This has been really heavy on my heart lately. I’ve been wanting to preach this, but I’m abstaining from preaching a little to reflect on my rhythms and how my heart handles being on stage preaching (a followup entry on my bible throwing is due). But I think this needs to be said before I forget about it. I haven’t had time to organize these thoughts, so it will be a stream of conscious rant of sorts… I apologize to all the J’s out there who want clear organization. But it’s a brain-vomit night i suppose… ha.
Justice is not a trend. I feel this heaviness on me every time I see it at the churches I visit. I don’t know if I should be feeling excitedness that people are finally catching on to it all or if I should be mourning that justice is “mainstream”.
Justice attracts people into the church because it gives them the mission that their hearts have been yearning for- it is what we were created for. But I have seen these money drives, these promotions for movies and listing off of companies that support fair trade practices. The intentions are genuine and often so inspiring. In fact, it has been a joy to see so many churches step up to the challenge of justice. (so no, i’m not badmouthing churches… let me repeat- THESE ARE GOOD THINGS. ha.)
But all i see is a hollow shell sometimes. Yes. Justice is a challenge. JUSTICE IS A CHALLENGE. It’s NOT throwing money at poor people. My friend who was working in Africa was telling me that was actually more damaging than helpful for communities. It’s NOT charity.
My friend Lars totally transformed my view of justice during my second year of college. He was exegeting Isaiah 58 and I still remember him reading v. 7:
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
I remember his tearful plea that “share” was not just throwing money at people. It wasn’t just giving them your old clothes. It wasn’t just having these lofty ideals… but it is getting down and dirty. It’s letting the homeless stay on your couch as long as they need instead of just dropping a quarter in the jar. Justice isn’t just a nice gesture, a catchy phrase or a bait to draw people into the church. Justice is a commitment to relationship.
Justice is so difficult because it is not a call to a trend. I was talking to one of my students the other day, and she was telling me something along the lines of, “when my church started talking about justice, I thought it wasn’t that hard. But I realize that living a life of justice is so much harder. It’s almost futile and impossible to live it…”. It’s what Gary Haughen described as these extremes in our reaction to social justice issues between the polar opposites of paralysis and complacency. We are either paralyzed or cluelessly complacent.
What I am seeing these days of social justice as a trend are people getting rocked out of their complacency. They all of a sudden stand up and say “how can I act?” But then as they begin to act, they realize that injustice is not a mound of garbage, but a mountain of feces that they can barely begin to clean up. It turns into rage, then turns into hopeless tears, and then this silent paralysis.
So we settle to just giving money. Or signing a petition. We are overwhelmed by broken systems that we cannot change and find that they in fact are systems that we are part of, sustain us, and are engrained upon our psyches. So we find ways of coping with our intense guilt without having to rock us out of the systems that simultaneously destroy the world around us… but yet sustain us. That is charity- Finding ways to care without needing to fully engage.
Honestly, our care for justice issues remains identical to that of the world’s (sometimes they care better too) unless we realize that justice is not something we should be copying from the world. It’s not something from the world… it is in fact at the core of everything Jesus was about. But here’s where what Lars said is important. I find that our versions of justice become more about these huge issues, glorious campaigns, signed petitions and money drives. But in the end it’s so much simpler, but so much harder. It’s relationships.
Yes, we must keep the systematic perspectives in view, but the broken systems of injustice are dismantled, fiber by fiber, finger by finger of oppression…by redeemed relationship, one at a time. It is so much simpler, but harder. I remember my friend Amanda Jordan once read a poem to us during a bible study that brought the room into a silent somberness- I don’t remember the exact words, but it was written from the perspective of a homeless person, and he was saying something along the lines of, “When I hold my sign up, I’m not asking that you give me money… I just want somebody to look me straight in the eye and let me know that I am a human being.” Our redeemed relationships don’t just give us a new friend… they restore our humanity.
I welcome the prominence of social justice issues in churches. But I think what so heavily burdens me is… are they really willing to respond to the high calling of justice… or will they settle with the safely distant halfway-point of charity? Will they just keep going to the next trendy invisible children or call+response movie (both excellent movies, btw)? Or will they respond like how Pastor Jamie shared in his sermon today at Coast Vineyard– slowly washing out the maggots, the infection off of his homeless friend’s infected spider bite in a public bathroom until his friend felt okay going to a doctor?
Please don’t let justice just be another trend. I’ve seen it happen to many other great things (*coughworshipcough*). Trends hijack genuine movements of God into accessible, hollow shells of imitations. But here’s my theory: i think what seperates a cultural trend and a cultural movement is this: that a cultural trend sees the actions and stances of significant cultural responses by individuals… and copies them, forgetting about the essential heart of what formed those actions and stances. A cultural movement is something in which it is no longer the actions that are copied, but the heart and passion. From there, action flows out freely and creatively in new and unique ways. A trend is the spread of the outer look of discipleship. A movement is the virulent spread of a set of ideas and passions, expressed contagiously in diverse and creative ways.
And the heart of justice… the heart of God… is for relationship. (God as relational has so many more implications than justice too… but that’s for another post) So yes, keep signing your petitions (yes, they do work). Keep collecting money (yes, it still matters). Buy your fair trade coffee (really, it does help). But don’t forget that the foundation of all justice must be relationship. Lose that foundation, and it crumbles. If you are unwilling to make the sacrifice of relationship that we are called to engage in when we become Christians, our sacrifices and good intentions are but a “resounding gong” that has not the deep resonating, rumbling roar of love.
Okay. I’ve gotten my rant out.