakah.htm.)

Researching my lesson, I found a website, www.kingdomandlory.com/tuc/tuc4.pdf, which made the interesting comment that, when people demand equal justice and when they march for justice, they almost never mention “righteousness.” (Dr. King’s speeches would be a notable exception.) Righteousness is not just individual uprightness but is the quality of God that is given to us as the grace which puts us in a right relationship to God and calls us to help strengthen and mend relationships among us.

The biblical idea of peace (shalom in Hebrew, eirene in Greek, pax in Latin) includes the cessation of conflict but also the idea of wholeness and well-being. In my research for this lesson, I studied several examples of people doing “peacemaking” simply by providing needy people with things that would improve their well-being, like solar-powered ovens for Haitians. This peacemaking, though, is also a justice issue—because it is unjust to let people live in unsanitary, impoverished conditions.

These ideas of peace-justice-righteousness are, needless to say, challenging. If we're deeply committed to peace and justice, we may have to relinquish aspects of our comparatively comfortable, daily lives in order to help others.

In Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist challenges people to do works of righteousness, and his suggestions fall within the realm of the people’s everyday lives. Perhaps that challenge can give each of us some ideas. We aren’t supposed to save the world singlehandedly—“That’s vanity,” as Uncle Ennis says in No Country for Old Men—but we can potentially do amazing things within our individual spheres of influence (and, perhaps, beyond) as we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s influence.

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