July 2020 Special Article
This essay is a slightly revised version of a talk that I gave at the East Asia Region 2020 Electronic Pre-Assembly of the Council for World Mission on 2 April 2020.
Let me begin with some words from Scripture. From the sixth chapter of Micah:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord
require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).
In this passage, the prophet Micah, addressing the covenant people of God in the midst of the injustices and violence of 8th century Judean society where political oppression and economic exploitation was rife, asked a most crucial question, one which remains ever so pressing today: ‘What does the Lord require of you?’ The answer, supplied in the very same verse, is crystal clear: ‘to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly before God’. To ‘act justly’ has negative and positive implications and connotations. Negatively, it is to avoid oppressing our fellow human beings, especially the weak and the vulnerable. Positively, it is a call for a sense of responsibility towards others and to ensure that their basic rights are not violated. Justice, however, must be always be tempered with mercy, which includes compassion, love and kindness, if society is to truly flourish. Only when we learn to ‘walk humbly’ Coram Deo, that is, with or before God, can we treat our neighbours with justice and mercy. For to ‘walk humbly’ in this context means to be ever so mindful of the needs of our neighbours and to be willing to be at their service. Such service requires a measure of sacrifice, which in turn is possible only with self- forgetfulness and denial in the interest of the welfare of our fellow human beings.
The question posed by the prophet Micah – What does the Lord require of you? – continues to haunt us as we reflect on the conflicted issue of justice in our sin- marred world. The answer that this passage supplies continues to be relevant as we reflect more specifically on the issue of environmental and economic justice (or injustice). For our reflections to be fruitful and our actions to be truly community building, however, we must take seriously the answer in verse 8 in its entirety. Justice, rights, individual liberties, important as they may be, is only half the story. By themselves they are unable to ensure the flourishing of the human community. Only when justice is wedded to mercy, rights to duties and liberties to responsibilities can human communities truly thrive.
This talk is divided into two unequal parts. In Part One, I clarify what I mean by environmental justice and its relationship with economic justice. In Part Two, I discuss, albeit very briefly, some of the important issues and topics that are crucial to any reflection on environmental justice, such as human rights, the common good and the concept of justice itself. But I do so from the Christian perspective with the firm conviction that the rich theological and spiritual tradition of the Church can address some of the deficiencies in the secular accounts and offer fresh insights to perennial questions. I conclude with some brief remarks on how issues of injustice can be addressed through the ‘dialogue of action’, which the Church can and should engage with other faith communities and the State. What is attempted here is the sketching out of the Christian social imaginary that is undergirded by Scripture and tradition on the one hand, and that takes seriously secular and philosophical proposals on the other.
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Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.