I know I’ve already blogged today…I guess it’s feast or famine with me…but Allen and I just finished wrestling with a question I was asked last week: How do I, as a pastor, engage in social justice?
Great question, right? Hard to answer. At the church I pastor, some people have left because we’re too focused on social justice, while others have left because we’re not focused enough on social justice. The thing is, it seems like, though we all assume we use the term in the same way, everyone has their own definition of “social justice.”
For some people, social justice is about demonstrations and lobbying and “changing systems” (another term that means different things to different people). For others, social justice is about LGBT rights or anti-war protests or working to eradicate poverty or lobbying for a livable wage for all people. For some people, working for social justice is about “living lightly on the earth”–driving hybrids and reducing carbon footprints. For others, social justice is about working with the poor or on behalf of children or with the disabled or for gender equity.
If we had one definition of “social justice,” it might be easier to answer the question…but we don’t. I guess I’ll have to devise my own. Here goes.
It seems like you have to begin with the idea that all human beings–every last one–have the same right to live free and unimpeded lives (to the extent that their freedom does not impede anyone else’s freedom). A global/political description of this idea is the United Nations’ “Declaration of Human Rights.” A couple of Christian descriptions of the idea: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” (Gal 3:28) “God so loved the world that WHOSOEVER believes in God…” (John 3:16) “God shows no partiality” Peter says in Acts 10:34.
If you begin with the idea that everyone has the same right to live freely, then you engage in social justice when you notice places in the world where people are not treated the same, where people do not have the same right to live free and impeded lives, where some people have more rights than others. You engage in social justice when you do whatever you can to make it possible for everyone to live free and unimpeded lives.
An example: Every human being needs food, right? The human body doesn’t function well without proper nutrition. It’s hard to live a free and unimpeded life if you’re starving. The places where people do not have enough food to eat–that is the result of an imbalance of justice. Thus, working on the issue of hunger is a means of engaging in social justice.
But there are so many ways of engaging the issue of world hunger as a social justice issue. At our church, we collect food for the local food pantry; we prepare and serve food on the fifth Tuesday; we work occasionally at a different food bank; we participate in a summer lunch program to help feed children who wouldn’t have a midday meal otherwise; our youth and some adults participate in the 30 Hour Famine each year. We also contribute to ecumenical offerings, part of whose funds go to relieve hunger in places around the United States and the globe. Are we engaging in social justice? Absolutely.
And yet…there are some people who say that simply giving people food only perpetuates the problem of hunger. If we don’t address the systems that create a glut of food in some places and a scarcity of it in others, then the situation will never change. My dad, an agriculture professor, once said, “World hunger isn’t a food problem, it’s a political problem.” When asked how to solve the world’s hunger problem, the Dalai Lama said simply: “Share.” Perhaps the most striking comment about hunger as a justice issue was spoken by Dom Helder Camara, a 20th c. Catholic bishop in Brazil. Camara said this: “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why there were poor, they called me a Communist.”
Okay…I haven’t really reach any resolution, have only barely begun to answer the question…but I can tell this is going to take a while. So I think I’ll stop for now. I’m certain I’ll return to the topic.
Any other thougths about social justice and the church?
Peace for your journey…