Justice … not ‘Just Us’

A picture suggesting that justice is for everyone.
Photo credit: Flickr / Rikki's Refuge
Guy Nave
Written by Guy Nave

I am a professor of religion at a small liberal arts college in Decorah, Iowa. For the last two weeks in my Religion 239: Clamoring for Change course, students and I have been reading the book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude. We have been discussing talking about justice, and we have been playing with an image of God as one who works from the bottom-up on behalf of many rather than from the top-down on behalf of a few.

A fundamental principle within this “bottom-up” theology is the idea of God taking sides (a view quite common in most forms of liberation theology). Many people, however, are often uncomfortable with the idea of God taking sides. They often assert that such an image contradicts the idea of an impartial and all-loving God who cares equally for all people.

A bottom-up theology of God asserts that God is a God who exists in relationship with all of creation at the same time every created thing is in relationship with every other created thing. While the relationships that involve human beings may be governed by several principles, I believe one principle that governs all human relationships is the principle of justice.

The term justice often means different things to different people. A common understanding of justice in the United States is the notion of “punitive” justice, which focuses on inflicting punishment for breaking laws. The obsession with punitive justice in the United States is reflected by the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate of all industrialized nations. With only 5 percent of the world population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

While punitive justice might be one way of thinking about justice, it’s not the dominant or prevailing understanding of justice promoted within most religious traditions of the world.

The authors of Occupy Religion write:

God’s justice is about a struggle against injustice, which requires addressing the imbalance of power that leads to injustice rather than covering it up” (98). They go on to write, “In situations of grave imbalances of power, a well-meaning effort to mediate is not enough; taking sides with those who do not benefit from the imbalance of power is the only way to change and to make things right (99).

A common understanding of justice within many religious traditions focuses on correcting imbalances. Many of these imbalances result in various forms of social inequities. Most of these social inequities can only be fixed by taking sides. To not take sides is, in fact, taking the side of those benefiting from the imbalance.

One example of an imbalance resulting in social inequity is the fact that the top 1 percent of Americans (about 500 people) possesses more wealth than 60 percent of all Americans.

In recent debates over increasing the minimum wage, arguments have been made that if companies like Wal-Mart are forced to give employees a minimum wage of $15 an hour, it will force such stores to raise prices, making it difficult for “the poor people” whom they serve to afford their products. Very few (if any) of these arguments, however, mention the fact that six Wal-Mart heirs hold more wealth than 42 percent of Americans combined.

This type of gross inequity is not the product of some people working harder than others. It is the product of exploitative relationships.

Our lives are constituted by relationships. The question is, “what is the nature of these relationships?” As debates regarding minimum wage reveal, and as the authors of Occupy Religion assert, “People are ‘less fortunate’ not by accident but because others benefit from their misfortune, and they have little choice but to work for lower wages and fewer benefits” (65).

Exploitative relationships result in situations of “just us” rather than justice.

When, over a 28-year period of time, income grows by 275 percent for the wealthiest 1 percent of American households, and only 37 percent for the middle 60 percent, and 18 percent for the poorest 20 percent, the wealthiest 1 percent represent the “just us” advantaged by this imbalance.

When the rate of drug use for blacks and whites in the state of Iowa is essentially identical, but the state arrests blacks at a rate eight times higher than whites for marijuana possession, black people represent the “just us” disproportionately disadvantaged.

When 1 out of every 4 homeless men in America has served in the U.S. military, veterans end up representing a “just us” disproportionately disadvantaged.

When nearly 6 in 10 poor adults are women, and nearly 6 in 10 poor children live in families headed by women, women become a “just us” disproportionately disadvantaged.

When one child or teen dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes, and when more children and teens die from guns every three days than died in the Newtown massacre, and when the number of children under the age of 5 killed by guns in 2010 was higher than the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty that same year, it should be obvious that children are a “just us” disadvantaged by irresponsible gun laws, practices, and policies in America.

When imbalances result in certain groups (i.e., “just us”) being grossly advantaged or disadvantaged, then there is a lack of justice.

Justice is about removing the root causes of gross imbalances and fostering relationships that are mutually beneficial for all not “just us.”

It seems that much of the world’s injustice is a result of focusing on “just us” rather than justice.

I’m grateful for the opportunity this semester to reflect, wrestle, contemplate and struggle with my students as we think about the differences between a top-down and a bottom-up theology. I’m also inspired because while uniformity of views is rarely attained or promoted in my class, it seems most of us agree it’s time to “take sides” and to advocate for justice rather than situations of “just us.”

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Most people who experience social inequities are primarily responsible for the inequities they experience.

About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.