Justice and Imagination

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. What then is the mother of necessity? What I mean is, how is it that we come to determine something necessary, imperative or indispensable? How do certain things find their way into that conceptual compartment?

More importantly, how does the right stuff find its way there? Because, if necessity is the mother of invention, then we will only ever apply the potency of our human inventiveness to those things we perceive to be truly necessary.

And is this where justice resides for us; for you; for me? If not, how might it be birthed into our domiciles of necessity?

In April of 1963, the black community of Birmingham began a series of nonviolent protests confronting the flagrant racial inequality in their city. The effort became known as the Birmingham campaign and was spearheaded by local pastor Fred Shuttlesworth. White city leaders sought to squelch these protests in a number of  creative ways, and eventually succeeded in winning an injunction by a circuit judge prohibiting “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” Movement organizers vowed to defy this order in civil disobedience.

By this time, Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were involved. During a subsequent March on Good Friday, King and others were roughly arrested and incarcerated. Meanwhile, a group of white Alabama clergy wrote the curiously titled “Call for Unity“. It was an open rebuke of these protest efforts. In his cell, King was presented with the newspaper in which their statement appeared. He promptly began penning a response in its margins. Friends gathered papers, and King composed his own open letter; the stunning and trenchant Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  His critics had voiced, “We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.” Not “justified”? Isn’t that another way of saying not necessary—at least not now?

King famously countered.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

In the lines of his letter, King forcefully and convincingly asserts how justice itself was being grossly miscarried in our nation and, with equal force and urgency, that this is never tenable. (If you’ve never read his letter, may I urge you to do so? It will knock your socks off. It might do so even if you have read it.)

What, for these clergy, was unfortunate—not ideal, but neither requiring anything so imaginatively disruptive—was for King and others a matter of immediate necessity. And necessity is the mother of invention. It might be tempting to wrongly locate the disparity between the Birmingham protesters and these white clergy either in a disparity of their views on acceptable civic engagement, or even a disparity in their respective valuations of justice and equality. I consider both to be off the mark. The clear disparity between these two parties was their disparate social standing. One party was subject to unjust oppression, and the other was not. And so we find with dismay that those unharmed by injustice tend to undervalue justice; tend toward complacency. For those of us in such a virtually unharmed position, this should be extremely sobering, for we are predisposed to relegate justice to the realm of superfluous.

It was King’s biblical worldview which he so asserted in this letter, for it was King’s biblical worldview which informed and animated this incandescent movement.

As an kid in youth group we used to sing a simple song. Its words plucked from the poetic writings of the prophet Micah. In fact the title by which I came to know the song was simply the biblical reference “Micah 6:8.”

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

The melody of the song bubbles up even as I write. A whole generation of evangelicals affirming through song the necessity of justice. Where then are our inventions?

I am writing this year from themes of imagination. In my previous piece, I suggested that it is the trait that makes us most human and humane, but is so strikingly (glaringly!) absent in our society nowadays. Our laissez-faire attitudes toward injustice may be the most heart-wrenching example of this.

What is justice really? And why does it animate us so little?

If you’re like me, your concepts of justice are nearly all rooted in a courtroom context; packaged in the formal vocabulary of wrong or right, guilty or innocent, legal or illegal. But these are derivative. The entire premise behind a “justice system” is the presupposition that people must be protected from exploitation and harm. Our concepts of justice, therefore, must find deeper roots to the very conviction that any and all humans are deserving of dignity. Thus the phrase, “just desserts” is apropos! Justice has everything to do with the necessity of right human treatment.

In his helpful book Generous Justice, Tim Keller expounds that the doing of justice and the loving of kindness we observe in Micah’s writings are interrelated:

To walk with God, then, we must do justice, out of merciful love.

Keller draws our attention to the Hebrew term for justice, mishpat, and its meaning:

Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably… mishpat means more that just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights.

Mishpat is a concept which only has meaning when we fundamentally accept the innate and inestimable value of human life. In fact, the first instance of legal prohibition against murder in the bible traces its way back to this justification: “for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6)

Is injustice anywhere actually a threat to justice everywhere? Most certainly! For the dry-rot of devaluing human life through tolerating injustice can represent nothing more than a gradual extinction event for our species. And it might even be our own personal extinction event, if left unchecked, for our ambivalence toward justice places our very human standing in limbo.

But there is no way around the cost of justice. Injustice does not happen in a vacuum! There are haves and there are have nots. To be a have (whether in wealth, class, race or any of the many intersectionalities by which we are found to have) is to have an obligation toward equity. I’ve been lately helped to see the subtle-but-significant difference between equity and equality. Equality is of course a goal of justice, but equity is the means—the redressing of inequality; a rebalancing of the scales. Just as inequality is painful and humbling, so equity is a painful and costly process requiring humility and, at times, contrition! A colleague of mine once noted that when we are accustomed to benefitting from inequality, equality feels like oppression.

