Getting Justice Right

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In the North Texas Conference, I am the chair of something called the Board of Church and Society. This is a fancy, United Methodist term for “Committee for Social Justice Issues.” (Or as the Good News folks would put it, “Everything That is Wrong with Liberal Christianity.”)

The name is a holdover from the sixties, I’m sure. It implies that only this committee deals with issues that concern both the Church and the wider world, because everyone knows that worship certainly doesn’t. Or prayer. Or discipleship. Sigh.

The fact that “social justice issues” are dealt with only in this particular committee of the larger church is problematic for me. I find it fundamentally disturbing that we so easily partition off so-called real life issues from the rest of our faith.

There is a seamless integration between the things we believe about God and the way we live inside God’s creation, just as there is no difference between the command to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and the command to love our neighbor. It’s one and the same thing. It’s simply two ways of talking about the same exact thing.

You can’t be a great Christian in your heart, while at the same time taking advantage of folks in your neighborhood. You can’t be a wholehearted Jesus-follower in some mystical, spiritual sense, while also being a dickhead to people you don’t like.

Those things don’t hold together. As John put it, “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”

But something insidious burrowed its way into our churches and congregations and persuaded us that “faith” was somehow more important than “action,” and that “belief” has primary over “behavior,” and that “evangelism” is the main task of the church while “justice” is something we can only hope to get around to every once in a while.

John Wesley liked to say that there is no personal holiness without social holiness, to which I say, “Amen!” And to recover the sense of vitality in our own movement, we must rediscover the importance of the pursuit of justice in our lives as followers of Jesus.

Perhaps one problem is the very word, justice. It’s a fuzzy word for lots of us. For some, it conjures up “Law and Order” episodes, in which good guys chase after bad guys. For others, it hints at all sorts of left-leaning causes, which makes a lot of people in my neck of the woods very nervous.

For me, Biblical justice is a very simple concept. It refers to the restoration of right relationships with God, with others, with self, and with the rest of creation, including the earth and its elements, plants, animals, and the outer limits of our knowledge. While we cannot literally restore right relationships between every person and God or others, we can certainly begin the work of demolishing or changing the structures and powers that keep relationships fractured and broken.

I would say this definition of justice describes very well the entire story of God and God’s interaction with the world, as it is told in Scripture. Justice is the reason Jesus Christ came into the world. Jesus came to put things right.

And that’s what what folks who claim to follow Jesus are supposed to be doing, too. We’re supposed to be doing justice work! We look at the world with a yearning for things to be made whole again. We should be looking at our communities and asking the really difficult questions, such as, “Why are children in our neighborhood dying from malnutrition and lack of basic medical care?” and “Why do the poor live in such rotten parts of town?” and “Who benefits from such arrangements?” and “Do we have to let things stay like this?”

But these are dangerous questions. And that’s precisely why most of us DON’T do justice work. It verges on the political, on the controversial. And we want so badly to steer a middle course. We don’t want to appear to be “partisan.”

OF COURSE WE HAVE TO BE PARTISAN!

Has anybody noticed that Jesus was clearly partisan? He took the side of the least of these, the poor, the oppressed, and all the other motley outsiders. He was on THEIR side, as opposed to those who were powerful, greedy, arrogant, self-righteous, and overly pious. Yes, he took sides. He played favorites!

In his coming-out party at a Nazareth synagogue, he stood up and said, “Well, I can see that the poor need to hear some good news, that there are prisoners who need to be set free, that there are blind folks who need to see, and there are some oppressed people who need to stand up straight again. Let’s do it! Let’s put things back in their right place!” And as soon as he said this, the townspeople attempted to throw him off a cliff.

But Jesus never once stopped to preach and said, “I think I’ll do some spiritual work now,” after which he said, “OK, back to my secular work, back to real life.” Evangelism and social action were one and the same to him. God’s work was everyday work, something which consumed him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Unless we integrate our lives, and unite our theological convictions with justice in action, then we will be merely “almost Christian.”

Which is to say, not Christian at all.

Isn’t it time for churches, congregations, and Jesus-followers to rediscover the call to do justice?

