June 29, 2007
Justice, Do It
Before trying to engage globally start practicing justice locally.
Nike has gotten a lot of marketing mileage from its straightforward motto, "Just Do It." In part two of David Fitch's post on social justice his message for church leaders is equally simple - just do it. Fitch argues that instead of focusing on national or global justice causes we must begin by acting locally. To accomplish this requires pastors to teach justice as a practice, something we actively do, rather than simply a concept we agree with.
If we are to avoid making justice into another program in the church we must resist the urge to make justice primarily about national politics, and only secondarily about local politics. For inevitably we get caught up in national politics believing that finally we are doing something. This then becomes an easy program to establish in our churches, and the work of local justice becomes an after-thought because political activism is always easier than living as a presence with the poor. It may be admirable and glamorous to help Jars of Clay fight Aids in Africa or Bono fight for Third World Debt Relief, but in the end I would ask us how much is accomplished if we cannot witness to a way of life that compels justice in our own back yard.
The main culprit here is that we pastors teach justice as a concept instead of a practice. For instance, we often make justice about the concept of individual rights or equal opportunity. It's an easy default move when we don't have visible justice going on in the local body itself. Yet defining justice in this way, as a concept born out of democracy and capitalism, individual rights or equal opportunity, too easily enables us to forget about doing justice in our local church by deflecting attention to national arguments. If we wish to see justice take shape in our midst we must go beyond rights to seek the simple righteousness of God fulfilled in our immediate locale.
I remember becoming an advocate (along with others in our church) for someone who was poor and an ex-convict who was unable to pay the rent. He and his wife were being evicted out of their apartment. We could have advocated renter's rights. We could have brought the person to a point of contention between himself, the owner of the apartment and the church. Or we could bring everyone around a table to discuss the situation (even though the building owner had never been to our church gathering). We could pray, confess sin, seek reconciliation, offer to step in and make things right. We did the latter, with coffee and pastries. The building owner was amazed. He forgave two months rent. I saw a miracle happen there that changed the ethos of our entire church. Perhaps now we were ready to make a statement about renter's rights on a larger scale.
Now before every body gangs up on me, I still believe we must pursue justice outside the church. I am all for the efforts to make our social system and national politics more just. But what we must see from scripture is that justice in God's eyes is about a horizontal transformative reconciliation that brings people into restored relationship with one another as a result of the concurrent healed relationship we share with God. If we read the accounts of justice in Ezekiel 18:5-9, Isa 58:3-7, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 3, this kind of righteousness, both vertical and horizontal, is at the core of what justice means for the Hebrew mind of the OT. We therefore should engage in practices of horizontal reconciliation for one another and those outside in our neighborhoods before we go trailblazing on the national political scene.
I contend therefore that we should reverse the normal order of priority we often find in Christian politics: we should put our local politic first and national politics second. Others will surely argue that they can do both at the same time. However, I believe that without a Bodily presense in the world, there is little true engagement with the world except via individualist arguments. In other words, until we have communities of Christ's justice living His justice, it's just Jim Wallis arguing against Jerry Falwell.
To this end let us institute practices of Christ's justice in our communities. These practices might include a.) the sharing of excess wealth around the Table, b.) the practice of engagement with matters of injustice in our neighborhoods with the processes of reconciliation, and c.) the feeding of the poor and then inviting them over to our houses for a meal and fellowship. Let us be "justice-ified," not merely justified. Let us pursue righteousness as a way of life, not just a nation's individual rights. And let us cultivate a politic of justice at home in our communities before we advocate a politics nationwide.
Read part one of Fitch's post on social justice here.