Exclusion and Embrace, chapter five, "Oppression and Justice,"
reflection by Cliff Knighten
In chapter five, "Oppression and Justice," Volf moves into a discussion of the problem of justice in an environment of cultural, socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and gender diversity. The question is relatively simple: How do people, communities, religious and ethnic groups, as well as nations live together in peace and social equity when there is no shared consensus on what is just? Volf writes: “When competing accounts either of what is just or what justice means clash, one person’s justice is another person’s barbarity and society is threatened with the chaos of violence.” (p. 195)
Volf presents three popular approaches to the problem. First, the traditional Christian argument that “universal justice” (at all times and in all places and situations) is rooted in the unchanging moral character of God. Since God is not a tribal deity, but rather the God of all nations, it follows that “God’s justice transcends all cultural construals of justice.” (p. 198). However, Volf rightfully draws a distinction between God’s universal justice rooted in his character and any particular human articulation of that justice:
The question is not whether from a Christian perspective God’s justice is universal, whether God can infallibly judge between cultures irrespective of their differences. The question is whether Christians who want to uphold God’s universal justice can judge between cultures with divine infallibility. The answer is that they cannot…. We must therefore distinguish between our idea of God’s justice and God’s justice itself. (p. 198-199)
The practical problem with all human articulations and interpretations of God’s universal justice, even those made by God’s people, is that they are inescapably particular, made from “inside a culture or tradition.” As a result, these expressions are always provisional and subject to revision.
The second popular approach to the problem of justice in a diverse world is the postmodern one. From this perspective, every account of justice which claims to be universal is inherently oppressive and unjust. John Caputo is representative of postmodern thinkers: “the worst injustice, the most bloody and unjustifiable transgressions of justice are … committed daily in the name of justice, under the protection of the name ‘justice.’” (p. 202) In this line of reasoning, universal justice must be “deconstructed” or unmasked as the oppressor so that the oppressed can be liberated to pursue their own visions of justice and the good. Volf rejects the postmodern approach due to his belief that the ultimate outcome of the deconstruction project is something very close to, if not identical with, another universalizing principle of justice: “all should respect all; none should respect those who do not respect all.” (p. 204)
Finally, Volf examines Alasdair MacIntyre’s communitarian model of justice. MacIntyre emphasizes the role of the respective community’s tradition in the development of its view of justice. He then argues that the resources for successfully negotiating justice issues can be found within these broader traditions. Volf summarizes MacIntyre’s position:
For rational discussion to replace the sterile exchange of assertions and counter-assertions people must inhabit traditions. From within a tradition, they can then carry on rational debates not only with the fellow members of the same tradition, but also with those who inhabit rival traditions. (p. 206)
While affirming the logic of MacIntyre’s argument, Volf highlights the fairly obvious problem that the communitarian model can actually accentuate the differences between tribes rather than lead to consensus.
Building on the valid insights of each of these approaches, Volf then synthesizes his own approach to the problem of justice in a pluralistic world. He begins with the observation that all people inhabit multiple social environments or traditions. These multiple influences shape our beliefs and practices. Christians, Volf argues, “inescapably inhabit two worlds – they are ‘in God’ and ‘in the world’ – the world of the biblical traditions and the world of their own culture.” As a result, “Christian ‘tradition’ is never pure; it always represents a merging of streams coming from the Scriptures and from given cultures that a particular church inhabits.” (p. 208) From this Volf argues that we should hold on to “certain basic interrelated commitments” – both beliefs and practices that derive from Scripture – rather than the “totalizing” systems we create based on these commitments. This realization allows, rather demands, a more humble approach to our traditions than many Christians have taken in the past.
This “chastened” approach to our traditions provides the opportunity for what Volf calls “enlarged thinking” (from Hannah Arendt) or “double-vision.” Volf writes:
We enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives. (p. 213)
Volf uses the example of Jesus in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in Matt. 15 as one biblical example of “double-vision.” In this encounter, Jesus willingly adjusted his actions by taking into account the perspectives of the “other.” While the complete realization of justice will only take place at the consummation, Volf argues that “double-vision,” if practiced with a will to embrace the “other,” will enable us to take small steps toward genuine justice between people and cultures.