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9 comments

  1. x

    There is a temptation to believe the poor cannot be as selfish, prideful, greedy, or lustful as the rich.
    The line between good and evil passes right through each of us. There is good and bad to be found in all classes and races. God’s image is found among all.
    However…the poor do not control institutions and have little societal power.
    They do not make the laws or plan the wars.

  2. djdfr

    Our Creator addresses this issue in The Revelation of Arès, calling on us to truly love all, not just dress their wounds, feed them, but to invite them into our council meetings.
    Many see justice as punishment whereas God asks us to forgive.

  3. redbudsewer

    Social justice can seem overwhelming. I think people instinctively know that once the door is opened just a crack to social justice within their souls, then there will be no end to traveling that road.

  4. Sandie Richards

    I agree– once you start down the road of ‘social justice’, there is no end to the challenges to one’s discipleship! I can barely buy coffee, produce, or clothing; drive my car; travel to hotels, etc., without feeling the pangs of conscience about who grew/harvested the coffee, who picked the produce, who sewed the clothing… from whom did we purchase the petroleum for my car’s gas tank, could the well from which the petroleum came cause harm to people/planet… are the people who work in the hotels able to support their families, do they have healthcare, how do they deal with injuries from the hard work they do… So because everything I do, I have done unto the least of these or even to Jesus himself, my everyday choices come under scrutiny. Nothing is the same after we begin to see doing justice as an integral part of our discipleship. Thanks for this post, and for the comments so far!

  5. Tom Lambrecht

    I think “partisan” means adopting one ideological approach to addressing the needs of justice, to the exclusion of other approaches. What I find unhelpful by the General Board of Church and Society is that both the identification of issues and the proposed solutions are heavily influenced by a particular ideology. Why devote energy to environmental concerns, but not pornography? Why address labor issues and not abortion? (Despite the fact that our Discipline has a lot to say about abortion.) Why adopt a statist approach to solving the health care crisis, rather than a market approach? Why adopt a pacifist philosophy on war and peace issues, rather than a just war understanding?
    I am not advocating that GBCS adopt a conservative ideology, either. What would be helpful is for GBCS (and other Church and Society units at the conference level) to bring resources and encourage discussion of issues that are important to conservatives, as well as issues important to progressives. And potential solutions should be looked at from both a conservative and progressive (and other) ideological approach.
    It often feels like, if one doesn’t adopt a progressive view on social issues and support progressive solutions to those issues, that one is not concerned about social justice. That is why many conservatives opt out of the discussion. I would like to see ways of bridging that divide by including both perspectives (and more) in discussions of what justice might look like in a given situation.

    • wesmagruder

      Tom, I’m not sure what you mean by “ideology.” If you mean “a set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions” or “a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things (compare worldview)” which are definitions found on Wikipedia, then guess what? we all have an ideology, and Methodists should have one. Ours is based on the Kingdom of God.

      And as far as I can tell, that is what GBCS attempts to do. I know that because I happen to know people who work for GBCS, as well as some board members. They do attempt to address issues of importance to both so-called conservatives and liberals, but don’t set out to be “balanced” because this kind of work is inherently unbalanced against the status quo, regardless of which party is in power.

      The point is not whether an issue is liberal or conservative, but whether or not relationships between God, self, others and creation are healthy and right. If not, there’s work to be done.

      If you are correct that conservatives have opted out of the justice discussion, that’s to their shame. They must do a better job of explaining how their own approach reflects the Kingdom of God more closely, rather than demonizing the work of the GBCS.

      • Tom Lambrecht

        Wes, I accept your definition of ideology. However, United Methodism does not have one ideology, it has several. It is the tendency to equate one ideology with “The Kingdom of God” that alienates people with a different “set of ideas” in the church. The ideology that says, “government should be the primary actor to solve many of society’s problems” is not shared by many United Methodists. Yet, this seems to be the working assumption of many at the GBCS. It is not demonizing them to make this critique.

  6. Bill

    It’s not advisable to attack the hierarchy when your job is at their favor. I detect a rebel conscience in you that will not be off to the horizon following seas of careerism. I suggest you tone it down, Br. Wes. Remember, the pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their back.

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