Saturday, July 15, 2017

Grinding the Lens: Developing My Perspective and Pedagogy of Justice

My professional summer reading started with two books that had nothing to do with teaching at face value, and yet upon finishing them, I find myself with a much clearer sense of purpose as I set in on my annual curriculum revisions.

Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy by Steve Monsma, and Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller functioned as complementary texts, which taken together, helped me to develop a more solid theological framework for understanding justice, as well as a more solid framework for teaching my students about justice.

In Generous Justice, Keller offers a sound Biblical defense for the importance of social justice, one which is intertwined with (rather than separate from, or opposed to) an evangelical outlook.  Keller acknowledges in his introduction that many orthodox Christians have resisted earnest discussion about social justice due to the way in which the term has been politicized, perhaps even dismissing it out of a perceived connection to a broader decay in doctrinal soundness in particular, and societal morality at large.  Keller does not deny that popular perspectives on social justice are problematic, but is emphatic in his contention that Christians simply must have a heart for social justice, in fact, that a true understanding of grace will inevitably lead to a life spent pursuing social justice.

In Chapter One, Keller explores the definition of justice as it appears in the Bible, and particularly the link between "chesedh" (mercy), "mishpat" (justice), and "tzadeqah" (righteousness).  In Chapter Two, he examines the role of justice throughout the Old Testament, and the abiding validity that laws of release, gleaning, and jubilee can and should have on our social consciousness today.  Keller demonstrates in Chapter Three that justice is not merely an Old Testament concern, and examines how Jesus' life and ministry fulfilled and clarified Old Testament teachings about justice.  Chapter Four focuses in on the parable of the Good Samaritan, considering "who is our neighbor", and drawing extensively from Jonathan Edwards' commentary in responding to common objections/excuses for not helping the poor.  Chapter Five asks why Christians ought to have a heart for justice.  Keller touches on the human dignity due each person as image-bearers, but spends most of the chapter discussing how a genuine understanding of grace and redemption will inevitably result in a lifestyle marked by justice.  Chapter Six deals with how we are called to do justice, looking at different levels of action (relief, development, social reform), the importance of preserving the agency of those in need, and the need for racial reconciliation to ensure diverse leadership in addressing matters of injustice.  Chapter Seven emphasizes the need for Christians to work alongside others who may not share a Christian perspective on justice, in order to see justice done, emphasizing both the importance of empathy and cooperation, as well as the willingness to boldly and firmly bring our Scriptural perspective to the table, to engage rather than avoid conversations about how our faith informs our understanding of justice.  Chapter Eight, the final chapter in the book, connects justice back to shalom--the peace and beauty of the world as God intended it to be.

As I mentioned earlier, Keller's examination of justice helped to sharpen my own personal framework for understanding justice--what it is, why I should care, and how I should proceed.

Healing for a Broken World by Steve Monsma offers a practical application of justice to issues in the world today, and therefore serves as a natural companion piece to Keller's more philosophical examination of justice in Generous Justice.

The first half of Monsma's book digs into key principles for Christians to consider as they seek to do justice.  Chapter One explores some basic traps into which Christians and churches can easily fall, from failing to recognize how cultural, non-Biblical factors can and do shape our perspectives on contemporary issues for better or worse, to the fallacy of equating the United States to Old Testament Israel, to the trap of despair that may set in when we fully grasp the brokenness of the world, along with our own limitations.  The second chapter offers a concise overview of the creation, sin, redemption framework, focusing in on the role that government and its citizens ought to play.  Here again, Monsma warns against the extremes of triumphalism (the idea that we can, by our own efforts and gumption, make the world perfect) and pessimism (the idea that we can't truly change anything for the better).  Chapter Three defines and outlines justice from a Biblical perspective, focusing in particular on the ways in which government may contribute to injustice, either directly or by its inaction.  Monsma also explores what a thoughtful, Scriptural approach to justice ought to look like, revealing it to be much broader than the short-list of moral issues that automatically come to mind for many Christians.  Chapter Four explores solidarity--what loving our neighbors does and does not look like.  Here, Monsma warns against individualism, advocates for a division of labor among and within churches to address problems that "hit closer to home" (in consciousness, if not in geography), and cautions against paternalism, advocating, as Keller does in Generous Justice, for preserving the agency of those being helped.  Chapter Five examines the role that civil society ought to play in pursuing justice--families, churches, non-profit organizations, sports leagues, etc.  He discusses the Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty (the idea that each sector of society has its own distinct responsibilities which it, and no other, is best equipped to carry out), and the Catholic notion of subsidiarity (the idea that "social tasks should be performed on the lowest level consistent with a just order and the common good"--in other words, the federal government should not try to do what the state government is best equipped to do, and the state government should not try to do what local governments are best equipped to do, and so on).  Using these principles, Monsma attempts to offer a framework for deciding when an issue in society is best addressed on a policy level, as well as a framework for how the different levels of society can work in tandem to address issues in the world.

