Universal instinct for justice?

Universal instinct for justice?

Apparently we share across all cultures five innate perceptions that form the foundations of all our moral cultures.1 These are as follows:

  • First, our sense of care and nurture engenders kindness and the development of empathy and other protective and preserving qualities.
  • Second, our sense of fairness or reciprocity generates justice and equality and sharing within the community.
  • Third, our sense of in-group loyalty stimulates the development of group values and identity and discourages betrayal or disloyalty.
  • Fourth, our sense of respect for authority encourages the formation of leadership virtues and a respect for traditions that preserve stability and order.
  • Finally, our sense of what is pure and sacred promotes altruism, self-discipline and even sacrifice for the greater good.

Of course, there are differences of emphasis in how these instincts shape morality. Some cultures will value care and fairness more highly. Others may prioritise loyalty, hierarchy and order, which they see as the best way to promote care and fairness in the longer term.

Theologically, we can understand these innate instincts for ‘doing the right thing’ as being linked to the assertion in the Creation story that we are made in God’s image. It should not come as a surprise that we share, across widely divergent cultures, these innate values. While these values will be deployed in different ways in different contexts, how we relate to God will have an impact on how they develop and shape our moral cultures – for better or worse.

Prophetic mandate

The biblical prophets’ main function was to preserve how the people related to God. Their task was to keep the people of God, especially their leaders, accountable and faithful to his Covenant with them and to the laws that shaped their ‘innate perceptions’. They reminded the people that true worship meant living in a way that maintained what we might now call social, political and economic justice. God’s blessing – and specifically the promise of shalom (peace) – was linked to the faithfulness of the people to live justly, act mercifully and walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8). In particular, they were to demonstrate concern and care for the vulnerable and even the outsider (consider how this impacted perceptions of in-group loyalty!). When the people worshipped other gods, injustice inevitably ensued.

This backdrop gives context to Jesus’ sharp disappointment with some of the leaders of his day; they were neither living justly before God and the people, nor acting mercifully. By accommodating to the imperial culture of Rome, they had lost their prophetic vision and were being corrupted and co-opted by the imperial power-game (Matthew 23). During Roman occupation there were many social, political and (no doubt) environmental injustices and degradations to contend with. The people were struggling to see how to live authentically while hemmed in by the different worldview and requirements of Rome’s imperial cult.

Similarly, in mission the Church will encounter powers that are contrary to the life-giving, restorative Spirit of God. Structural, political and economic powers keep many people trapped in abject poverty and violence, while individual vice leads to greedy excess, degrading both the environment and human dignity. The examples of the prophets and Jesus remind us that the journey of restoration requires both vision to imagine how we can live more justly, reflecting the biblical principles of justice, and action to implement that vision. We need to develop a prophetic imagination that shapes each culture’s innate instincts for good.

Justice rooted in shalom

The biblical vision of peace (Old Testament shalom, New Testament eirene) includes an ongoing commitment to social, political and environmental justice. It develops and shapes the ‘innate perceptions’ above in specific ways. Professor Chris Marshall describes shalom as a state where there is:

…positive presence of harmony and wholeness, of health and prosperity, of integration and balance. It is the state of soundness or flourishing in all dimensions of existence – in our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with ourselves.2

Restoration lies at the heart of the gospel. Shalom describes the ‘delightful and convivial energy of a community at one and at peace with itself in purposeful service to God and the greater good of the rest of creation.’3 The prophet Isaiah depicts this joy-filled state as living in the ‘tranquil country, dwelling in shalom, in houses full of ease’ (Isaiah 32:18). He also highlights the dual function of justice in establishing peace (58:6–7). The first function is active opposition to injustice, ‘loosing the chains of injustice’. The second is offering care for people who are oppressed and afflicted, to maintain their dignity.

However, shalom is more than the result of ‘doing the right thing’. Caring for the vulnerable, advocacy, and social, political and environmental activism are important, but so is the celebration of life and beauty in all its dimensions of cultural diversity and human creativity. A community that protects and promotes what is good, creative and beautiful will also be enabling the joy associated with shalom.

Developing a critical consciousness

The apostle Paul refers to the importance of the renewal of our minds (Romans 12). He knew that the process of transformation was a combination of God’s grace and our will to change mind-sets that might block that grace. As Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire observes, ‘as we think, so we act’.

Freire describes three states of human consciousness. The naïve consciousness tends to oversimplify problems. Those with this attitude may become fatalistic and avoid as futile any deeper analysis of the causes of injustice and attempts to take action. We might underestimate our ability to play a part and instead wax nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ or even adopt a ‘happy-go-lucky’ attitude, even using superficial or faulty understanding of scripture or theology to validate our disengagement.

The superstitious consciousness tends towards cynicism. Those of us ‘in the know’ may regard ourselves as being somewhat more aware of the issues that underlie the injustices than those who are naïve, but this cynical awareness usually stops short of meaningful discussion and transformative engagement with the issues.

The critical consciousness, on the other hand, replaces fatalism and cynicism with realistic analysis and engagement. This leads to social transformation, creating a community that correctly and fairly interprets and analyses issues and problems, accepts responsibilities, acts rather than procrastinates, and processes through dialogue not argument.4

As the apostle Paul affirms, when our minds are renewed and restored we will see more clearly God’s will to bring about transformation and hope. Thus a critical consciousness will help us to examine our contexts in open and respectful dialogue with others and tackle effectively the injustice and suffering that we encounter. This requires an attitude of humility and solidarity – a humble recognition of the good in the cultures around us, and a willingness to move forward together.

Towards a prophetic imagination

Our context is where we observe and interpret the contours of injustice and justice. It is as critical for us as it was for the prophets before us that we observe our context carefully and make time to interpret what we find. It’s also vital that we imagine what it might look like if the world’s communities were shaped and governed by the principles of biblical justice. How might we describe these diverse and joyous communities of shalom? As God restores our vision – our prophetic imagination – so we can more fully participate with others in his restorative mission.


1 Haidt, J and Joseph, C. ‘The moral mind.’ In: Carruthers, P, Laurence, S and Stich, S  (eds). The Innate Mind (Vol 3). Oxford: OUP (2006).

2 Marshall, C. The Little Book of Biblical Justice. New York: Good Books (2005), p12.

3 Kingston-Smith, C. ‘ Imagine a Carnival, prophetic image-in-a(c)tion for just communities.’ In: Hoek, M et al (eds). Carnival Kingdom, Biblical Justice for Global Communities. Gloucester: Wide Margins (2013).

4 Freire, P. Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Continuum (1998), p18.

[This text was originally written here for Latinfile, Latin Link‘s Mission Journal]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s