11 April 2015

Justice, Love, and Human Rights

Written by 
The Delaware County Memorial to the Lost at Chester Eastside Ministries – 2014 [3rd photo at the bottom of this webpage on the Heeding God’s Call Philadelphia website] The Delaware County Memorial to the Lost at Chester Eastside Ministries – 2014 [3rd photo at the bottom of this webpage on the Heeding God’s Call Philadelphia website] http://heedinggodscall.org/content/heeding-gods-call-memorials-lost

As you can see from the sidebar on my homepage and as you found out last month if you follow me on Twitter, I have recently finished my manuscript, which is now called, Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation. In this and the next 2 blogs, I want to summarize three important aspects of the book. Here I look at Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s recent work on justice and how it feeds into this project. [I featured Wolterstorff on my blog, “Jesus and Justice”]

Next time I’ll come back to Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, examining his contribution to the 2007 Common Word letter and his book Love in the Qur’an (on this see my blog “Defining Power” ) Finally, we’ll explore the fascinating connections between three thinkers and activists, two of whom are blood relatives (Jamal al-Banna and Tariq Ramadan), and the third who ended up staying most faithful to Hasan al-Banna (Jamal’s older brother and Tariq’s grandfather).

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, organized several Muslim-Christian conferences and the fifth one took place in 2006 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The edited book containing the papers presented was entitled, Justice and Rights: Muslim and Christian Perspectives (Georgetown U. Press, 2009). Its editor, Michael Ipgrave, wrote in his Introduction, “Justice is recognized by Christians and Muslims as one of the defining characteristics of God and sought by them as his purpose for a world that is manifestly unjust.”

Yet while Islam has a venerable and extensive tradition of religious law, Christians built on the foundation of Roman law and developed canon law in the 12th century, with Gracian as the author of its most influential work, Decretum (1140). But religious law is mostly a marginal concern in the Christian tradition, and this is partly why international law, which has grown out of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), has seemed more foreign to Muslims. The other reason why many Muslims have expressed reservations about it is that historically the UDHR builds on Western Enlightenment ideals at a time when Muslim-majority nations were barely emerging from under the yoke of Western colonialism.

Still, there was much convergence among both Muslim and Christian scholars about the connection between justice and human rights. That idea, coupled with the historic Common World letter addressed by top Muslim scholars to Christian leaders on the centrality of love in both traditions, is actually what brought me to this project. But the connection came to me from another book, Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton U. Press, 2008), and then from its companion volume, Justice in Love (Eerdmans, 2011).

Writing both as a Christian and as a philosopher in the analytic philosophy tradition, Wolterstorff argues that justice is about giving each person her due, or right, and that contrary to much of the literature over the ages, this is in full harmony with the imperative of love. In fact, agape love, the love God demonstrated for us in Jesus, and the love he enjoins on us, includes justice. As Wolterstorff puts it in the Preface of Justice in Love, these two imperatives come to us from Antiquity:


“One is the imperative to do justice, coming to us from both the Athens-Rome strand of our heritage and the Jerusalem strand. “Do justice,” said the prophet Micah in a well-known passage. The ancient Roman jurist Ulpian said that we are to render to each person his or her right or due (ius). The other imperative comes to us only from the Jerusalem strand: love your neighbor as yourself, even if that neighbor is an enemy. Do not return evil for evil, said Jesus.” (Justice in Love, Preface, vii)


Wolterstorff defines justice as acting toward each person in a way that reflects his worth. It’s about inherent, inalienable human rights. In this book, then, as I follow him, I am not directly concerned with distributive justice (mitigating economic inequality or fostering greater political participation for those on the margins), retributive justice (setting up a just penal system for those who commit crimes), or procedural justice (making sure that all parts and procedures of a state’s justice system work efficiently and fairly), though talk of a “just society” involves all of that, to be sure. This project is about primary justice – defining what is “justice” is and grounding it, not in some kind of natural order or social contract (“justice as right order”) but in certain rights that belong to human beings as human beings.

I agree with Wolterstorff that a social order is “just insofar as its members enjoy the goods to which they have rights.” Those rights fall into two categories: rights conferred on people by the issuing of legislation or even religious rulings; and natural rights that are neither conferred by any human or divine authority, but are inherent to humans qua humans.

Historically, the modern notion of human rights grew out of two of the most brutal wars in human history, but as I have argued elsewhere, it also points for Christians, Muslims and Jews to a theology of creation. As Christians in particular, we are reminded that, beyond the Christian affirmation of a fall from grace in Genesis 3, humanity appeared in Genesis 1 as the apex of a manifold creation that God declared “very good.” From that passage we learn that only humankind was made in God’s image and that part of that privilege was the mandate to manage the rest of creation as his stewards or trustees.

More, we read that God and humanity were joined by a bond of intimate love from the start, tragically broken by the fall. This is symbolized in the story of God coming to the Garden and calling out to Adam and Eve, ready to join them in their daily stroll. It was not to be, for they were hiding, ashamed of themselves. The rest of the Bible, then, tells of a loving God who unfolds his plan of redemption in order to restore that intimate relationship of love.

That is why I agree with Wolterstorff’s suggestion that it is God’s love for his human creatures that grounds the notion of human rights. This is also made more plausible from a Muslim viewpoint after the Common Word letter, as we will see in the next blog.

