Why Justice Matters (July-Aug 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Jordan Wesley
July – August, 2010

“That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had a cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, June 4th, 1957, at the University of California at Berkley

82 - What Really MattersAs Moses watched a slave murdered by an Egyptian guard; as the prophets watched Israel sleep on their ivory beds with no regard for the poor; as Job cried out to God for justice; as Jesus stood before an angry mob poised to stone a woman caught in her sin; as Paul and Peter advocated for the inclusion of all people as full participants within the church regardless of class, gender or ethnic identity—these and other collective actions lead me to believe that they felt, along with Dr. King, the cosmic companion, that companion devoted to the struggle for justice. Just as our biblical predecessors lead us to the unlovely places of society where oppression and its associated social ills scoff at our quest for justice, so too, the modern day matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith demand that we turn our gaze toward the unlovely, the untouchable. Extraordinary persons such as Mother Teresa press us to stare into the eyes of grotesque inequities, and in the humanity of this abstract pursuit of justice, we find a cosmic companion, the one behind and before the struggle for justice.

It is a particularly volatile climate for writing about why social justice matters for the church. From recent comments about “social justice” in the media and its residual backlash, to unresolved racial tensions highlighted by the presidential election of 2008, to healthcare and immigration policy debates, to natural and man-made environmental disasters, to the War on Terror, to the proliferation of commentary on the exploitation of women and children around the world, to the unpredictable nature of the global economy—the list goes on. It is dangerous to mention these highly sensationalized and hotly debated issues. Though I have attempted to write an even-handed list of current issues, I am certain to have allowed my personal opinions to leak into my descriptions. A misplaced modifier or particular word choice no doubt sends a subversive message that has offended someone. However, to fail to acknowledge this climate would be to miss my impending conclusions altogether.

Unfortunately, the clear waters of justice are muddied by each of our denominational associations, political allegiances, educational pursuits, and personal experiences; and yet if there is in fact a cosmic companion unfolding for justice, it would seem unwise to ignore those issues of our time which desperately need the unfolding of justice. The bible offers no prescriptive pattern for a just society in 21st century America. A technologically-savvy world with seemingly limitless possibilities for information attainment possesses little similarity with an agrarian society whose citizens were asked to leave the corners of the field for gleaning. We can postulate that a biblical vision of justice has something to do with sharing financial and social resources, welcoming strangers, recognizing the inherent worth of a creation lovingly crafted by God, and laying down our lives for others. Yet we are left to discern the paths of justice for this time and this place.

This is not a call to advocate a particular political opinion or to espouse a theory about the church’s level of involvement in social affairs. Our denominational lines cover the plethora of possibilities for dictating political involvement. There is no need to rehash old fights. Instead, this is a call to ask challenging questions, to love one another enough to engage the conversation of justice, to love “outsiders” enough to welcome them as equal conversation partners. Justice is not a one-way street. We are not able to do justice to other people. The oppressed and vulnerable refine the theories and hypothetical scenarios of the powerful in ways that we cannot grasp until we enter into mutually enhancing relationships with them. The pain and hope that we discover among the oppressed offers an edgy critique, challenging us to radically rethink the ways we gather on Sunday morning, the ways that we serve in our communities, and the ways we live in the routines of Monday through Saturday.

Rethinking how we live and worship amidst oppression and injustice will no doubt cause tension, but in the fires of disagreement, the struggle for justice is refined and the people doing the struggling are transformed. My own experiments in justice have been a journey of working out my salvation with family, friends, and congregation as well as through academic pursuits. I have created uncomfortable family dinners, prayed with friends, written papers, addressed the elders at my church, committed to the neighborhood surrounding my church, argued with mentors, and most recently, joined a committee to re-imagine the direction of our benevolence ministries. Through my journey, I have felt the companionship of something, someone cosmic. As a social worker, I signed up for a professional devotion to matters of justice. As a follower of Jesus, I’ve committed to struggle with fellow believers to discover who we are and how we must live in a world full of oppression and injustice. In the same way that Dr. King discovered the mystical union of those devoted to civil rights, I believe our common mission of justice unites our hearts more deeply than the cultural influences which polarize us.

Matters of justice force us to ask serious questions about our identity and mission: What is Christian mission? To whom are we sent? Why are we sent there? What are we to say and to do once we arrive? Our answers to these questions influence what we preach, how we worship, how we confess, how we understand Sunday morning, what we teach our children, how we understand our own spiritual formation, how and with whom we form authentic community. If Acappella (the Christian pop-stars of my childhood) were right — and I think they were on this issue — we can’t go to church because we are the church; and if we are truly a people sent by God as redemptive agents in the world — which I think we are — then current matters of social justice have every importance in Christian conversation. Our historic lack of social concern has answered these questions de facto. Silence is, in and of itself, an answer. Regretfully, our silence has been the wrong answer. If we pretend that the influence of faith always supersedes that of the surrounding culture, future generations will continue with scant theological resources to grapple with the realities of unjust power structures and the atrocities of oppression. To cower in fear of culture is to misjudge the endurance of a community that has been empowered by the Holy Sprit to work out our salvation.

Our brothers and sisters in parts of South America and Africa, the South Bronx, South Central Los Angeles, and the inner city (of wherever you live) lack the luxury of quibbling over how the church should respond to injustice. While we theorize, children die unnecessarily, women around the globe receive inadequate healthcare, gang violence lures teens each day, members of minority groups continue to be overrepresented in American prison systems and underrepresented in high school and college graduation ceremonies, and oppression seems to have the last word.

Most days, I can more adequately articulate a vision for what is wrong in our church and world than I can positively construct a vision for how to walk alongside our cosmic companion in the paths of social justice. This is no merit on my part since children as young as kindergarten can point out inequity. So, what can I affirm about Christian mission? For now, I think it has mostly to do with living in the midst of ambiguity and disagreement toward becoming a loving community, a community that sees into the realities of class, ethnicity, and gender, and refuses to look the other way when the eyes of those we see tell stories of pain. Appropriately, benevolence ministries move us toward the margins of society; however, we must move beyond simple acts of charity to sit as learners at the feet of the oppressed. If we are honest about our prejudices, and sit together in the Montgomery prisons of our day, wondering if we’ve made the right choice, wondering about politics or (say) why the person sitting next to us misinterprets the Bible so badly, the cosmic companionship present there with us, in the midst of our questions, will unfold for justice. As God has always done, God will meet us in the prisons of oppression and use our honest conversations and decisive actions to transform our hearts and to redeem the world with justice.New Wineskins

Jordan WesleyJordan Wesley was first drawn to visions of social justice through her experiences with a small church in the Bronx, New York, and in the classrooms, pews and neighborhoods of Abilene, Texas. Since completing masters degrees in Social Work and Christian Ministry in 2009, she has worked for Connecting Caring Communities, an Abilene faith-based non-profit dedicated to comprehensive community renewal and asset-based community development strategies.

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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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