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Spirituality And Justice

Book review/essay

Donal Dorr’s Spirituality and Justice (Orbis, 1984) is a challenging book. I took these notes while reading it.

‘Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8) ie. be politically, morally and religiously converted. Religious conversion is not only pardon for past sin, but knowing we are loved and accepted even in our ‘winter experiences’ (Karl Rahner). Moral or interpersonal conversion is also a gift, a grace, including entrusting to another, deep listening, and a demand for fidelity. Acting justly – political conversion – is concerned with society’s organization: how wealth, power, privileges, rights and responsibilities are distributed.

Justice is helping the poor (the rich can mostly look after themselves), understanding how society is structured to give unfair advantages to certain groups, and correcting these injustices. It’s helping the poor to experience God as their God (in the NT the ‘important people’ are insignificant people). It’s about redefining ‘success’.

A biblical spirituality is rooted in all three conversions. My spirituality shapes me, moves me – deeply, at gut-level. It’s my experience of God, not merely a rational ideology about him. A ‘theological ideology’ can be formulated without conversions: it’s not in touch with full reality. Such a theology may justify a dualistic separation of ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’; it’s illusory, escapist, reinforcing existing privileges.

Third World theology, done ‘from the underside of history’ is not abstract. To ignore injustice is to condone it. Theology can’t be neutral – anywhere. Western theology is mostly clerical, male, middle-class, privileged: its ‘objectivity’ gives it an illusion of universality. It is culturally-conditioned with an aversion to liberation theologies, and an espousal of ‘western democracy’ (ie, an international order imposed by western economic/political power). Third world theology uses the Bible to throw light on present experience – particularly that of the poor (eg Mary’s magnificat, Luke 1:46-55). First world theology is passed on from ‘experts’ through (mostly male) clerics to the rest of us, usually by instruction. Third world theology is often done by Christians-in-community in two-way dialogue, encouraging reflection.

Structural Injustice

There is now a single economic, global network, committed to quick profits, grossly biassed in favour of the industrialized nations of the ‘North’. It’s not that the Third World lacks resources or is ‘lazy’. In these poor countries, too, a small minority controls almost all the wealth (and the political power). Global communications, information and ideas are also controlled by relatively few people. Even in the church there may exist a small controlling elite.

These people exercise power by setting up economic, political, cultural and ecclesiastical structures, where the powerful can minimize or eliminate accountability. ‘Service people’ (40% of the working population in some countries) operate the administrative machinery, and come to identify with the ‘system’, ensuring that people in power do not lose it. There is a lack of equality when rich and poor are bargaining. Once such structures are created it’s very difficult to change them. The most powerful – those at ‘the top’ – have the least interest in changing them: they have most to lose. So in a sense the powerful are trapped. (If, for example, a big company ‘goes soft’ by paying more for raw materials from the Third World, it may go out of business).

For 400 years the ‘South’ enriched the ‘North’ and perhaps 15% in Third World countries. Many are trapped in poverty. Traditional economic structures have been replaced with ‘modern’ ones, and many traditional checks and balances which ensured a modicum of social justice have gone. There are many new opportunities for the strong to exploit the weak. ‘Modern’ development contains an unregulated ‘growth imperative’, fosters a high degree of competitivesness, rewards strength, incorporates new technology (displacing jobs). The time has come to cry ‘Stop!’ to this monster, and look for appropriate technologies permitting everyone to have meaningful employment.

The alternative is not Communist developmental models: they too exploit the earth’s resources (with an exploitative mentality extended to people) with massive and oppressive bureaucracies and pyramids of power analogous to those of the West. Where the West rules by ‘money power’ people in communist countries are oppressed by the State’s polical power.

Option for the Poor: what does it mean?

When we in the First World learn that we have benefitted from an unjust system, there’s a temptation to embark on guilt-trips or do-goodism. Rather we must organize ourselves to make a preferential option for the poor. This isn’t rejection of the privileged: it’s simply to rectify the balance. Who is asked to make this option? Everybody. Nobody is too hardened to be converted – from money power (Zaccheus) or political power (Nicodemas) or religious power (St. Paul).

The ‘service people’ – those in the middle – are more powerful than they think. They must understand the present unjust system, disentangle themselves from unjust structures, and begin to construct alternative structures. But let us first enter the world of the poor, sharing their life: aid without relationships is paternalism (Moses found that acting hastily, in anger, did not lead to the poor hailing him as a saviour).

There’s a strong biblical basis for this approach. Yahweh, through his prophets, calls his people to value justice far more highly than stability (other gods support those in power, ensuring ‘stability’). They didn’t merely inveigh against individuals but against the whole socio-economic order. Moses confronted an emperor; Isaiah the Jews’ own ruling classes; Jeremiah, the king and priestly classes; Jesus the power of the religious establishments: he was making a stance, on behalf of the common people, against an oppressive religious-cultural regime. The ‘Kingdom’, he said, is the world the way God wants it to be; things can be changed; and the change has already begun to take place: to live by these Kingdom values is to be religiously, morally and politically converted. Eg Jesus’ parable of the 11th -hour labourer suggests that the economic order of the Kingdom is one where people are paid according to need rather than production. (A Kingdom person won’t mind that unemployed occasionally receiving as much as someone privileged enough to have a job.)