Justice is never convenient. Don’t expect it to be.

Neither is accomplishing justice straightforward. No, it will require some imaginativeness. Luckily this is the defining human endowment. But where do we tend to apply our imaginative energies? Spotify playlists? Cute Tweets? Which Snapchat filter to use? Maybe how to get the best deal on that car or sweater or box of cereal? Surely these “necessities” upon which we happen during our days awaken our inventiveness in any number of ways, but are they aroused by injustice?

I wonder if we don’t tolerate injustice because we’ve never used, to borrow the novelist JM Coetze’s phrase, our “sympathetic imagination” to transport ourselves into the plight of our fellow man, let alone contemplate how we might hope another would extend themselves toward us and our community if we were thus mistreated? (You know, the Golden Rule?)

I once heard Gary Haugen, the founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission (an organization powerfully confronting the global epidemic of human trafficking). He likened the church to a bodybuilder who must employ their strength to do much more than merely open jars of pickles. What a waste of strength! Whether you’re a person of faith or not, you have more strength than to content yourself with opening jars; a brilliance capable of so much more than slacktivism, let alone shrugs.

Walter Brueggemann describes this in his book The Prophetic Imagination as envisioning and heralding something alternate: “to bring to expression the new realities against the more visible ones of the old order.”

This is a matter of imaginativeness in both what and how: we must give energizing expression to a new, alternate order while also dreaming up dynamic points of entry and engagement. We’ve got to crack the nut of injustice!

The Irish statesman Edmond Burke said,

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

I’m not sure if he was being ironic, but I have trouble understanding who these “good men” are who do nothing in the face of evil. Is being a “good person” limited to what we do or do not do, and not equally a matter of what we leave undone? He was probably being ironic.

In the Proverbs we read,

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.

Remember, justice affirms that all humans are entitled to good—are made in the image of God. The question is, what is within your power? You have resources of time and treasure and talent, why not make like MacGyver and piece it all together into something odd and amazing and life-saving?

Do we remember what James wrote?

Whoever knows the good he ought to do yet does not do it sins.

Sin is averting your gaze, your thoughts, your emotions, your soul, your community. To insist that there is just no discernible way to address the injustice, inequality and exploitation in this world can only be a dodge. We really must shed these baldly evasive habits.

I mentioned previously the idea of “niche construction theory”—the study of those ways in which species shape their environments. It is this theory that has led some to postulate imagination as the most quintessential of human traits.

How then is justice constructed within your niche? How might you further your understanding of its importance and your role to play? How might you discover some thrilling outlets for pursuing justice? How might you embrace this necessity in ways that reinvigorate your inventiveness? With whom might you do this?

As I reflect on the legacy of King and his civil rights contemporaries, I can’t help but marvel at their imagination as a function of the necessity of justice. Even as I examine King’s mug-shot atop this piece, I’m delighted at its evocative portrayal of the just. It is a sublimely subversive image of justice. While King’s incarceration was itself unjust, still it became a display case of the the supreme value of justice. King’s arraignment became an arraignment of an unjust society with unjust laws and of its unjust justice system. The intent of the Birmingham protests was to generate consternation through overwhelming numbers of arrests. (By the end over 1200 people had been arrested, even children as young as 8.) If the laws were dehumanizing and unjust, how better to spotlight this than by bloating the ranks of confinement with such “criminals”? Officials eventually resorted to commandeering school busses, fire trucks and ambulances to haul marchers to makeshift cells. The jails ran out of space!

It was a tragicomedy of errors, and an imaginative coup for justice! You can almost see King suppressing a grin in his photo—they took the bait! It was a triumph of justice resembling the stratagem of Calvary’s Cross. They brought him into their justice system as the Trojans wheeled in the infamous Greek horse.

I ache for our society to return to its imaginative arsenals for cause of justice. I ache for my own part to play. I ache that we’ve been too thoroughly subsumed into the morass of consumerism and ease to extract ourselves. We are like our sister Sodom. Do you not remember God’s late prophetic disclosure of their folly?

As I live, declares the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Comfort over compassion; fat pride in lieu of justice. This was Sodom’s guilt.

King’s letter had to be smuggled out for publication. It is surely one of the finest American writings ever produced—certainly among the most important. In it he quoted the Quaker William Penn, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” How long is too long?

King confessed,

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

In a world like ours rife with all manner of abhorrent injustice—racial inequality, sexual predation, trafficking, unfathomable income inequalities and xenophobic cruelty to only name a few—can we espy glimpses of that glistening alternative society? Will you and I be imaginative enough to be its citizen-emissaries?

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