Book Review: Justice in the Burbs (Jul-Aug 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Peatross
July – August, 2007

Justice in the Burbs
Will and Lisa Samson
ISBN: 978-0-8010-6809-6
Baker Books
Release date: August 2007

“What will posterity see as the chief Christian blind spot of the last quarter of the twentieth century? I do not know. But I suspect it will have something to do with the economic oppression of the Third World and the readiness with which western Christians tolerate it, and even acquiesce in it.”
-John Stott

Every year when Father’s Day and Christmas appear on the calendar my children complain about the difficulty they have shopping for me a gift. There’s good reason for that. I live in prosperity. If I see something I want, no reason to delay my gratification. Why do that when I can jump in my Honda Accord or browse the ‘net and make the purchase the same day? I have everything I want and more.

In Justice in the Burbs, Will and Lisa Samson give the reader close to 200 pages of conversation on how to live a quiet life that champions justice, whether it be in the suburb, the city, or at a City Mission Hall in an urban environment. This is an important book that deftly creates a vision for living justly.

I’m not sure justice has been high on our list. I know it hasn’t been high on mine. Not that I don’t care. I do. It’s just that I’m living in a time and an environment of prosperity.

During my lifetime, American affluence has increased three-fold beyond the previous generation— which translates into plenty of choices for the middle class family. But should the Christ follower alter his or her modus vivendi when there is recognition that a consumerist lifestyle has become the principal lifestyle?

The question I have to ask myself is this: have I fallen to a lifestyle of opulence and comfort complicated by a whirlwind of “activity?” Have I been drugged by the “American way?” Have I fallen to what most of America would call “normal” through the osmosis of cultural influence? Have I been anesthetized and blinded to the realities of the injustices I walk past everyday? But the more important question is this.

Have I suppressed any sense of need for my involvement in the lives of those suffering under oppression and injustice?

This story could be repeated thousands of times, by thousands of families across America. We live in a culture of prosperity, which has served as an anesthetic—paralyzing and blinding us to both poverty and need. In the ‘busyness-of-our-nothingness’ we focus on “our own heartaches and needs.”

But how can a Christ follower be as blind to something as important to God as justice?

Kester Brown says, “Justice is a conscious act. We can walk into injustice in our sleep; buying what we like, from who we like; driving whichever car, wherever we like, when we like. Injustice is unconscious. It grows when we sleep comfortably.” (Justice in the Burbs; pg.47)

I’m convinced that the emphasis we experience within our tribal communities, whether doctrinal or praxis is the leading factor influencing the things we deem as biblically important. If justice is not a primary emphasis, who “we are standing with” may become blurred and in the end neglected. If that is not enough, consider the potential dangers of a Christian’s familiarity with Scripture.

• Familiarity can lead to a superficial reading of Scripture, which can inhibit ones capacity in seeing the overarching story of Scripture; justice
• Familiarity with Scripture can lead to seeking affirmation in the choices we have already made to “justify the past, present, or intended future actions.”

The authors believe that, “…the Bible is often quoted but rarely understood in its entirety. They cite a few examples of how throughout history there has been a simplistic reading of Scripture which in the recent past utilized the Bible to justify a lack of care for the poor, the trashing of the planet, discrimination against women, and even slavery.” (pg. 46)

One of the early chapters in the book discusses the author’s experience of growing up in church with little recall of ever hearing a sermon about God’s concern for the needy. And although the congregations they grew up in emphasized Scripture memorization neither Will nor Lisa (co-authors of Justice in the Burbs) remember being required to memorize one verse about God’s concern for the poor. When I read this I laid the book down and reflected for some time before picking the book back up.

“We get a job, we buy a house, we have kids. This is normal life in the West. Yet frequently the stuff of this normal life so dominates our time and attention that we fail to see issues greater than ourselves.
from Justice in the Burbs; pg. 43

Here’s what I know for sure. In my earlier years as a Christ follower the primary emphasis of my tribe was:

• Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins
• The importance of taking the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week and…
• a cappella singing

Like the authors of Justice in the Burbs, I grew up with little instruction about God’s heartbeat of justice.

Does God care for the poor and for those left out? Can his care be discovered through reading Scripture? If the answer is yes, and it is, why were these truths not taught with the same emphasis as my tribe’s exclusive doctrines? Why wasn’t justice a part of my spiritual formation?

This book speaks to these very things. For me, this was a painful read. It stung; I was convicted and shamed at the same time. Nevertheless, the words in this book converged with a number of providential incidents convincing me God had placed this book in my hands for good reason. And as the authors say, “…the people who read this book can choose whether [they] join with justice.”

I read two to three books a month. And there are a number of books I could cite as the best reads of 2007 but Justice in the Burbs stands alone. Lisa Samson does a splendid job of interweaving her fictional account of a family dealing with the busyness and blindness of their suburban lives with Will’s thoughtful insights. In addition to the adept writings of Lisa and Will, each chapter closes with a meditation from various Christian thinkers—Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and others.New Wineskins

Fred PeatrossFred Peatross lives, works, romances his wife and exudes deep feelings of love, awe, and admiration for his Creator while living in the heart of Appalachia. For over two decades Fred has resided in Huntington, West Virginia where he has been a leader in the traditional church. He has been a deacon, a shepherd, and a pulpit minister. But his greatest love is Missio Dei.

Long before thousands of missionaries poured into the former Soviet Union Fred, in a combined effort with a Christ follower from Alabama planted a church in Dneprodzerhinsk, Ukraine. Today Fred lives as a missionary to America daily praying behind the back of his friends as he journeys and explores life alongside them. [Fred Peatross’ book Missio Dei - In the Crisis of ChristianityMissio Dei: In the Crisis of Christianity, reviewed in New Wineskins]. He blogs at [Abductive Columns].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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