Religion & Liberty Online

Justice needs a face

In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death and the subsequent swell of protests, we are surrounded by resounding cries for justice—both in this particular case and across the issues of over-policing, over-criminalization, and systemic racism.

Set within our polarized political climate, such conversations quickly devolve into narrow ideological debates over particular policy prescriptions. But as valid and valuable as many of those discussions may be, we should also remember that seeking justice ought to be personal, beginning with a proper love of our neighbors and proceeded by right relationships from bottom to top and back again.

In a short film from The Bible Project, we get a broad overview of what that starting point looks like from a Christian perspective, and how a corresponding approach to justice can shift our attitudes, affections, and actions across our relationships and systems.

“Humans are set apart from all other creatures as the image of God—God’s representatives who rule the world by his definition of good and evil,” the narrators explain. “This identity is the bedrock of the Bible’s view of justice; all humans are equal before God and have the right to be treated with dignity and fairness no matter who you are.”

Of course, as we see in the biblical story, humans have long struggled to uphold this view, working instead to protect our own power, privilege, and position while dehumanizing and delegitimizing those who don’t align with our plans for self-preservation. “We see this happening on a personal level,” the narrators explain, “but also in families and then in communities and in whole civilizations that create injustice, especially toward the vulnerable.”

Thankfully, God calls his people to something different: a new way of living focused on “right relationship” and “treating others as the image of God with the God-given dignity they deserve.” Culminating in the life and resurrection of Jesus, we have an invitation to participate in a very particular path of restorative justice that stretches beyond lofty thoughts, opinions, and philosophies.

“The earliest followers of Jesus experienced this righteousness from God not just as a new status, but as a power that changed their lives and compelled them to act in surprising new ways,” the narrators explain. “If God declared someone righteous when they didn’t deserve it, the only reasonable response is to go and seek righteousness and justice for others. This is a radical way of life. It’s not always convenient or easy.”

Set within today’s complicated mix of policy battles and cultural debates, we have plenty more to consider. As we wade into the waters of creative service and solution-making, we also consider the bigger picture of human freedom and flourishing. But even here, whereas most of our modern policy debates tend to depersonalize that conversation in terms of individual versus state, we remember that all of this begins with persons positioned in the broader human family.

As Anthony Bradley explains, such attempts at justice-seeking and policymaking would greatly benefit from a healthy dose of personalism focused around a foundational question: “What moral and economic and political and social and psychological and spiritual contexts are best suited for men and women who are made in God’s image to thrive and be the people that God has created them to be?”

In a 2014 lecture, “Lost in Policy? The Person Beyond Public and Social Utility,” Bradley unpacks all of this at length, explaining why we ought to approach policy “from the person up” if we hope to find real and lasting reconciliation.

More often, he argues, “We love ideas, but have very little interest in loving actual people,” which distracts and distorts our efforts in any number of ways:

Instead of embracing ideologies as a way to think about human flourishing, what if we actually built our theories about politics and economics from the person up? What if we began with the attributes of the human person and thought about the sorts of economic and political and social structures derived from the attributes of the human person that allow persons to flourish? That we’re not concerned about winning the culture war, and we’re not really burdened by having a political ideology, but we want people to be what God has created people to be and to do.

As Bradley goes on to remind us, such an approach has led to credible cultural witness and productive, disruptive transformation in times of great distress and division, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for civil rights to Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the Soviet Union.

This begins with our own relationships, flowing outward through our families, communities, institutions, and beyond. “Every encounter with a human person is an opportunity for liberation,” Bradley explains. “It’s an opportunity, in union with the other, to explore together what it means to be truly human as God designed … Christian personalism shows the world that because our neighbors are people—not because they are simply ‘like us’—they are worthy of love and connection and relationship.”

In Acton’s film series For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles, we see these same connections through the lens of justice as hospitality. In Evan Koons’ concluding note on the Economy of Order, we are reminded of the importance of Christian personalism in our approach to justice.

“How are we to operate with so much hurt, so much dysfunction in the world? What hope is there for justice?” Koons asks. “Here’s the key: Justice needs a face.”

He continues:

Yes, God created the world to have order, and yes, in a broken world we need curators of that order: governing bodies to cultivate the conditions for the various spheres of society to flourish in the ways that they know best …

But seeking justice must always be personal, and this means investment. It means vulnerability. It means hospitality, not just to the members of the household of faith, but to the stranger … This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be involved in government. We absolutely should, if for no other reason than as the body of Christ we keep the memory of this truth: Justice requires love, because you won’t have justice unless you remember the image of God in each person. Unless you remember each person’s dignity as a glorious, creative, capable gift to the world. Unless you are willing to give yourself away to keep that memory alive. But we must do more than just remember the dignity of all, and especially the stranger. We must welcome that stranger, make a space for him in our lives, to make a place at our tables for that gift in whom God Himself delights …

Seeking order, seeking justice, isn’t a matter of designing the right programs or delivery systems. Let us remember that seeking order means acting in accord with a true vision of our brothers and sisters. Let us remember the words of a famous theologian: “Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.”

This invites many questions: How do we view and treat our neighbors, whatever their race, age, creed, ideology, or political tribe? How are we interacting, collaborating, and relating in everyday life? Are we approaching and treating others as people, as co-creators made in the image of a holy God? And if so, are our corresponding efforts at forming our associations and institutions tailored to reflect and protect that basic reality?

As Ryan Anderson puts it, “Law and culture reinforce each other, either for or against human dignity and human flourishing.” As we continue fighting against systemic oppression and dysfunction, and as we continue to explore the ways in which we can better honor the dignity of all persons, let us remember that along with the fight to change the system at the top, God has given us wisdom, relational capacity, and, above all, love and grace to begin repairing the fragments of society and pursuing reconciliation at the level of the person.

(Photo credit: Lorie Shaull. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.