A Brief Review of
A Christian Justice
for the Common Good
Reviewed by Rafael Andres Rodriguez
A Christian Justice for the Common Good is Tex Sample’s quick primer for the community activist, clergy, layperson, and student seeking to engage the issues of justice from within a local church context. His treatment on the issues is interwoven with compelling narrative, reminding the reader that, in the words of John Milbank, “narrating is a more basic category than explanation or understanding.”[i] Within these pages is a mind deeply devoted to Jesus Christ as God’s self-disclosure, grappling with what it means to work for the good of all.
Sample’s words are chosen carefully and purposefully: A call to work for justice, not merely secular, but Christian, dedicated to ensure it for all, regardless of color, creed, or class—a common good. This demands engagement with and from a Christian ethic, while joining hands with Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and other traditions whenever a shared goal for justice can be attained. These notions of a “Christian justice” as it relates to the “common good” are his two basic concerns in the book.
Straightaway, one is given an important distinction before embarking on this journey with Sample, namely, the subtle, yet crucial difference between a justice of “rights” and a justice for the “common good.” A stern warning is given to avoid collapsing into what he calls an “individualistic expressivism”, the demonic offspring of a consumer culture married to a “commodification of human rights” (2). Sample challenges the notion of human rights as “individuals doing whatever they please so long as it does not interfere with the choices of others” (2). No only does this fall short of a valid concern for the good of humans collectively, it elevates autonomy above community and, at times, even at the latter’s expense. Yes, human freedom requires personal autonomy and decision making, yet it isn’t enough to simply multiply free choice and operate without a robust social consciousness. Adam Smith’s deep faith in the “invisible hand” and the benefits of an economy oriented around self-centered pursuits are judged and found wanting; judged by Jesus Christ, the Justice of God.
Sample seeks to correct an “anemic” misreading or misinterpreting of Paul’s writings regarding the Good News of Jesus Christ. For him, too often the American church has settled for an individualized message of personal salvation, while downplaying or ignoring the cosmic implications of the gospel. While retaining, yet moving beyond the message of individual salvation, Christians can begin to see the cosmic reality of human enslavement to “powers” and “authorities”, along with the political implications of a spiritual declaration such as, “Jesus is Lord.” All of a sudden, the “new creation” comes to include not only heavenly citizens on the path towards sainthood, but a new kingdom, both already and not-yet. “People no longer find their identity in terms of religious, ethnic, economic, social, and gender status”, as taught by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians (8). Justice is to be defined in God’s terms as being the work of redemption and liberation, mercy, and reconciliation; no longer as merely one of “rights” or getting what one deserves, but reflective of God’s just act of Self-disclosure and enslavement in order to redeem and reconcile a People. God’s actions toward humanity, represented in the life and passion of Jesus Christ, are to be learned and appropriated by His Church in living out her mission in the world. In order to do this, Sample argues, emphasis must be put toward the formation of a just Church.
A just Church must include a reframing of the human being and his or her outlook, the formation of the senses—seeing, smelling, tasting, and the entire disposition of the person. A just set of eyes no longer sees a beggar as an interference, but a brother or sister; a just nose learns to sense bad hygiene as a diagnostic tool when interacting with the needy; a just sense of taste hungers for righteousness; a just sense of touch values the intimacy portrayed in Christ’s interactions with the sick and disabled; a just disposition views the poor and marginalized not with condescending charity, but radical solidarity.
Surprisingly, Sample dedicates an entire chapter on the importance of fluency, of talking the talk. Given the tendency of many well-meaning activists of merely articulating social policies and defending an intellectual position, the importance of words and vocabularies in clarifying and enlightening justice work ought not to be underestimated. Abraham Lincoln exemplified this redemptive use of language in his Gettysburg Address, interpreting the constitution according to the spirit and not the mere letter; or as is quoted by Sample, “The crowd [at Gettysburg] departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, the new Constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they had brought with them there.”[ii] This effort involves introducing into the “linguistic fray” a new language of faith and faithfulness, moving beyond simply a level of “rights” into one of greater conviction; a language that immerses the world into God’s story, using God’s “vocabulary,” adopting a higher standard of reference. Sample concludes with a story of a personal friend visiting his father. As they were both watching TV, the face of Jesse Jackson appeared on the screen. “That SOB,” the father barks out, “Somebody ought to shoot him!” “Well, daddy, if you really believe that, I think you ought to go to church and pray for somebody to shoot Jesse Jackson.” His father turned, “Boy, you know good and well that Jesus ain’t gonna put up with that shit” (56).
The proceeding chapters explore what it looks like for local churches to train their laity for justice work, repeating the importance of working one-on-one with community organizers and activists on the ground as the most basic type of apprenticeship. Sample recommends a cycle that begins with putting one’s ear to his neighbor and listening to his needs and concerns. Next is the process of bringing people together for house meetings, exploring common goals within the local community. This gives way to research and “power” analysis, followed by outreach and co-operation with the academy, public action, and finally, evaluation.
The text reads in a conversational style and can easily be worked through in a day or two. Sample’s audience is not to those needing much convincing. He admits that St. Paul doesn’t necessarily share the understanding of “common good” as one finds in the book. However, though theological precision is not the main goal of the book, it does paint a vivid portrait of a Christian life oriented towards promoting a shared justice for all people. Given its left-of-center perspective, Christians of all leanings should be able to glean from Sample’s work the “weightier matters” of the faith, namely, justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23).
[i] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 267.
[ii] Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg. Quoted in Hays, “The Liberation of Israel in Luke-Acts,” 101-102.