Alternative Values

Many, concerned about social injustice feel helpless, confused, or guilty, and do nothing. First, tackle one specific aspect of structural injustice: don’t wait for the future world; what is in question is not another world but a different world. The aim of the Church is not to expand itself but to advance the Kingdom.

Today, the world is unified (we are more dependent on each other) but not united. We’re vulnerable: a grievance in one part of the world could lead to a war that might end human history. Unity at the expense of diversity leads to a rigid uniformity (the institutional and legal life of the Catholic Church in the Third World runs this danger).

Another human need is security: but in many places this has produced a kind of group paranoia, increasing militarization, repression, denial of fundamental rights, and torture. True security cannot be built without trust and vulnerability.

Justice is about rights – political rights (eg having a say in one’s destiny), economic rights (eg a fair price on world markets), cultural rights (protection from cultrual domination eg by media). The world needs a ‘just, participative and sustainable society’. Then there’s the injustice of clericalism: the failure by clergy to relinquish to lay people (including women) the responsibilities that are theirs as Christians.

Work is a Kingdom value: making, shaping, inventing, creating, without mindless drudgery or back-breaking labour. Machines should humanize work, not replace workers.

What is ‘progress’? In its name traditional values are disappearing, including safeguards for the weak, old and poor. In the ‘North’ most benefit from ‘progress’, but there are still many casualties of the system. We are cashing cheques on the future, running up huge debts, squandering irreplaceable rsources. ‘Progress’ can be dehumanizing.

Relationships. Western lifestyle is quite destructive of human relationships. ‘Rootedness’ – a Kingdom value – is undermined (50 languages die each year). Western technologies are violent: we must search for lifestyles more in harmony with nature.

Loss of hope is alienating. Many Third World people become fatalistic, immersed in a crushing ‘culture of silence’. Hope is a gift, enabling one to take action to change the odds. ‘Praxis’ – the combination of thought and action – must not forget Christ’s life and words.

Alternative Lifestyles

The present economic system results in communities and nations becoming less self-sufficient (countries depending on a single crop or product are often exploited); poorer countries are preoccupied with servicing foreign debts rather than their people’s welfare; we assume future generations can pay for our lifestyle.

Should we rely on continued growth of production and consumption? Or use high-level technology when this is inappropriate in terms of total real cost? Let us put more emphasis on local self-sufficiency. What about food seed monopolies? Or advertising which stimulates greed, envy and avarice?

Let us pursue ‘soft energy paths’, ‘appropriate’ technology, voluntary poverty and simplicity, elimination of waste, public rather than private transport, full employment, tranquility of spirit and peace of mind.

We need a system where * people help make decisions that most affect them * the poor and weak are protected * there’s security for all * ‘professionals’ don’t deprive us of the fundamental right to look after ourselves * the health system majors on preventive rather than curative medicine * people discover their real needs for themselves and initiate actions to alleviate them. ‘Outside’ facilitators must be skilled in ‘participative evaluation’, ‘faith-sharing’, deep listening, respect for traditions. Church ministers must learn not to stand on their authority or hide within their roles.

Distinctions between relief and development are important. Relief deals with the effects of evil; development attempts to overcome the evil itself. Relief is required in emergencies, and chronic need. But there’s a danger in creating dependency: the aim must be self-development. Authentic development tackles the causes of poverty, tries to overcome structural injustice, to build a just and humane society; ie the world being transformed into the Kingdom.

Alternative theologies will have *an emphasis on the personal and communal experience of the saving power of God in human history * a sense that there is a struggle between those who respect the true God and those who would compel us to worhip idols of various kinds * awareness that the poor and the oppressed have a privileged role as agents of liberation * a vivid consciousness that God is working marvels through, and on behalf of, these lowly ones who, in their weakness, rely on him; * an insistence that the lifting up of the poor implies the breaking of the power of those who are oppressing them and * a strong sense of hope, based on the promise of God to protect his people. (Mary’s Magnificat has many of these themes). Liberation, black and feminist theologies are more in tune with this biblical emphasis than establishment Western theologies.


Prayers of petition take Jesus’ pledge ‘ask and you will receive’ seriously. God can and does grant favours. Any fully human prayer is marked by both freedom and desperation. We must be free and allow God to be free, otherwise petition is manipulation, magic. God says ‘yes’ only when I am willing for him to say ‘no’. But many petitions are prayers of desperation, often due to unjust deprivation: if my humanity is threatened, I react in shock and outrage. If I cry against God (as many of the Psalms in fact do) this is still an act of faith, a conviction that God exists, and should not allow this situation.

Is God ‘silent’? No, rather God refuses to be confined to my vocabulary. Our God is transcendent, but we are still touched by this God; God is reliable, so the refusal of my request is still an act of friendship (and the awareness of friendship has priority over the awareness of receiving favours).

Solidarity with those who suffer means somehow getting inside their feelings, using them as the starting point for prayer, and leading the sufferers out of desperation and into freedom of spirit. Many of the Psalms praise God as the first stop to freedom of spirit.

Rowland Croucher


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