Justice is About Reality

justice is reality

Guest Post by Sam Adams

Reality. Justice is about reality: on the ground, gritty, bloody, tear-stained reality. The work of justice is determined by the concrete realness of bodies and violence; it is determined by the reality of social structures, communities, governments, and institutions. Theology, on the other hand, can be abstract, spiritual, theoretical, and intellectual; theological work tends to be determined by the abstraction of ideas constrained only by the theologian’s familiarity with arguments contained in two millennia worth of books. But theology, too, is about reality.

How might these two realities converge?

This is the challenge that I forced myself to confront this past fall as I offered a course for the Kilns College graduate program titled “Systematic Theology for Social Justice.” How do you teach theology and social justice together?

My attempt to do this was grounded in one core rejection: The relationship between the two, theology and justice, is not analogous to the relationship between principles and their application. Theology does not give us abstract principles that need to be applied in concrete situations.

The positive articulation of this is grounded in the faithful affirmation of classical orthodox Christology: God reveals himself to us in the person of Jesus, fully human, fully divine. Theology, in this view, is not the abstraction of principles and propositions from the biblical source, but rather the thoughtful articulation of the reality that confronts us in the event of God revealing himself to us as Jesus of Nazareth.

One theologian who articulates this with profound gravity precisely because he was a theologian for whom the reality of theology was inseparable from the concrete demand for social justice, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the final years of his life, while he was actively working for the the resistance movement in Germany during the height of World War II, he wrote what would become his last book, a collection of manuscripts he simply called, Ethics. It is a work grounded in the reality of the incarnation.

Bonhoeffer writes: “What matters is participating in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today, and doing so in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without the reality of the world, nor the reality of the world without the reality of God.” [1]

What is at stake in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is reality. Both the reality of the world and the reality of God are disclosed in the singular reality of the incarnation, where God becomes human without ceasing to be God.

With respect to our concern for justice, we might say that theology without justice is not a realistic theology. And, conversely, justice without theology misses the essential point that reality has been disclosed in Jesus Christ. Reality is not revealed in a theory, an ideology, or a set of principles. Rather, reality is revealed in a person who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Theology and social justice are not to be held apart but brought together, united, as they actually are, in the reality of the One who calls us to follow him. Theology and social justice, therefore, look like discipleship. Teaching them together, therefore, must always begin with the question, again from Bonhoeffer, addressed to Jesus, “Who are you?” [2] The answer will be found wherever he answers, in the classroom, in the world.

[1] Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology” in Berlin: 1932-1933, DBW Vol. 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 302.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics. Transl. by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Edited by Clifford J. Green, Vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 55.




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