To what extent does black theology have a coherent understanding of justice?
Essentially, the word “justice” is derived from the Latin word “ius,” meaning right or law, and the Greek word “δικαιος” meaning righteous or moral. Individualist theories assert that the good of the individual comes first, and the good of the community, second; communitarian theories assume the reverse. A compromise between these positions is usually sought. For Aristotle, justice is the intellectual virtue of prudence: the balancing of one’s own interest with the rights of others. This provides us with the capacity to balance the rights of the individual with the responsibilities of the community. Indeed, Aristotle finds that all virtuous behaviour leads to one being δικαιος, and justice will follow on from such behaviour. One maintains society as one maintains oneself; for society to flourish, individuals must also flourish. This is clear when Aristotle expresses it in a proverb: “in justice is summed up the whole of virtue,”
It is difficult to offer a qualitative assessment of the extent of how coherent an understanding North American black theology has of justice. Instead, it may be better to qualify the extent of justice comparatively. Alternatively, as both justice and black theology are ambiguous and can be defined differently, I will look at different black theologies and different theories of justice, and attempt to compare them, concluding with which system of justice makes for an ordered flourishing community.
Communitarian Theories of Justice
Communitarian theories assume that society is rather more than merely the sum of its parts. Its starting point is the view that being an individual is only possible if the society initially recognises the concept of individuality. This arguably began with Plato’s Republic and Laws where the good of the whole of the city-state is placed above the good of any single individual and is continued by Aristotle in Ethics and Politics to a certain extent. As mentioned earlier, both are concerned with the necessity of an individual contributing towards society as a whole. Essentially, communitarian theories seem to follow on from individualism. Furthermore, the theories of Marx (1818-83), Hutcheson (1694-1746) and Rousseau (1712-78) could be counted as communitarian in principle. However, I am going to examine John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in detail.
Rawls begins by assuming certain truths about humans with the intention of establishing a “social contract”. Firstly, people are assumed to be self-interested, as egoism and self-preservation are natural conditions, clearly demonstrated in the realms of the animal kingdom. Likewise, humans are equal to one another in their ability and freedom to make suggestions on how society ought to be constructed: no individual will have prior claim to power over anyone else. Humans have to be necessarily rational, in order that social contracts do not lead to an abominable society. Indeed, all people must have access to general facts about human nature and affairs. However, the most important assumption is that all are ignorant about their own particular futures in the society that they are about to agree upon and build. This condition is known as the “veil of ignorance,” and if no one is able to have prior knowledge about his or her future position or statues, then compassion is ensured. This is because no “egoistic” individual would wish to help build a society that leaves them disadvantaged. Rawls himself says:
“The combination of mutual disinterest and the veil of ignorance achieves the same purpose as benevolence. For this combination of conditions forces each person in the original position to take the good of others into account.”
A social contract can now be established, bearing in mind these a priori assumptions, which is built upon two principles. Firstly the principle of liberty – that people must be allowed the freedom to pursue the kind of life they would wish to lead provided it does not directly or indirectly harm another. Secondly, the principle of difference, where it is assumed that people are different and will have different aims or goals in life. The social contract must therefore be sufficiently flexible to allow differences to manifest themselves. Thus, some form of inequality will ensue.
Certainly James Cone feels that there ought to be an “equal but different” approach to his theology. He felt that it was necessary to express the notion of one’s blackness, as a characteristic to promote different treatment. His existential approach to black theology led him to the conclusion that one cannot become black and free until one wills one’s blackness (which in itself is freedom). Like King, Cone finds in the writings of Paul Tillich an articulation of the human existential condition, placing human existence before essence, or alternatively his blackness (oppression) before freedom. One has to understand the ground of one’s being, and abolish ignorance –the personal conquering of sin. One has to acknowledge and accept difference as a positive quality via a reversal of consciousness. This prevents black people alienating themselves from their true inner person, as if they try and act like white people, they ignore their experience and heritage, thus are effectively living a lie. This is expressed by the following quote: