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Our Norms and Justice

By Charlie Clauss

The adjournment of General Convention marks a time of reflection. Many will ask, What happened? and What does it all mean? I want to raise a point central to the overall movement of the Episcopal Church: What is to be normal?

Normativity is a crucial question not just in our church but in society at large, especially on race, gender, and sexuality. I am sympathetic to the implicit criticism of “white normativity” among movements like Black Lives Matter. That the system appears rigged in favor of white people seems obvious to me, and that it is a matter of justice to work to dismantle systemic racism in society.

Likewise, the question of patriarchy exposes the androcentric norms common to both society and church. I cannot dismiss the cries of women who face emotional, psychological, and physical attack. The question of causality that came up frequently this past summer (i.e., that patriarchal language leads to the abuse of women) remains unproven, but men cannot rule out the idea that the Book of Common Prayer contains language that troubles women just because it make men uncomfortable. We continue to live in a man’s world in many ways. Challenge to that makes us uncomfortable, but again, it is a matter of justice.

The mention of justice requires a few words about its meaning. Bruce Cockburn said it so well back in 1981: “Everybody loves to see justice done to somebody else.” The Christian believes that justice is related to an essential quality of God. When the prophet thunders, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), we have the image that justice involves setting things right, washing away injustice, and providing the lifegiving water of rightness.

It is clear that for the Christian, justice is founded on norms, true ones, on what is “right” — the never-changing quality of God’s character. The project of setting aside contemporary norms to restore justice must proceed carefully; otherwise we will cut off the branch we are sitting on. It is one thing to rid ourselves of questionable, temporary norms of society; it is another to throw out norms altogether, along with any clear criteria for what is just and right.

Many now believe that heteronormativity is an offense against justice. The norms of heterosexuality must be set aside, they claim, even when most people are heterosexual (at least 90-92% by most estimates). For obvious reasons, a desire to sweep away what is heteronormative tends to make people who hold to the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage very uncomfortable.

For the arguments over human sexuality to begin generating more light (and maybe less heat), we need to take a step back and again ask, What is justice? And further, why should we care about justice at all?

Christians believe that the requirements of justice are rooted in both creation and in salvation, and that the God who made us is the same God who saves us. Justice is then a demand of the law of love: the God who loves his creation, and gave his Son to save it, calls us to act in love (another way to speak of justice) toward one another.

But these are hard theological questions, for we do not agree about how to derive our understanding of justice and norms from what we know of creation and redemption. As we pursue justice, what are the roles of personal experience, hermeneutics, modern science, biblical scholarship, and tradition? It is clear in countless Facebook threads (and debates at church conventions) that each of these acquire different levels of priority for many of us. We are at an impasse precisely because we do not agree about the relative significance of these sources or their interpretation.

As Christians, we must take that step back and examine our language for norms and justice. My fear is that we will discover irreconcilable differences, but we also might find a greater level of agreement as we lay a common foundation to work together toward being a people of justice.



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