Process Theology and the Quest for Justice (Bruce Epperly)
I started a conversation with the question: Does God care about Justice? There are a number of reaons why I'm doing this, but perhaps most importantly this conversation raises the question as to what our calling is as God's people in the world. Am I called to acts of compassion only, or am I called to seek to change the social realities that marginalize people and work to destroy the world in which we live? To me, justice has to do with (to quote the Disciples mission statement) seeking to bring wholeness to a fragmented world. Regarding the first -- I see the kinds of responses that church folk offer to the people of Joplin or Japan. Regarding the latter (justice) I see working to change systems that dehumanize folks. Both are important and even essential, and belong together. In that regard, Bruce Epperly offers some thoughts about justice from the perspective of Process Theology as part of his series on that topic. I invite you to read and respond.
Process Theology and the Quest for Justice
Bruce G. Epperly
Alfred North Whitehead once stated that the aim of the universe is toward the production of beauty. For process theologians, beauty of experience is an ethical as well as aesthetic value. Beauty implies a dynamic relationship of diversity and unity, novelty and order, and contrast and intensity. While these terms seem abstract, they imply an ethical vision appropriate to individual and corporate behavior, grounded in relational and social justice. Just actions and social structures enhance beauty of experience, while unjust actions and social structures deface beauty of experience and limit personal possibilities. Accordingly, we can assert that God is on the side of beauty and justice and seeks relationships and institutions that promote creative, intense, meaningful, and beautiful experiences. A society is judged by its ability to support positive and healthy experiences among its most vulnerable as well as its most elite members.
In the spirit of the prophets and Jesus, process theology recognizes that social institutions – governments, corporations, businesses, educational institutions, are ultimately moral entities. If houses are indiscriminately foreclosed, profits prized over personal and communal well being, children educated in substandard schools, and persons ostracized because of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and age, then governments are failing in the quest for beauty of experience. Process theologians affirm the quest for “life, liberty, and the quest for happiness,” provided that happiness is seen as communal as well as individual. Individual creativity and success – and the ideal of rugged individualism - at the expense of the social order and the well being of persons is inherently unjust.
Process theology recognizes that all achievement involves the interplay of the environment, family of origin, and personal decision-making. Even in the most difficult situations, for example, poverty, abusive family relationships, and racism, we have the freedom to choose our attitude and take our first steps toward freedom. Even in positive social settings, people may still make harmful decisions. Nevertheless, unhealthy environments place serious limits on our ability to make healthy and responsible decisions. Accordingly, we have a responsibility to foster healthy environments as well as value-based education that enables people to make life-supporting decisions. Healthy and caring environments provide a tipping point toward personal achievement and well being. Here, I define achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s particular vocation.
Process theology’s quest for health and beauty-supporting environments requires equality of opportunity and sufficient social resources for all people. For example, process theology’s concept of justice implies that all persons should have accessible health care, both in terms of prevention and response to illness. Further, while school districts may differ in terms of resources, these differences should be as minimal as possible. Schools in poor counties should be given resources approximate to affluent municipalities. While some will sacrifice as a result of beauty-producing social policy, affirmative action based on a combination of economics and ethnicity is essential in the quest for justice and beauty. But, opportunity and economic background as well as race must be a criterion for advancement in education and the work place.
A healthy society supports peoples’ ability to experience more than mere survival. It must encourage creativity, artistic expression, philosophical adventure, scientific exploration, spiritual discovery, and intellectual curiosity. These are values that contribute to breadth of experience and the ability to transcend one’s own experience in a world of many peoples and nations. When difficult decisions must be made, such as those involving the arts, health care, education, those with the fewest resources should make the fewest sacrifices. A good society helps its members, in the words of Whitehead, not only “to live, but to live well, and live better.” Justice in personal and corporate relationships supports peoples’ quests for abundant life, involving creativity and beauty of experience, rather than consumerism and hedonism. According, just structures must take into consideration beauty and abundance for non-humans as well as future generations on this good earth.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: Bruce will be offering the 2nd Perry Gresham Lecture at Central Woodward Christian Church in September, so keep watching for details.