The Oxymoron of Proximate Justice

Oxymorons always unsettle me. They compel me to mull them over again and again, attempting to unpack layers juxtaposing two contradictory terms.

Several years ago, Steve Garber, Director of The Washington Institute and friend to so many, offered us an uncomfortable oxymoron through his article, “Making Peace with Proximate Justice.” Isn’t justice, by its very nature, meant to be full and absolute, right or wrong? Doesn’t the integrity of the term demand our full commitment, our faith in the possibility of real justice?

Recently, I had the opportunity to rethink the oxymoron of proximate justice as I heard Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, speak in Boston on his book tour for The Great Awakening. One thing I appreciate about Wallis is that he is extremely consistent and persistent. He’s talked about wedding personal faith with social justice for over 30 years now. When he says there is a revival of justice across the country, I’m inclined to take the man at his word. According to Wallis, revivals of justice occur when “Billy Graham meets Martin Luther King,” and toward this end, Wallis has inspired folks to join grassroots movements that push political structures from below while praying for open doors from above.

I wonder whether “proximate justice” would be a compelling selling point for signing people on to a movement. Movements have an all-or-nothing feel to them, and it’s likely the burden our abolitionist, social gospel, or civil rights predecessors felt at times: that they were the ones who had to bring the Kingdom of God here, and now.

We do need an understanding of proximate justice to keep us from utter despair and cynicism, especially when the daily grind of working to bring about the Kingdom wears us out. At the same time, we could use it as a corrective from taking ourselves or our cause too seriously.

In the book Political Holiness: a Spirituality of Liberation, Pedro Casaldáliga and José María Vigil warn us of the idol of justice. They write, “Social justice (however important it may be, and it is) can also be an idol, and we have to purify ourselves from it in order to declare clearly that God alone suffices, and in this way give justice, too, the fullness of its meaning.” Perhaps proximate justice is ultimately an acknowledgment of humility and faith — faith that this work of bringing about the Kingdom is not entirely on our shoulders after all. There is a rhythm of work and then rest, signaled by prayer, contemplation, and weekly Sabbaths.

To be sure, we don’t strive for proximate justice. Who wants to strive for an incomplete or imperfect Kingdom? By its very definition shalom means all things as they should be, in right relationship. But we do need an understanding of proximate justice to help us wait until then, even as we strive daily toward shalom in all corners of creation.

My students in the Gordon in Lynn program, engaged in community development work, know all too well these dual tendencies — the idolatry of our justice work on the one hand, or the cynicism that paralyzes on the other. As they study the complexities of injustice, travel to the developing world to visit people, learn about the production of goods, and return here for urban engagement, Christian students are especially exposed to the “bad news” of glaring examples of injustice. They are also mindful of the ways we play a part in all of this, like no other generation before us. They are simultaneously driven to right an injustice (Fair Trade coffee only, on campus now!) and stalled by the fear that nothing will ever change. This then is the predicament: why do anything if it will be tainted by some injustice — if the landfill will increase; if CO2 will be emitted; if a child will be subject to sweatshop labor, sex trafficking, or HIV/AIDS?

We can’t work to see these issues approximately solved. We want justice in that child’s life completely, not approximately. What motivation based on compromise would sign us up for a justice revival or even compel us to go to work day in and day out? But that mindset is not sustainable and can be sinful when we shoulder it alone. We must remember that we will not see complete justice this side of Heaven. We strive to climb to the mountain summit, not just below it; we rest often because without resting there’s no way we could keep going. It’s just too hard.

 Our students start their year reading a selection of Paul Marshall’s book Heaven is Not My Home because it provides for our work in the community an important foundation that encourages us away from the tendencies toward idolatry and despair:

“Our works, here and now, are not all transitory. The good that we have done will not simply disappear and be forgotten. This world is not a passing and futile phase; it will be taken up in God’s new world. Our good buildings, our great inventions, our acts of healing, our best writings, our creative art, our finest clothes, our greatest treasures will not simply pass away. If they represent the greatest works of God’s image-bearers, they will adorn the world to come.”

Our works for justice — the God-honoring parts — are not all in vain and will not all disappear. This is truly good and life-giving news, news we must remind ourselves of day in and day out within our various vocations.

Recently, one of our students came to realize the injustice within our urban public schools; she couldn’t believe art and music had been cut from many of the younger grades. Her middle-class upbringing had been richly blessed by the arts and fostered within her a love for the theater. Her strongest desire was to change the system right away. But as she came to a better understanding of the complexities that go into these injustices, she knew change wouldn’t happen quickly. With her desire for systemic change still in mind, she set about establishing a theater program with one of our community partners to teach theater to young girls. Knowing that so many thousands of children in Lynn could benefit from arts enrichment like this, she’s making peace with her corner of creation: the essential work of teaching drama to 13 girls.

She’s making peace with proximate justice.

This article first appeared in Comment, the opinion journal of Cardus.

Christen lives with her husband, Chris (finishing a PhD at Boston College in philosophy and aesthetics), and three little ones in Lynn, MA. She's the Associate Director of Gordon in Lynn, a creative urban partnership between Gordon College and the city of Lynn. Christen studied theology, the arts, and community economic development for a Masters at Regent College and Simon Fraser University. A painter during the narrow margins of her life, her passions include the intersection of beauty, justice, and community. This article was also published in Stillpoint.

Dancing in Fields of Wheat and Chaff

On Learning to Hear

On Learning to Hear