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The Faiths that Do Justice

By William Bole

published inWoodstock Report No. 90, August 2008

Faith1The co-hosts, Kathleen Maas Weigert and Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J., explained how the traditions of social justice and the common good have a rich history, a wide breadth of present-day applications, and are critical components to our world’s future development

As 1977 began, there were fresh promptings for reflection upon issues of justice. In January, President Jimmy Carter granted pardons to Vietnam War draft evaders a day after taking the oath of office, and by the end of the year, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was in Israel”"the first Arab leader to visit there officially. Also in January of that year, Gary Gilmore became the first person executed in the United States since 1967, and by late summer, France was raising the blade of its guillotine (over the head of a torturer-murderer) for the last time.

These and other events called for theological reflection, a phrase that had begun slipping into religious vocabularies largely by way of the Society of Jesus. The Woodstock Theological Center offered up tools for such reflection in its first book, The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change, a path-clearing collection of essays published originally by Paulist Press in the summer of 1977.

This past fall, Woodstock, together with Georgetown University’s Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, marked the 30th anniversary of the still-influential book by cosponsoring a forum that brought together scholars from the leading monotheistic traditions. Welcoming the audience to Georgetown’s Intercultural Center Auditorium on a warm October evening, Woodstock’s director, Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J., and Kathleen Maas Weigert, Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service, pointed out that the world has moved dramatically in the three decades since the book’s publication. One measure of change is that today, it’s necessary to speak in the plural of the “faiths that do justice, in a pluralistic world,” they told the approximately 140 people in attendance.

Thus, the forum that night featured a conversation about justice”"in principle and action”"through the eyes of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic commentators. The Islamic voice was that of Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana, who teaches conflict resolution at American University’s School of International Service, and her presence on the panel was a particular sign of an attitude shift among Christian social ethicists. Woodstock senior fellow John Haughey, S.J. who edited The Faith that Does Justice, was quick to note in an interview that he and his team of Woodstock Jesuits who produced the volume gave scant thought to Islam at the time. “We were brought up short on that whole world,” he said, noting that the American hostage crisis in Iran erupted just a little over two years after the book appeared. He added that any sensible appraisal of religion and global justice must now look at least in part to the Islamic world.

faith2Dr. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana explained compellingly how a healthier dialogue among people of all faiths must not be relegated to an academic exercise, but rather it should inform, educate and inspire on a popular level

Haughey (pronounced like Hoye) was the lead-off speaker at the forum, the title of which echoed the 30-year-old book even as it prefigured a book that ought to be written — The Faith That Does Justice in a Pluralistic World: Facing the Challenges and Imagining the Future.

One challenge, barely pondered in religious circles until fairly recent times, is that of human solidarity with the natural world. Haughey steered straight into this question in his remarks, pointing out that justice means “giving to each what is due to each,” and that in a created world, the “each” includes all species brought into being by the Creator. “I think we have learned in the last 30 years ... that we are in a communion with other species,” said Haughey, who had written books about faith, work, and money, before taking on the underlying theological questions in The Faith That Does Justice. He said, “We’re learning a lot about justice. We’re learning a lot about widening the embrace of justice to be not simply inter-human, but also inter-species.”

Following Haughey on the panel, Kadayifci-Orellana noted that in the Islamic tradition, “the whole purpose of religion is to provide justice and a path to justice for all of us,” Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “The Qur’an doesn’t even exclude animals and nature itself,” she added, harkening back to Haughey’s comments.

The Muslim scholar noted that according to the Qur’an, God asked many creatures: Who will take care of all my Creation? The Mountains said the task was too great for them to shoulder; even the angels declined to take on the challenge, she related. “But then Man jumped in and said, ‘We will take care,’ so we made a contract with God to protect His creation,” said Kadayifci-Orellana, one of the founding members of the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice, which seeks to bridge differences between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. “The Islamic conception of the idea of unity is about unity of all creation, and how everything and everyone is a reflection of God on Earth.”

Dropping Anchor

faith3Forum co-host (and director of Georgetown's Center for Social Justice) Kathleen Maas Weigert and John Haughey, S.J. look on as Kadayifci-Orellana responds to a question from the audience

In the years leading up to 1977, it had been hard enough to achieve solidarity among the races, let alone among the species. And yet, the gains in civil rights had been measurable, and the Vietnam War was over, though its wounds, both in this country and Southeast Asia, were far from healed. Haughey recalled that with the most urgent battles over war and race behind them, many justice advocates in the churches saw an opening to tackle the questions more deeply, creatively, and theologically.

In the air at that time was Latin American liberation theology, which asserted God’s preferential option for the poor, based on thoughtful readings of Scripture and Catholic doctrine. So were the pronouncements of the 1971 Synod of Bishops in Rome and the 32nd General Congregation of the Jesuits in late 1974 and early 1975, both of which emphasized that justice “must be a constant in our ministries,” Haughey said in the forum.

The decade had begun with a rousing call to action by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the beloved Superior General of the Society of Jesus: “In my judgment the first of all ministries that must be mentioned now is theological reflection on the human problems of today.” The creation of the Woodstock Theological Center in 1974 was a signature response to Arrupe’s call among Jesuits in the United States. Soon afterward, Woodstock fellows began exploring the faith that could do justice”"and do it authentically.

