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Christian Justice and Public Policy.

This book is in part a product of Duncan Forrester's pioneering work in the Centre for Theology and Public Issues in Edinburgh, but also of the concern, which is his own particular hallmark, that theology both engage with and contribute to the burning social issues of the day. Two of these, both the focus of work by the Centre, are used as case-studies here -- criminal justice and poverty. Forrester sets the concrete issues within a wide-ranging framework of debate, examining Rawls, Hayek and Habermas, and feminist challenges to these positions. He is properly modest about the contribution theology might make, and this modesty leads him to talk of theological `fragments' rather than an overall view. On the other hand the agenda of the book is set by a series of questions as to whether secular pluralism provides an adequate basis for policy making, to which the answer is clearly `No'. The task, then, is to assess the principal secular ideologies on offer, see where they are lacking, and suggest what it is that Christianity has which they do not.

Forrester is not the kind of prosecuting counsel who wants to put his antagonists to the sword. His tone throughout is one of measured critique, and he finds things of value even in views as loathsome as those of Hayek and his political epigones. His treatment of Rawls is a model of the way in which he likes to proceed. On the one hand he sees that basing the idea of justice on `overlapping consensus' `results in a view of justice which is thin and unlikely to be able to constrain selfishness or elicit passionate commitment' (p. 127). On the other hand, `there is much in Rawls the Christian theologian should wish to affirm' -- the priority of justice, the assumption of human equality, and an analogy between the Difference Principle and the preferential option for the poor. Likewise in his evaluation of Habermas he sees that the tiny cockle-shell of praxis is lost on a vast sea of theoretical prolixity but still finds that there is something to be learned from the ideas of consensual and procedural justice.

I found the book most vivid in the chapter on criminal justice, which reflects the co-ordinated work which produced The End of Punishment, and in the final section, the spelling out of what it is Christianity still has to offer. He finds the heart of this, with Karl Barth, in the link between justification and justice, and thus in the fact that justice essentially includes generosity, forgiveness and mercy, and is therefore understood as a work of the community, and not, as in Hayek's scheme, a matter for individuals only. Earlier on, reflecting on the breakdown of moral consensus, he cites Barbara Wootton's lament that we have no Socrates roaming the streets insisting that we find out what justice means. Here he finds a task for the Church.

As he confesses, his sympathies are with the communitarians, with MacIntyre and Hauerwas, but his work in Edinburgh leads him to believe that a very different kind of `public theology' to that of David Tracy, and those whose principal audience is the academy, is possible. I believe this is true within the Scottish environment, and possibly also in North America. In any event it is doubtless the case that, as Forrester argues, the Church contributes best to the public debate when she is true to her own message; so the Church engages with every contemporary move but does not tack with every wind.

The relative success of this kind of public theology leads him to opt for a less apocalyptic outcome than that of MacIntyre's 1981 vision, with its small Benedictine communities keeping the light burning in the new Dark Ages which are already upon us. The United States' reneging on its commitments at Rio, however, raises the question whether the early MacIntyre is not right after all. When one nation, in its commitment to the luxury of its middle class, can hold the rest of the world to ransom, and threaten the whole earth with irremediable damage, the prospect of global violence cannot be far away. We seem to be more deeply `after virtue' than ever and in this situation the possibility of making ethical sense within the system (by, for example, affecting public policy) must be more and more remote. The book ends with a strongly felt account of the necessity of hope to justice. In the face of the present darkness the licence to hope can only be part of being sober and watchful. Forrester's book furnishes us with solid foundations for that watchfulness.
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Author:Gorringe, T.J.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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