On my first visit to Guatemala, Joel Van Dyke situated our group on the edge of a cliff overlooking the city dump. With sights and sounds assaulting our senses, hearts and theologies, he told us that we don’t go to the poor because they need our help; we go because God’s grace dances in the lowest places, and we desperately need to be part of God’s grace.
This conversation from five years ago prepared the way for my experience in Guatemala this summer. “Grace is like water—it flows downhill and pools up in the lowest places” (Rocke and Van Dyke, 18). If I believe this is true, I cannot separate my spiritual formation from living justly.
For some time now I’ve really been embracing the idea that everything is spiritual. Christ can be met anywhere. I’ve found this to not only be a liberating thought, but one that encourages creative connection with the Spirit. As I consider my lifestyle and beliefs in light of this course, I want to lean into a moment of self-awareness: sometimes “everything is spiritual” can be my excuse to pursue only those things that bring me delight, calm, or entertainment. If Christ can be met anywhere, I’d just as soon meet him in nice places.
One of my convictions developed through this course, though, is that God has a special attentiveness for the poor and oppressed. God’s heart is for them, with them, in them. If my spirituality does not encompass meeting Christ in “low places”–places that are difficult, complicated, without privilege, overlooked–then I am missing a huge part of God’s heart. I am shielding myself from the full measure of delights and suffering that come from binding myself to the whole Body. I am imbibing on cheap grace.
Just as wanderers can enter into pilgrimage from different starting points, I’ve encountered several helpful starting places in this journey toward justice. Here I will outline six: prayer, failure, Scripture, creation, community and conversion. There is no silver bullet for social justice, but these tools act as guides on the trail as we step deeper into God’s awakening Kingdom.
In the words of Paul the lessor, “If you want to work for justice, first get on your knees.” Praying for issues of justice and for people oppressed by injustice helps us enter into suffering with the heart of Christ. In fact, “an understanding of the importance of entering into one another’s sufferings” is one of the consequences of justice outlined by Campolo & Darling (41). I loved our times of prayer together in Guatemala…liturgical prayer, clearness committee prayer, lectio prayer, intercessory prayer for our brothers and sisters fighting injustice, and confessional prayers. These experiences not only led me deeper into God’s heart for the oppressed, but awakened my imagination to landscapes of prayer I’ve left little explored.
Prayer is also crucial to sustaining the work of justice. Those who try to take on every issue of injustice will burn out or compromise the ethos of the work. In prayer we keenly listen to the Spirt, waiting to be led into the right work in the right season. We are also able to discern a call to rest instead of work; within this balance we can be powerfully humble servants for the cause of justice.
“For most of us, learning to do anything requires the willingness to fail” (Martin 10). The inevitability of failure has also become a dear signpost for me in the journey toward justice. Martin compares faith development to muscle development: when you build muscle, you execute repetitions until your muscle can no longer perform; this is called a failure point (8). Your muscle has pushed itself as far as it can imagine going, so to speak. The next step is crucial: adequate rest (61). The tired muscle needs rest because that’s when it rebuilds–stronger. The next time the muscle is tested, it’s able to go a little further, and a little further, and a little further.
Just like someone who plans to develop muscle, those who desire to develop their faith must expect and plan for failure points. Martin suggests that often folks hit a failure point when they first encounter overwhelming injustice; there simply is no space or category in one’s current theology to accept that kind of shock (43). It’s a failure point, and it’s necessary. The failure point represents an opportunity to pull back, rest and consider what we’ve seen. From there we are able to re-engage injustice with a little more strength, perspective and tenacity.
As I “confessed” in Guatemala, I’ve taken an informal hiatus from Scripture in the past few years. While I am not proud of this, I do want to be honest about it. I became just educated enough to sense that the way I had learned Scripture was too imbalanced, privileged, North American and Protestant. One of the gifts I received in Guatemala was the opportunity to read Scripture through the lens of justice. The few times I have done this, well-rehearsed verses have nearly popped off the page at me, brimming with life and challenge and rugged beauty. When I read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, it was like new words were forming on the page in front of my eyes:
Love never gives up, even though the issues are complex and the statistics staggering.
Love cares more about the oppression of others than personal convenience.
Love doesn’t want for the sake of acquiring, but considers need.
Love doesn’t strut—how can it? We are all implicated in injustice.
It doesn’t have a swelled head, but walks humbly.
It doesn’t force itself on others (rushing in with solutions), but lifts them up.
It doesn’t keep score of the sins of others or revel when others are stuck in a lower social status—progress and redemption are more important than self-preservation.
Love takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything for the sake of shalom.
Love trusts that redemption is God’s initiative,
And expects that the best is yet to come.
Love mixes every one part despair with nine parts of hope,
And keeps going till justice reigns.
I believe Eric referred to this phenomenon as “dislocated reading”—the idea that moving ourselves away from geographic or physical familiarity or comfort will cause words to carry new meanings, depending on our environment. While my theology hasn’t always encompassed “an awareness that Christ in in the poor and oppressed, waiting to be loved and served” (another “consequence of justice” outlined by Campolo and Darling) I am finding that Scripture has always been ready to shed light on these truths to those who have ears to hear ( 41).
Reading Psalm 148 in the middle of our time in Guatemala felt strange or disjointed at first, but upon further reflection it became an incredibly appropriate testament to the totality of God’s justice. Too often we humans have exercised dominion over creation for our own purposes and as expressions of our own power, rather than stewarding creation with the humility and care befitting servants and friends of the Creator. But nonhuman creation is more than simply another victim of injustice; we can look at sister volcano, brother lake, and sister tree as ancient witnesses of God’s just reign. They bear witness to the Creator in ways humans do not, and they are co-worshippers with us as we participate in God’s unfolding Kingdom. In Romans 8:18-21 the Apostle Paul describes a “pregnant creation” which, along with us, is experiencing “birth pangs” as we await the total release of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven (The Message).
