Liturgy and Justice

Justice: What Are We Talking About? (Part I)

March 07, 2007

Also read Part II and Part III of this three-part article on "Justice: What are we talking about?"  


    I love kaleidoscopes.  Whenever I spy one, I cannot resist picking it up and manipulating it in order to be entertained -- even mystified -- by the varied and splendid patterns that emerge.  With a slight turn of the kaleidoscope, the view is transformed.  The "wow's" -- the surprises and wonder of it -- are in the intersections, where the colors, lines, and shapes come together to form new images.

    The liturgy-justice relationship is like looking through a kaleidoscope.  The "ah-ah" moments lie at the intersections.  For example, liturgical pioneer and social activist Virgil Michel, OSB (a monk of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, MN) puzzled through the social questions of his day by placing them in dialogue with the liturgy, which prompted him to ask questions such as "What has the liturgy to do with social reconstruction or the social question?" (Orate Fratres 9 (1935).)  By exploring the intersections, new insights emerge; old ways of seeing and understanding, of being and doing are transformed.  The process is one which is inexhaustible; the intersections are infinite since the liturgy-justice relationship needs continuously to be appropriated -- across time, generations, and cultures.  But this is to be expected.  After all, the source and inspiration for our worship and for our vocation as people of justice is the inexhaustible Gracious Mystery.

    Before looking at the liturgy-justice intersections, however, it will be helpful first to consider separately what we are talking about when we use the term "justice."  There is a wide variation in people's perceptions of justice.  "Justice," as we human beings think of it, seems often to elude a universally agreed upon definition.  There are, of course, the traditional philosophical categories of justice (commutative, distributive, and legal), the primary focus of which is the social order.

    The philosophical categories have also influenced the Catholic Church's teachings about justice.  More recently, Catholic Social Teaching has been shaped by the concept of social justice, which was coined by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.  The purpose of social justice is to examine the structures of society to ensure that the structures support and further the common good.

    Each of these approaches to "justice" -- commutative, distributive, legal, and social -- has value, for each is grounded (ideally, anyway) in a more complete and perfect expression of justice, that is, the justice of God.  And when we talk about what liturgy has to do with justice (and vice versa), it is Divine justice that we must first consider.

    How can the justice of God -- which transcends all human conceptions and expectations of justice -- be described?  I think first we can say that how we understand God's justice is directly related to our image of God.  For example, if we imagine that God will "get us" when we sin, we might understand God's justice as being punishing in nature.  On the other hand, if our image of God is one rooted in relationship -- a loving, saving relationship -- then I think we appreciate the justice of God in this very same relational context.

    God is profoundly relational and personal, a belief manifested in what is at the core of Christian faith, that is, the Holy Trinity.  When we call God "Father, Son, and Spirit," we are expressing our belief that God is relational.  When we say that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and continues to be revealed in the presence and power of the Spirit, we are again expressing our belief that God is relational.  It is simply in God's nature to be in intimate communion with human beings and all that God has created.

    Justice is a quintessential quality of God; it too flows from the very nature of God.  Justice springs forth from whom God is and the way God creates.  God creates right relationships and right order.  Recall, for example, the creation narrative from Genesis.  God creates beauty and order from formlessness and chaos.  God brings forth life from nothing and presence from absence.  God made human beings and empowered them to be in partnership with God in caring for the created world.  Right relationships were established from the beginning...and God saw how good it was.  And God blessed it all....

    God's justice -- although it transcends our own limited notions -- grounds our own instincts when those instincts are ordered correctly.  We are wired, so to speak, to be oriented toward God and thus, are also inclined to do the right thing -- to do the just thing -- provided we pay attention to this inclination.  What then lies at the heart of just behavior?  It seems to me that it is responding to people and situations in our world out of our relationship with God.  Our sharing in the very life of God -- a God of justice -- is the antecedent to our application of justice in this world.

    How all of this connects with liturgy will be explored in later articles.  For now, I will end by setting the stage for more to come about what we learn about the justice of God from the Scriptures.  Scripture scholar John Donahue, S.J. has articulated an important principle about biblical justice that is important to ponder.  He writes, "In general terms the biblical idea of justice can be described as fidelity to the demands of a relationship," and specifically, a covenant relationship.  ("Biblical Perspectives on Justice," in The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change, ed. John C. Haughey ( New York: Paulist Press, 1977) 69.)

Also read Part II and Part III of this three-part article on "Justice: What are we talking about?"  

Anne Koester works and teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  She has edited or co-edited three books:  Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002); Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004); and Called To Participate: Theological, Ritual, And Social Perspectives (co-edited with Barbara Searle; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2006.  Anne is also the author of Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007.)


A Participation that Is Demanded by the Very Nature of Liturgy
Jesus as Model Relationship Builder
Justice: What Are We Talking About? ( Part II, Part III)
Liturgy: Some Key Ideas
Putting on Our Sunday Best
The 20th Century Social and Liturgical Movements in the U.S.: Working out of a Common Vision
To Live & Learn: What Does Liturgy Teach?

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