Give me a pound of social justice
Rudy Carrasco blogs his chapter from An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (excerpted here):
A lot of Christian service groups visit Harambee Ministries, a Christian urban ministry that I direct in Pasadena, California. I love to read them the fifth chapter of the book of Amos. For dramatic effect, I use The Message version of the Bible. It leaves little room for interpretation of the writer’s intent. For example, take Amos 5:21-24 (Message):
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
I read this aloud to visitors, and then I pause. I follow with the story of how Harambee was established, why, and what we do now to love people in our community in the name of Jesus. But the Scripture makes its own point, and I have to be careful to not dilute that point, not to pull the punch, not to water it down. So I wait. Then I move forward with a personal attempt to amplify a centuries-old text. The best I can do is punctuate these Scriptures with a summary statement. On any given occasion I might say:
God is serious about justice.
God is very serious about justice.
Ain’t God worked up about the plight of the poor?
God gets bent out of shape when it comes to justice for the poor.
God is impolite in his passion for the poor.
Any one statement will do, because each is true. And these truths are bad news for Christians. The above verses from Amos contrast the common religious activities of Christians today with God’s desire for justice. The concept of justice is not unpacked in this section. We are left to wonder what “oceans” of justice look like. We can get a clearer sense of what the writer means when we look elsewhere in the fifth chapter (v. 11 Message):
“Because you have run roughshod over the poor and take the bread right out of their mouths, you’re never going to move into the luxury homes you have built. You’re never going to drink the wine from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.”
… Amos is not the only place you will find God’s anger over injustice. Pick any biblical prophet. Here’s an interesting one—Ezekiel 16:49: “This is the sin of Sodom. She was arrogant, overfed and unconcerned.” Ezekiel is describing the destruction of Sodom, well known in Genesis 19 as a symbol of judgment on sexual perversion. But the sex sin is dealt with in Ezekiel as a secondary matter. The first thing Ezekiel gets across is the people’s guilt in being arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. That chills me, because “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” pretty much describes me. Toward those who are arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned, God is not merely perturbed, annoyed, saddened, perplexed, bewildered, or broken-hearted. He’s enraged, like a vendetta-seeking Hollywood action hero. …
RESPONDING TO INJUSTICE
Thankfully, Amos does not just unload; he tells us what to do. His answer is true and right. But there’s a problem. True and right as his answer may be, it is also fuzzy, lyrical, poetic, and downright enigmatic: “Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending stream!” (5:24)
It’s a start. But it’s not very helpful in this day and age. I mean, show me “justice rolling on like a river.” Take me to this never-failing stream of righteousness. You might as well give me a pound of social justice.
However elusive, the biblical injunction is nevertheless on us. Given the anger of the Almighty on this topic, we would do well to follow the advice given by the Apostle Paul so succinctly in one of his letters: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
I do not have a pound of social justice to give you, but I can share my community’s efforts at enacting godly justice. Harambee, established in 1983, is an urban ministry with the goal of reaching children, youth, and families with the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross, and with the promise of new life as his disciples. As we minister through Harambee, we are painfully aware that we are in a context of poverty, generational sin, historic racism and injustice, pervasiveness cynicism, and despair. We seek to preach the truth of Jesus Christ with words and to demonstrate that truth with our own actions. As we pursue godly justice, as we see justice enacted in our community, we see that justice ministry can be a profound tool for building trust with neighbors who long ago may have given up trusting God, their neighbors, or themselves.
… Harambee’s founder, Dr. John Perkins, wrote a book in 1982 called With Justice for All. In the first chapter, “Evangelism is not Enough,” Perkins describes how his heart was broken by the rural poverty of Mendenhall, Mississippi. School dropouts, terrible living conditions, drunkenness, absentee mothers and fathers, and teen pregnancy defined the community. He had moved to Mississippi from California to evangelize his own people, after reading in Romans 10:1-2 and recognizing that his people had “a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.” While living in the community, meeting the people, and getting to know the problems, he realized that “the Gospel, rightly understood, is holistic–it responds to man as a whole person; it doesn’t single out just spiritual or just physical needs and speak only to those.” From that initial understanding, Perkins led an effort to live out the words of Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord requires of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
The ministry in Mendenhall was centered around a local church. And surrounding the church there was a gymnasium for youth activities, a Christian elementary school, a law office, a health office, and a thrift store and cooperative farm for economic development. They evangelized young people and families in their community. They taught them how to walk as disciples of Jesus who live out their faith in all areas of life, public as well as private.
I read With Justice For All when I was a student at Stanford University. It resonated with my own life experiences, and I felt like I was finally seeing the Bible come to life. I hadn’t seen the Christians around me living the way the early disciples did, and so, like an arrogant, hotheaded, better-than-thou, I purposed in my heart to blow off the Christians in America because they weren’t living out their concern for the poor. When I read the Perkins story, I decided that Perkins was the one Christian leader to whom I would listen. What an extremist! …
INDIVIDUALS OVER ACTIVITIES
… We’ve seen a lot at Harambee over the years, and because we have seen so much, we stress development of individuals, usually poor individuals, over activities to change society. Here’s why. I’ve seen initiatives for justice come and go. One season it’s a campaign for fair housing. Another time it’s for increased funding for inner-city schools. There may be a fight against gangs and crime. A major grant to improve health services rolls through town. The list is endless, and all these initiatives are important. I do not say that we don’t engage in social change, only that it carries a secondary emphasis. It is secondary because the development of a needy individual does not follow the timetable of a cause or a campaign.
For example, imagine a ten-year-old boy who does not know his father, is being raised by a single mother, does poorly in school, and has a lot of friends in a gang. The boy gets involved in a mentoring initiative to keep kids out of gangs. The program is active for two years and does a great job, but then the program is defunded. The boy had two great years of intervention, but he still needs help, because now he is twelve. His need did not end just because the program ended. Then a fair housing initiative goes through town, some advances are made, and his family is able to move into more secure, affordable housing, but the boy still has no father. Perhaps he hasn’t gotten any better at school. The success of the mentoring initiative and the success of the housing initiative still do not meet all of this boy’s needs.
Programs will never replace people who love a person over the long term. Programs, no matter how well-planned or well-funded, can’t do what a committed person can do—a principle easily overlooked, even by those of us who preach it.
At Harambee we invest in the lives of individuals, and in others who are personally invested in individuals. After 18 plus years of ministering at the corner of Howard and Navarro, I’ve learned that living in a stable, relatively good family is a person’s best chance at experiencing justice. The best way for a child to get out of poverty is for his single parent to get married. We know that from social science and from evaluating the results of welfare reform. I’ve seen it in my own community. One set of brothers was doing decently at school and managing to stay out of trouble. Then their single mother got married and their achievement levels shot up.
… I want my friends and those who listen to me to remember that justice goes way past causes like the environment, the economy, education, and foreign policy. When the protest is over, when the program has concluded for the day, in the stillness of the private life, the person in need of justice still needs justice, in the form of love and friendship. Perhaps justice, in the end, is giving a person everything that God wants for him or her to have, not just material or social good but the quiet assurance that, “Before you were born, I knew you—and loved you. I still do.”