“Anyone who doesn’t love is as good as dead” ( The Message, 1 John 3:14). Community turns out to be an effective practice course for pursuing justice. If we cannot interact with our loved ones, coworkers and neighbors with a spirit of love, we should consider our motives for pursuing justice in other arenas. If we do not seek to understand and learn from our differences with those near us, we should hesitate before assuming we will effectively serve the oppressed in other cultures. Furthermore, community helps keep us accountable, balanced and grounded. In both my spiritual direction session and in the Cohort Clearness Committees I found that we did not need to process our work with injustice (per se) so much as we needed to process issues back home. Finding freedom in these contexts, with the help of my community, liberated me to be even more attentive to the experiences at hand in Guatemala.
Particularly in North American culture, it can be tempting to make social justice an individual pursuit; we may be overwhelmed by the prospect of mass social change and resort to just making a difference “one person at a time.” While there is nothing wrong with this approach, Remple asserts we cannot be content with just that if we seek systemic justice. He calls for shifts in culture that produce sustainable consumption and “…demonstrate an abundant life can flow from human beings…who draw significant sustenance from being…within a community” (An Economy for the Earth, 30).
We’ve worked with several guiding models in this class, and I’m engrossed by how they seem to spill into one another like intertwining circles or, better yet, as I imagine the dance between the Trinity. First, in Micah 6:8 we have these words: “act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly.” Second, Dorr offers a three-pronged concept of conversion: personal, interpersonal/moral, and societal/political (cited in Campolo and Darling 17).
I’m particularly caught by this idea of moral conversion—having my heart turned toward others in a fundamental way, letting concern for my neighbor move me as an expression of God’s Spirit within me. While it may not always happen in this sequence, moral conversion naturally bleeds into a concern for the sociopolitical structures in which people live. This type of conversion leads us to the remaining two “consequences of justice” named by Campolo and Darling: “a call to challenge institutionalized religion” and “a plan for the world as it should be” (41). I am on the lookout now, mapping the processes of these conversions in myself, paying attention to how God is transforming me, and preparing to engage injustice in the ways I am called.
These six starting places have stirred up so many ideas for action and contemplation. As I consider my “next steps” in this particular season, there are two main ideas I want to articulate.
One of the more significant pieces of the trip for me was an extended conversation I had with Nina and Eric about race and privilege. This year I’ve begun to do some work on these areas, trying to name the ways in which I experience privilege so I can be more aware of how others may not experience it. In June I read Understanding White Privilege by Frances Kendall, which helped me engage these issues more deeply than I had done before. My conversation with Nina and Eric was a powerful next step in this journey; I was able to recount recent experiences where I saw privilege misused (either by myself or others) and gain valuable feedback—feedback that was both honest and gracious. This special time in Guatemala is serving as an impetus for further reflection and growth for me as I explore what justice looks like for the privileged and the unprivileged—particularly those in my North American context. One practical way I will be exploring this is through my arrangement to have more regular conversations with Nina about race and privilege.
This ties in with the broader practice of contemplation. Merton asserts that contemplation is crucial to the task of remaining human (215). I am drawn to expressing the practice of contemplation in a few different ways: first, in leaning in to the Examen and letting that become at least a daily rhythm. I continue to be convinced that the work of justice must start with a listening ear, a heart courageous enough to know itself so it can listen to the cries of the oppressed without motives of self-preservation. In regularly identifying my consolations and desolations, I want to be aware of how the Spirt is leading me to consider justice in new ways.
A second expression of contemplation is simply having a new lens for looking at the world. Vander Meulen calls this lens “epiphany eyes,” or an ability to notice injustice where privilege and familiarity blind us (62). As is to be expected, this first week back from Guatemala has been full of moments where I see things around me I hadn’t see before. One of my tasks moving forward is to keep seeking things that will help me hone that awareness: articles, the news, books, lectures, conversations, songs, Scripture, meditation, Examen, etc. I was recently given the image of a one-way ticket to capture the idea that we embark on these journeys knowing we are constantly heading toward a new destination or reality. This process of learning more about God’s heart for justice isn’t and can’t be just an educational excursion. It needs to lead to a new way of looking at the world, a new way of engaging the world, a new way of understanding self as part of the whole. Certainly on this journey progress may be delayed or set back, but the overall trajectory is forward with the Spirit.
Campolo, Tony, and Mary Albert Darling. The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism, and Justice. Jossey-Bass, 2007.
Kendall, Frances E. Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships across Race. Routledge, 2006.
Martin, Jim. The Just Church: Becoming a Risk-taking, Justice-seeking, Disciple-making Congregation. Tyndale Momentum, 2012.
Merton, Thomas. Faith and Violence; Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
Remple, Henry. “An Economy for the Earth.” Global Wealth, from Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, 2007, pp. 60-64, https://sauonline.arbor.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-2121181-dt-content-rid-5210015_1/courses/SFL671_SU12_E1/Global%20Weath %2C%20Do%20Justice-Keep%20it%20Simple.pdf. Accessed 12 Aug. 2016.
Rocke, Kris, and Joel Van Dyke. Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below. Street Psalms, 2012.
The Bible. NIV/The Message Parallel Bible, Zondervan, 2004.
Vander Meulen, Peter. “Do Justice—Keep it Simple.” Global Wealth, from Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, 2007, pp. 60-64, https://sauonline.arbor.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-2121181-dt-content-rid-5210015_1/courses/SFL671_SU12_E1/Global%20Weath %2C%20Do%20Justice-Keep%20it%20Simple.pdf. Accessed 12 Aug. 2016.