I'm constantly amazed at how much so many things I learned in my high school theology classes not only have stuck with me, but actually have become a core component of who I am. One of the most enduring and central of the concepts I learned in high school was of the "two feet of justice": the works of mercy on the one hand (or, well, foot) and social action on the other.
My high school theology textbook Justice and Peace
(Harcourt, 2000) begins by telling the story of Who will save the babies?
from the Inter-Religious Task Force for Social Analysis. (If you're not familiar with the story, go read it. I'll be here when you come back.) This parable is one I heard not only in my high school theology class but also in sermons at both
Ascension and Circle of Hope, because it's very good at making clear what's required in social justice work.
Anyway, the two feet of justice:
The works of mercy are feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, and providing other examples of direct aid to those who are in need of it. It treats the symptoms of injustice, with those with power choosing
in their freedom to give to those in need. They leave the overarching structures in place, and indeed in many ways act to support those structures, in that they relieve the pressure placed upon the system (a "vent") or can create a dependence upon the largesse of the powerful (making them even more
Any system which relies on the works of mercy to provide for the needs of human freedom and dignity is fundamentally flawed.
Our system is fundamentally flawed, and thus the works of mercy are crucially necessary, as well as being commanded by Jesus in scripture.
Social action works to complement the works of mercy by attacking the underlying disease which is injustice through engagement with the social, political, economic, and cultural systems. The U.S. [Roman] Catholic Bishops write, "Our Lord’s example and words [. . .] require action on a broader scale in defence of life, in pursuit of peace, in support of the common good, and in opposition to poverty, hunger, and injustice. Such action involves the institutions and structures of society, economy, and politics.” This vision of justice, then, is at odds with isolationist or exilic understandings of the mission of the Church (such as that undertaken by several historic peace churches, including the Anabaptists). It is absolutely in conflict with the following vision of Tolstoy, from our book club book The Kingdom of God is Within You
(link is to the full text of the public domain translation used in book club), describing Helchitsky (whoever that may be):
Helchitsky's fundamental idea is that Christianity, by allying itself with temporal power in the days of Constantine, and by continuing to develop in such conditions, has become completely distorted, and has ceased to be Christian altogether. Helchitsky gave the title The Net of Faith to his book, taking as his motto the verse of the Gospel about the calling of the disciples to be fishers of men [sic]; and, developing this metaphor, he says:
"Christ, by means of his disciples, would have caught all the world in his net of faith, but the greater fishes broke the net and escaped out of it, and all the rest have slipped through the holes made by the greater fishes, so that the net has remained quite empty. The greater fishes who broke the net are the rulers, emperors, popes, kings, who have not renounced power, and instead of true Christianity have put on what is simply a mask of it."Helchitsky teaches precisely what has been and is taught in these days by the non-resistant Mennonites and Quakers, and in former tunes by the Bogomilites, Paulicians, and many others. He teaches that Christianity, expecting from its adherents gentleness, meekness, peaceableness, forgiveness of injuries, turning the other cheek when one is struck, and love for enemies, is inconsistent with the use of force, which is an indispensable condition of authority.
The Christian, according to Helchitsky's reasoning, not only cannot be a ruler or a soldier; he [sic] cannot take any part in government nor in trade, or even be a landowner; he [sic] can only be an artisan or a husbandman [sic].
The underlying assumption in this account that is liberal democracy (and, indeed, every other potential form of political governance) is fundamentally incapable of allowing for the flourishing of human freedom and dignity, because it utilizes violence (e.g., in its police force).
I think the flaw here is that Tolstoy and Helchitsky are actually using a far too narrow definition of "violence," where violence is understood only as physical force or the threat thereof, which discounts the ways in which poverty, hunger, sexism, racism, and homophobia all act as a species of social and cultural violence. (And, indeed, the where the threat of physical violence ends and social and cultural violence begins is far from clear, as anyone who has been bullied in high school can tell you.) Furthermore, they are forms of violence which are far more destructive to human freedom and dignity that can be any knife or gun, bullet or bomb.
The parent teaching their child about the life of Jesus Christ is perpetuating a sort of propagandizing violence, but one which would presumably remain appropriate within Tolstoy's dream anarchy. The social perpetuation of values in this soi-disant "anarchy" then, would still necessarily constitute a form of violence, because these sorts of institutions represent the ways that humans necessarily interact with each other: through language, through ritual, through culture.
My high school theology textbook draws a distinction between "graced social structures" and "sinful social structures." Graced structures, it tells me, "encourage and strengthen life, dignity, and the development of the community" (p. 73). (Sinful structures discourage those things.) This seems to me a much more useful way of approaching the project of social justice than violent vs. non-violent or governmental versus non-governmental. "Taxation," my theology textbook says, "can be structured in ways that either promote community and care or facilitate selfishness and greed."
Rather than refusing to engage with the socio-politcal economy of the secular world, social action seeks to destabilize sinful social structures through full engagement.