Melissa Browning, Ph.D.
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies congregational and community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her recent book, "Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania," builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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Defining justice (AKA: How to not do theology Fox news style)

By on August 16, 2010

shapeimage_2-3Since I named this blog after two of my favorite theo-ethical concepts, (justice and imagination). I thought I’d give one of them (justice) a little space by blogging about it here today. To be honest, the concept of justice is terribly misunderstood, primarily because it has different meanings and functions on different levels. When we speak of justice from a theological perspective, it does not have the same meaning as when we’re speaking of justice from legal perspective. When something is “just” from a legal perspective, it means that it satisfies the rule of law (or at least someone’s interpretation of that law). But morality and legality have never been the same thing, though sometimes they overlap.

Something can easily be illegal but not immoral (or vice-versa). Throughout Christian history, human or temporal law has been seen as a servant to divine law. Aquinas saw the goal of law as serving the common good. When it failed to serve the common good, it had no authority. Aquinas also said that unjust laws were violence – a concept that Martin Luther King Jr. resonated with during the civil rights movement.

Like Aquinas, Martin Luther (the reformer, not the civil rights leader) also put human (or temporal) law under divine law and said that the purpose of the law was not to achieve morality but to regulate peace. It was the Gospel, not law, that produced righteousness, but the law was still necessary because the Gospel was not compelling for unbelievers. Luther believed that Christians didn’t need the law at all, but should obey it for the sake of their neighbor.

So law and morality have never been the same thing, just like theological justice and legal justice are not the same thing. It may seem like a small nuance, but it is an important concept to understand if we want to talk about justice from a theo-ethical perspective. The distinction helps us to conceptualize what we mean when we say something is “right” or something is “wrong.” Separating legal obligations from moral obligations, also helps us get at what we “ought” to do as moral people.

For instance, when we talk about a subject such as immigration, we usually begin with either plea for a legal obligation or a moral obligation, yet we often don’t name the space from which we’re speaking. The two are collapsed into one another and when this happens, there is very little space for dialogue. Its like doing theology Fox news style. You’ve got Glenn Beck, a lawyer and a preacher on a panel and you can’t tell who is who (but they’re all against James Cone and social justice).

So the first step in talking about justice is to decide what kind of justice you’re talking about. And then you can begin to get to the business of thinking through what justice might mean.

Now sometimes when you write a blog you intend to say something you never get to say, and this is the case with today’s blog. I had great intentions of talking about John Rawls, John Stuart Mill, Liberation theologians and feminist theologies and justice, but I’ve hit the tolerable amount of readable words for a blog. So, the rest of this week, I’ll blog a bit on what my theological heroes and heroines have to say about justice… stay tuned!