Monday, February 25, 2008

"Sundays" are for Volf - Chapter 5: Oppression and Justice

Volf begins this excellent chapter with an illustration borrowed from Peter Berger about "competing, indeed clashing, justices":
In 1843 General Charles Napier conquered Sind and installed the order of British colonial rule, no doubt to bring the blessings of civilization to the 'inferior races.' When the British came, one of the colonial impositions they instituted was the prohibition of sati--of widows being cremated on their husbands' funeral pyres....The Brahmans of Sind, however, defended sati as an age-old custom. General Napier's response was as simple as it was arrogant: 'My nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom!' (193)
What to do in the face of competing claims to justice?

The problem with the claim that there is one universal justice, says Volf, is that we don't have access to it: "Unlike God's knowledge [Christians'] knowledge is limited and distorted. Their judgments about what is just in concrete situations are inescapably particular....We must therefore distinguish between our idea of God's justice and God's justice itself" (198-199).

But it won't do to adopt the postmodern defence of difference and opposition to a universal conception of justice: "Postmodern thinkers have difficulty in thinking about justice without entangling themselves in self-contradictions, and they are hard put to explain how, on their understanding of human beings, struggle against injustice is possible" (205).

Volf has more sympathy for the concept of justice within a particular tradition, but even this won't solve disputes between rival traditions.

In the end, Volf does not suggest that we should attempt agreement on what justice is. Instaed, he proposes "how we should go about seeking and pursuing justice in the context of plurality and enmity." His solution, not surprisingly, involves embrace: "[A]greement on justice depends on the will to embrace the other...justice itself will be unjust as long as it does not become a mutual embrace" (197).

N.B. These excerpts don't do justice to the richness of Volf's proposal.

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