The second half of Monsma's book applies these principles to specific contemporary issues, from church and state issues, to life issues, to poverty, to caring for creation, to violations of human rights, to disease and poverty in Africa, to war and terrorism.  Monsma's perspective, as with Keller's, seems to transcend partisan lines.  Monsma himself served as a political science professor at Calvin College and later Pepperdine, with a decade-long career as a Democratic Michigan state senator in between, but his perspectives, including a nuanced pro-life approach and a thoughtful and active environmental record, defy binary partisan definition.  In every case, Monsma encourages careful and deliberate thought about the role of individuals, communities, churches, local, state and national government in prioritizing and addressing injustice.  I should note that while Monsma is up-front with his own perspectives, he is far more interested in asking questions and encouraging earnest thought in his readers than he is in pushing a specific political agenda.

Monsma's book is shorter, and while no less valuable than Keller's, it does lend itself more naturally for use in a high school humanities classroom by virtue of its structure and its frequent connections to tangible and pressing world issues.  The second half of the book, with each chapter focusing in on a particular issue, has the feel of a menu--a selection from which students can choose to read about issues that particularly resonate with them, while letting others be.  This is consistent with a point Monsma makes early on, that we as individuals cannot (and should not) try to address every global issue--some will land closer to our hearts than others, and it is these that we are called to address.

Keller's book was instrumental in "grinding my lens"--deepening and developing my theological framework for justice.  I would certainly recommend the whole book to any students who are interested in the theology of justice, but given the time constraints of the school-year, I plan to use only two chapters (Chapter One: What is Justice? and Chapter Six: How Should We Pursue Justice?) as required classroom readings.  I plan to check out some of the commentaries and writers that Keller cited, and hope to continue to deepen my understanding of justice itself, something that will inevitably come out in my teaching, my conversations with students, and in the feedback I am able to provide.

Monsma's book, on the other hand, has sharpened my understanding of how I teach about justice on a very practical, structural level.  I think my Humanities curriculum will have a stronger internal sense of logic and sequence having read Monsma's book.  One of my projects for the summer is to re-organize my units to highlight key ideas from Monsma's book more naturally.  Tentatively, this is my unit guide for the coming school-year:

Unit One: Imago Dei and Human Dignity
(Setting the foundation, distinguishing between human rights and civil rights, formulating a working definition of justice and how it connects to being image-bearers)

Unit Two: Triumphalism and Fatalism
(Exploring the ways in which worldview shapes our understanding and pursuit of justice, and the pitfalls that so many can and have fallen into.)

Unit Three: Solidarity and Agency
(Wrestling with what it means to "love our neighbor", the dangers of paternalism and the importance of respecting the dignity and agency of those we are seeking to help)

Unit Four: Stewardship and Technocracy
(Recognizing that our calling as stewards is vital, as it has bearing on not only the way we love our neighbors now, but future generations as well.  This unit will also explore some of the unique issues raised by rapidly developing technology in our world today, and what what it means to pursue justice as stewards at a time when so much is changing so fast.)

Unit Five: Citizenship and Civil Society
(Reflecting on what it means to be a citizen on a variety of levels, the workings of organizations, communities and governments, and the proper way to pursue lasting, substantive change).

Unit Six: Becoming People of Justice
(Tying it all together--articulating a personal plan for pursuing justice and actively debating contemporary policy issues with respect to the principles we've discussed throughout the year).

To do this, I do not need to reinvent the wheel--I can keep many of my lessons, resources and assessments with fairly minor adjustments.  What will change is my ability to connect each lesson, each activity, each assignment, back to the bigger theme of justice in more substantive ways.

Now I get to start in on my summer planning in earnest, and I am excited by the clearer sense of direction I have, having finished these books.  To anyone interested in thoughtful Christian perspectives on justice, I cannot recommend both of these books highly enough.  To any teachers looking to develop their own curriculum, what guiding principles can you read up on over the summer to help "grind your lens"?

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