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Essays, Justice, Politics of Scripture

Political Theology or Social Ethics?: Under the Law (M.T. Dávila)

Justice fails where civil law and order are privileged over peoples’ ability to determine their destiny by confronting affronts to their dignity by legitimate powers. Let me offer two examples. I confess I am still in love with the Occupy Movement (OWS).

The Ethics section of the American Academy of Religion has organized an important panel investigating the question “Which is it – Political Theology or Social Ethics? And Does It Matter?”  at this week’s Annual Meeting in San Diego.  We invited the four panelists to contribute preliminary essays on this theme for discussion here, and three have been able to contribute: Ted Smith of Emory University, Keri Day of Brite Divinity School, and M.T. Davila of Andover Newton Theological School.  Ted Smith’s post appeared last week; Keri Day’s appeared on Monday; here is M.T. Davila’s:

Justice fails where civil law and order are privileged over peoples’ ability to determine their destiny by confronting affronts to their dignity by legitimate powers. Let me offer two examples. I confess I am still in love with the Occupy Movement (OWS). In the fall of 2011, and to this day, I believed that there was deep synergy between Occupy Wall Street and Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and even dedicated significant time to explaining this (here and here). Certainly the first official statement of OWS echoed key principles of CST. The core claim of OWS—that current economic conditions disenfranchised the 99% politically, socially, culturally, and, of course, economically—are paralleled in CST by the principles of participation, subsidiarity, solidarity, and the option for the poor. In short, both argue that politics and the economy must serve the advancement of the common good and ensure the participation of all. Further, they both denounce the fact that certain economic conditions, considered legal and legitimate by the system, in fact erode and obstruct the ability of vast numbers of peoples to participate in the decisions that affect and determine their destiny. However, under the law the Occupy encampments were disassembled, some as ‘clean up’ efforts citing health ordinances, others violently in the manner of a raid or anti-riot operation.

Today the different coalitions that form Occupy TogetherOccupy Sandy and its first response to the recovery efforts after the hurricane, Strike Debt and the millions of dollars already shared to cancel crippling student loans and medical bills, and Occupy Our Homes and its attempt to stand against abusive home foreclosures — unite claims to justice and political savvy with a healthy suspicion of the rule of law when it comes to economic relations. The Occupy Movement presented itself as a wake up call announcing that what we deemed to be due economic process under the law was in fact a political farce to legitimate the robber barons of our age. As Joerg Rieger puts it: “Its slogan—‘We are the 99%!’—captures the imagination of people who believe that the status quo is unjust and unsustainable and that a new social contract is urgently necessary.”[1]

The events in Ferguson, Missouri this summer gave our another another opportunity to see the ambiguous achievement of the rule of law, and how some lives are valued less than others under that law. As another brown body lay on a pavement downed by fear, a firearm, and the fallacy of power, the world considered how such an advanced democracy can still evince so much contempt for certain groups within that political structure. As demonstrations went on for days and weeks, and still continue today in various forms, once again the question of the merits of the rule of law before a lawless crowd were highlighted on the evening news. Images of civil unrest—even in protest against the murder of a nation’s children—continue to be judged as an aberration of the social order, an affront to the sacred civil religion, enshrined under the law.

Political theology operates at a crossroads with social justice when history, politics, economics, culture, and the status quo witness to affronts to human dignity within the law. All crucifixions take place under the law, and all of them are presented as having given “to each their due”, an essential element of many modern conceptions of justice. But political theology interrogates the very grounds for determining what is due, sometimes landing on the conclusion that in fact the legal order of civil society leaves many outside the boundaries of what is rightly due them as human beings and daughters and sons of God. The historical context that sets the framework for political and economic systems must be critically examined if we are to understand whether justice under the law in fact honors the humanity of all peoples. Clearly, when this examination of historical context, and other circumstances, brings to light the ways in which dominant conceptions of justice—of giving to each their due—determinedly exclude, marginalize, violate, and even exterminate some, we are called to question and oppose civil order. In essence, if we reframe the demands of justice as giving to each their due according to their inviolable human dignity before the Creator, we are often called to fall outside the law—the laws of conquest and colonization, laws of discrimination and unequal pay for equal work, laws excluding based on privileged notions of citizenship, laws of redistricting and voter exclusion, laws that prevent same-sex love to marry, laws that consider five and six year olds in elementary schools thugs to be dealt with by the police.

The question of this blog series, “is there a difference between social justice and political theology, and does it matter at all?” challenges me to consider whether one can effectively stand as a tool of liberation without the other. Key to people’s empowerment to determine their own destiny is the choice to stand outside the law, if only briefly, for the sake of the dignity of those continually torn by the jagged edges of its sins, the law’s inability to comprehensively attend to every dimension of human experience, and its inevitable subjugation to the powers and principalities. Those arrested during the Moral Mondays demonstrations in North Carolina’s legislature and elsewhere, the encampments of the Occupy Movement – alive this very day in #OccupyHongKong and the #UmbrellaRevolution, and in demonstrations in St. Louis seeking justice in the killing of Michael Brown, or in Florida seeking justice in the killing of Trayvon Martin, are answering this question for us: the intersection of social justice and political theology is messy and often costly. It makes demands of those who hold dearly to their privilege, but even more so of those who would see ourselves as indifferent when our privilege makes us feel immune to others’ suffering. To say that justice occurs ‘under the law’ blinds us to the ways entire systems historically protect privilege and its abuse. And to say that justice is achieved when everyone is given what is their due ‘under the law’ can, in itself, be a form of institutionalized violence. We hold the messy tensions between the claims of justice and the systemic critique of political theology at the service of those who scream out for their humanity and that of those betrayed by the law.


Maria Teresa Dávila is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. Her main interests are the intersections of class identity formation and Christian ethics in the U.S. context. Her research looks for the intersection of these issues with respect to the relationship of class and militarism, class and immigration, and class and activism. 


[1] Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui Lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012), Chapter 1, Kindle edition.

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