“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
What is righteousness?
More, in what way do or can we understand this disposition today? It is one of those antiquated words, like its near antithesis, sin; so coloured by its Christian cultural context we may find it difficult to express its meaning except by norms and rules. This does not mean we should reject the traditional Christian meanings of righteousness, but rather we need to be thoughtful comprehending it, for its meaning has been disrupted over the past few centuries (and especially the past few decades) in which Christianity has been receding. In times of threat we tend to double-down on cultural protection, loosing sight of principles behind the sanction or prohibition of particular behaviour. So righteousness can become defined too narrowly as the keeping of these behaviours and the repudiation of those. As if they were merely rules for proof of obedience, detached from principles of human interaction in community and environment. Ironically, rather than protecting traditional righteous living, a norm based dogmatic righteousness/sin system is far more vulnerable to decay or deposition than a system founded on broader principles of the ‘right’ the ‘good’ or the ‘just’.
Odd that this word, righteousness, should be so enigmatic. For in one way we take it to convey an unsophisticated mood of narrowness, of close-mindedness. As such we almost assume its hyphenated prefix as in self-righteousness. It is something we see people take to themselves as status against the unwashed. Political correctness is a Prog form of righteousness. These initiates would recoil at the idea of ‘righteousness’ though, seeing it not only as antiquated, but reeking of oppression. It bears to them the horrid notion of judgement. The idea that ways of life can be discerned as good or bad. Even assessments of better or worse is monstrous to Progs. We are quite aware of the hypocrisy inherent in their perceptions, and so will not spend time on it. Their example does show though that this idea, that there are ideal standards by which we choose our words and actions, is ubiquitous. But these meditations intend to challenge ourselves, and are not for taking easy shots at at sleepy enemies (my hypocrisy knows no bounds!). For even we can be uncomfortable with righteousness. It certainly doesn’t sound like much fun, or just may be too restrictive to the plasticity our movement needs today. Personally it may seem socially costly, bringing with it fear of isolation, of a marginalized life with a niggardly spirit; petty, judgmental.
The English word seems to be much like the Greek NT word it is translated from. I am no Greek scholar of course, but a quick look through a concordance shows that its usage in the Gospels and Letters is consistent with our common usage of the English form of the idea. In both languages the notion behind righteousness connotes several meanings rather than denoting any one thing rigidly, and so enters the enigmatic character of the idea behind righteousness. There is a plenary unrestfulness in this word. It obviously implies ‘that which is right’, but this is not simply empirical material truth. It necessarily transforms such physical truth into moral empirical truth. For it does not merely name what is cold and true, but what is vitally right. Righteousness implies justice, which, if true justice, is based on a thorough knowledge of physical situations discerned by moral wisdom. To be righteous, then, is to do right, not to be right. It is always active. Righteousness may be associated with words; rules even, but it is the moral spirit which animates all such norms.
Realism, then, is an expression of righteousness. In that it seeks truth and seeks to act that truth into the world with justice, in order increase social goodness and wholeness, realism in race or gender or natural hierarchy can be expressed righteously, though of course not necessarily so. However, to live under falsehoods, or to act falsely, even with good intent, is always sin; it always fails to bring lasting good into the world, and will always lead to social chaos and degradation. We see that the quest for righteousness is never still, it is always becoming, questioning; improving its intent. For this reason Jesus says we are blessed to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and does not say “blessed are the righteous”. We do not seek this state for ourselves. We do not desire to be righteous. Rather, we desire rightness manifest in the world as much as we desire food and drink. For in the current year, we see righteousness desiccated by a blasting famine.
Of course hunger and thirst implies we desire to take something in. Righteousness will become part of us to be sure, yet, it will not remain in us as a fixed characteristic. Again we find this beatitude placed convincingly as the next stage in our moral-spiritual becoming in Christ. We have become poor, and we have mourned. Through this process our character has been changed, we have new strength but it is tempered with patience. Now we crave what is good and right and well and whole; what is best. Being made poor and hungry now we desire healthy food. Because we are meek we know how to hunt for it.
Image: Detail of the Memorial to the Holodomor Victims (Kiev, Ukraine)