Not that religious work on behalf of justice was a new idea. Before then, Catholic leaders and activists had marched (figuratively and literally) under a number of social-justice banners, stretching back at least to the struggles to organize industrial workers during the 1930s. Yet, less attention had been paid to anchoring this work in the foundations of faith rather than simply the social crises of the moment. Woodstock’s Jesuits untied the anchors.

For example, John R. Donahue, S.J., revisited the biblical and spiritual sources of justice, while David Hollenbach, S.J., drew the links between justice and Catholic sacramental life. Haughey himself wrote about Jesus as “the justice of God,” arguing that Christians will never embrace action on behalf of justice until they see how it is “incarnated in the person of Jesus.” Other theological probes in the book extended to the writings of the early Church fathers, the doctrines of the Council of Trent, and classical Catholic philosophy, as well as modern Catholic social teaching. And, the other authors included now-Cardinal Avery Dulles, William Dych, William J. Walsh, John P. Langan, and Richard R. Roach, all of them Jesuits.

Not surprisingly, during the 1980s the U.S. Catholic bishops turned to members of that Woodstock team for theological advice on domestic and international issues. The bishops recruited Hollenbach and Donahue, among others, when they took up a pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the American economy published in 1986, after years of reflection.

Joseph Palacios, a sociologist at Georgetown University, has argued in published writings that The Faith That Does Justice marked a turning point in American Catholicism’s encounter with justice-and-peace issues. He and others have said that the bishops would have been less likely to collectively invest themselves in social causes if there had not been a clear grounding of those concerns in Catholic tradition. The clarity was achieved in no small part through The Faith That Does Justice.

While speaking normally of “the Church” or the Churches, the book’s contributors set their sights on the wider world of human need and social concern. As Haughey wrote in the introduction, the Jesuit authors of the essays have “addressed a question which ... is not simply Catholic nor is it peculiarly Christian. Their findings, therefore, should be of interest to all who are aware that the irresolution of the Churches on the subject of justice cannot long continue.”

What the October 4th Woodstock Forum signified is the ripening sense that this question of justice must be reflected upon theologically not just for the wider world, but by the faiths of the world. The further message was that people of different faiths should do this, whenever they can, in the same room together.

In the Tent of Abraham

In addition to the Christian and Islamic vantage points of Haughey and Kadayifci-Orellana, respectively, Jonathan D. Strum, an international lawyer who also serves as a cantor for Jewish holy days services at Georgetown University, peeled away at some layers of Jewish social conscience. He said that in some ways, the social-action tradition of Judaism opens with the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and specifically with an impassioned Abraham, questioning God’s plan to wipe out those two cities as punishment for the iniquities of most”"though not all”"inhabitants. “Abraham argues with God. He fights for them,” particularly for the innocent who would be swept away along with the guilty, Strum said. “I think his intervention is something that sort of runs through Jewish collective memory.”

faith4Clark Loberstine, the Executive Director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC) listens intently to a question from the audience

Responding to the three major presentations was Clark Lobenstine, an ordained Presbyterian minister who serves as executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. The Conference began in 1978 as the first staffed organization to gather together representatives of the “Abrahamic” traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

There are now approximately 800 interfaith organizations nationwide, Lobenstine reported, and while many of them promote dialogue among the faiths, and many others engage in social action together, very few do both. That is unfortunate, in his view, because it’s not enough to “just talk, and frankly, it’s not enough just to act. We’ve got to reflect on why we’re acting.”

He said the Interfaith Conference seeks the interplay of dialogue and action, through its participation, for example, in projects like Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for the poor with volunteer labor. Teenagers who do the laboring are rounded up by the Interfaith Conference at lunchtime to reflect on what Habitat’s founders call “the theology of the hammer,” Lobenstine said; they are asked questions like, “What is it about your faith tradition that gets you out here today?”

faith5The Woodstock Forum and its participants represent the dramatic national and international growth of programs and activities emerging from the vision of Woodstock’s first book, The Faith That Does Justice: Examining the Christian Sources for Social Change

At the October forum, members of the audience who stepped up to the microphone during the Q&A were greatly concerned with the action side of the justice equation. One man, dressed in a polo shirt and chinos, commended the example of Buddhist monks in Myanmar who recently placed their bodies on the line against the military dictatorship of that country formerly known as Burma. Waving his program flyer in the air, the questioner demanded to know, “When are we going to see the Christian clergy on the streets taking up the injustice to the species, taking up the injustice that we’re facing in Iraq, the injustice of torture?” He directed similar questions at “the rabbis” and “the imams.”

His questions drew pockets of applause from the audience and smiles from the panel. Strum pointed out that it took many years for the Buddhist monks to rally against the Burmese junta, and the viability of their witness will depend on whether rank-and-file believers are willing to join the fray. “The rabbis and the monks and priests”"they can lead, but they need somebody to lead,” Strum explained. “So it’s really up to us””"the lay people”"“in the long run.”

Ultimately, it’s the faithful who do justice. Thirty years or so after the appearance of Woodstock’s first book, there is still a need “to bring some clarity to the relationship between Christian faith [read: the faiths] and social justice,” as John Haughey wrote in that book, “so that there can be a greater integration in the lives of those who find themselves full of concern for the world, yet wanting to be faithful at the same time.”