Just the same, tying human worth by virtue of creation to natural rights is debatable. One of America’s most respected theologians, Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas, has argued against this notion in a lecture delivered at Emory University last year (watch it here). Though he applauds the ways in which rights have provided protection for the most vulnerable and have often been used to foster peacebuilding around the world, he doesn’t believe they can be “grounded” theologically. And, by the way, Hauerwas will be delivering a plenary address at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Vineyard Scholars at our church in Media, PA next week. This will be followed by a panel on this theme and his paper is virtually the same as the one he delivered at Emory last year. And, truth be told, parts of this blog come from my own paper in response :)

Unsurprisingly, Hauerwas has mixed feelings about Wolterstorff’s account of rights. Part of it has to do with his genealogy of rights. And relatedly, it touches on a contrast between justice as right order and justice as natural rights or inherent human worth. Let me explain. For Wolterstorff, there are two main clashing narratives that seek to account for the origin of rights, as they are now commonly understood. The first is the “declinist” view, and it is the one favored by proponents of justice as right order, like Alasdair McIntyre, Oliver O’Donovan, and, presumably John Milbank (see his attempt to refute Wolterstorff), and Hauerwas to some extent.

Roughly, it begins with William of Ockham’s abundant use of the Latin ius (or “right”) to refer to natural rights, but whose nominalism led him to defend “natural” subjective rights and thereby promote an atomistic view of human society. Naturally, in this line of thinking, the great Western crisis came when Hobbes, Locke and their Enlightenment colleagues put to use this rights discourse to create political liberalism. Citizens were now seen as bearers of natural rights and the state’s mission was to make sure those rights were respected without infringing upon their fellow citizens’ rights.

This narrative stands in contrast to its rival, which for Wolterstorff is to be found in the recent works of medievalists Brian Tierney and his student Charles J. Reid, Jr., who argue that . . .


". . . a sophisticated understanding of rights [were] already operative in the legal systems of twelfth and thirteenth century Europe. This understanding of rights would become part of the medieval jus commune, the common law of Europe, that would in turn inform the polemical works of William of Ockham and the writings of early modern philosophers and theologians – figures as diverse and seminal in their own right as John Locke and John Calvin."


In turn, this idea that a person in need has a claim upon any fellow human who is able to help goes back to the Church Fathers. In fourth century Antioch, for example, the great preacher John Chrysostom in several sermons commenting on Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man declared that to withhold one’s possessions from the poor was to rob them. He added,


“We show mercy on [the poor man] not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune. . . . I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means to life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.”


The declinist narrative, then, dismisses natural rights as a contentious, selfish grabbing of rights at the expense of others. At worst, in our contemporary American society that worships at the twin shrines of capitalism and the almighty dollar, rights are about leveraging the justice system so we can sue our neighbor at the least pretext. At best, this liberal democratic view of rights is a pragmatic way of ordering society, while trying to minimize the harm likely to visit its most vulnerable members.

The other narrative, then, seeks to tap into the Christian tradition of justice in the Old and New Testaments as respect for the inherent worth of each person created in God’s image and dearly beloved in his eyes. What is more, adds Wolterstorff, justice as right order (or rights as assigned by the state) and justice as inalienable rights are in fact complementary and not at all incompatible. That’s why love and justice have to be linked.

This leads me to my last point, a practical one (a longer version of this is found in my Chapter 5). Doing justice will involve the church in political actions at some level or another. Here is a local and personal example. My wife and I live with my 88-year-old mother-in-law who has an aide come every night to care for her. One of the aides is an African American woman living in Chester just five miles from here, a predominantly black town of 34,000 right on the Delaware river. According to NeighborhoodScout.com, it is the second most violent community in America, just after Camden, NJ, just across the Delaware from Philadelphia. Early in January 2014 her 20-year-old son was shot dead in the street and till this day, like for so many others, her family has no idea who murdered him. He was not part of a gang, didn’t take or sell drugs. He was actually a talented rapper who still lived at home.

Last summer this lady told me there was going to be an organized protest against illegal weapons possession. It would be a march that Saturday from Chester to Media, the county seat, organized by the nonprofit organization, Delaware County United for Sensible Gun Policy. Their main platform is to call for universal background checks, a seemingly uncontroversial path to limiting straw sales that cause guns to proliferate on the streets. I told her I would go. As promised, I arrived at the meeting place by the Martin Luther King, Jr. historical marker. During the three years King was studying at Crozer Theological Seminary at the time just down the street, he also served as assistant pastor at this Calvary Baptist Church.

After a couple of speeches and instructions about the march, about a hundred of us made our way through Chester to the Chester East Side Ministries property. There on the lawn were planted over sixty crosses displaying T-shirts, each one with the name of the youth killed by gun violence, the date of the murder and the age of the victim (see photo above). I don’t have time to tell about the rest of the march, but I do want to ask, “What would King who spoke of humanity as the ‘beloved community’ think of Chester today?” King, after all, was fond of speaking of each person bearing God-given inalienable rights, so that “injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere.”

Gun violence in Chester or in any American urban center is an injustice with complex ramifications and with a genealogy that includes the human propensity to greed and violence; also a past marred by slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial discrimination and a tangle of laws that allow the quality of education to be determined by a community’s income level, and much more.

No simple solutions, but justice and love require us to care enough about our neighbors both as individuals and as communities caught in a web of laws that at times need reforming. The good news of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ somehow must transform both the individual and her wider context. King’s “beloved community” also resonates with our Muslim brothers and sisters (Chester has 3 mosques and I am close to one of the imams). So we have a common mission cut out for us!

King’s practice of justice – and Wolterstorff would agree – was a statement about God’s infinite love making each human person worthy of respect and, I submit, of inherent rights.