A Path Towards Urban Renewal: Justice

Renewal. This is a loaded word. It’s a word that could be debated as to what it means for a city or neighborhood. I’m aware that attempting to define what renewal looks like is subjective and will certainly lack many elements that others think should be a part of renewal, especially renewal of the urban core. This is exactly why I am writing a series of posts not on what urban renewal looks like, but on what kind of people we must look like for urban renewal to have a chance to be a reality. This is an argument from virtues (areteology), rather than an argument from duty (deontology) or consequences (teleology).

The last post focused on being peaceable people, which in and of itself, cannot encompass the fullness of shalom (the way things are supposed to be). There is no peace without justice. What is happening in Ferguson, MO is all over the airwaves as well as the ISIS crisis that is killing and and displacing thousands of Christians in Iraq and Syria. There is no peace in these situations because there is no justice. If shalom is the end goal of all of creation (human and non-human creation), peaceableness is the top end and justice is the bottom floor, the foundation; they are book ends if you will.

So what is justice? In the Greek culture, justice most likely referred to the Greek goddess Dike, who would have been the personification of the virtue. This is where the Greek (and biblical) word díkaios would have come from, which means, “to be just, or right.” In the biblical sense, the word justice would imply not only the just execution of the law of goodness, but right living on behalf of those who cry out for justice.

Righteous and justice seem to go hand in hand in the biblical narrative, and they actually could be defined by the term justification. In salvation terms, to be justified, is to be declared righteous before God and having been justly acquitted of one’s sin because Jesus paid for what we deserved (justice).

So justice, in part, means to be free and forgiven of one’s sin, and empowered to do what is right based on the freedom one has received. This is the long and difficult way of saying that justice is that state in which everyone receives what is rightful and appropriate. Since humans are created with certain rights (food, clothing, and opportunities to work), then a society is just when everyone in the society enjoys the goods that everyone has rights to. But a society is also just when there are consequences for those who have disregarded or kept others from these certain rights as well. A city that is just is a city that respects the dignity of every human, especially within the Christian worldview that believes that every human is created in the image of God, the righteous and the wicked.

At the least, in the talk of urban renewal, justice is absent whenever basic needs go unmet. This means that liberation from in-justice and deliverance from oppression are at the very core of justice. If one skimmed the Old Testament to search out who were some of the people whom God had special concern for in view of justice, you would see that it is the most vulnerable of society: widows, orphans, aliens, the homeless and hungry, the hungry and afflicted, etc.

If we followed this theme throughout the Old Testament, it would be hard to ignore the loud and clear message that justice happens when the marginal ones are no longer marginal. And this Old Testament understanding of justice is fully embodied in Jesus, who was very concerned with those who were on the margins of society, those who were vulnerable and exploited by people who had the power.

This can also be teased out to include all who have ever come to Jesus for salvation (the forgiveness of one’s sin and being declared right before God). We are all marginalized because of our sin, cut off from God, but because of God’s mercy and love for us, Jesus became one of us, to once and for deal with the rebellion and tyranny that we created. God brought justice to humanity through Jesus’ bloody and ugly death on a cross.

The one who turns to Jesus for salvation, now stands before a just and holy God only on the merits of Christ’s righteousness that has now been assigned to us through what Jesus did to deal with the injustice of our sin against God. The righteous demands of the law—the legal expression of God’s justice—were satisfied when Christ was put to death and suffered the torment of separation from God, in our place. In simpler terms, it is because the “just” paid for the injustice of the “unjust”, that we can be granted mercy and grace as people on the margins, and be brought near to God (no longer in the margins).

This is justice, which flies in the face of a Western view of justice, which would condemn all of us, if we indeed held ourselves to the standard of justice that we hold others to. Justice doesn’t make sense to a world committed to the three P’s: progress, profit, and pursuit of happiness. When we see injustice happening in our city, it usually means that we will have to miss out on one or all of the three P’s if we’re going to stand against it. There’s no money in it for those who want to plead the case of the widow, feed and clothe the naked, or stand against oppressive systems and structures that abuse and exploit the weak. Actually, downward mobility is to be expected if one is going to give their lives to this kind of justice.

The result of living a life of justice in the biblical sense in our 21st century Western society, most of the time, means that we lose ground on the three P’s of our culture and this is not very attractive, at least not long term. To see renewal happen in cities then, I am convinced that we will need an uprising of men and women who are willing to not be controlled by the three P’s, courageously living as an alternative community in the midst of our over-indulgences and commitments to the bottom line and financial sustainability.

This will not be an easy lot for the pioneers of renewal, but justice has never been an easy virtue to live by. After all, justice on God’s part was very costly. What are you willing to give up to live a life of justice in your city? Is the promise of comfort too seductive for you to make radical changes? Ultimately, justice will always prevail, with or without us, but we do have a choice to be on the “just” side, but it’s not attractive nor easy these days.

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