The Messy Theology of Justice
“Social justice” is a buzzword on our campus. In fact, for many of us, it was a primary reason why we came to this school. I love this about Swat. Every day, I have conversations about uprooting injustice that are more passionate, intentional, and loving than I have experienced anywhere else. The catch is that sometimes we become enamored with justice only as an idea. In reality, the work of justice is messy, self-sacrificing, and arduous, yet it is a work that is integral to our identity as human beings.
I understand this theology best through my own experiences. When I was a kid, hearing that God loved me brought me immense feelings of gratefulness and filled my soul with joy. However, during high school, the sentiment began to seem banal. I heard “Jesus loves you” at every sermon—but it was frustrating not to see any response to this radical statement outside the four walls of our downtown, orange-brick church, a community planted in the center of undeniable need. Richard Twiss, a member of the Rosebud Lakota Sioux community where I lived as a child, says that “there is no biblical basis that would allow us to disengage from one another or disregard our need for one another.”1 In other words, the connection between human beings is like that of a body. If we disregard those who are poor2 it is like cutting out our heart, or eyes, or tongue.3
My internal spiritual tension can be summed up in these lyrics based on Isaiah 58:6-10:
Are my praises so loud that they drown out the cries?
Do I fail to stoop down ‘cause my hands are raised so high?
Are my eyes shut so tight when I pray I won’t see?
Am I worshipping God for only me?
Devotion and worship always seem to point back to me, to the self, to the human. These lyrics embody a common secular critique most notably made by religious theorists like Weber4, Durkheim5, and Feuerbach:6 God is nothing more than man’s projection of himself for his own needs. This is what worship (of anything or any deity) becomes if there is not an integrated response of justice.
A few years later, I entered college disappointed with the Church7 I knew. This love was missing the response of justice. God, the Creator of the universe, must have in mind something much bigger. Christianity seemed to be all word and no deed.8
I had hoped to find Swarthmore to be less like my old church, but instead found it to be similar; a place with a lot of word and little deed. This is unsurprising since Swarthmore is a college, a place characterized by intellect and critical examination. But even as my head was swimming with new ideas, I still felt a longing for grounded purpose and direction in my work. The phrase “I want to help people” was becoming ever so stale in the back of my throat. I needed a theology of justice, something to help me make sense of my identity and the need I was seeing in the world.
I found a few answers during the summer after freshman year. I was studying the Old Testament, which at first glance seems to give God a pretty bad name: angry, violent, and rigid. But this time I saw something different: the truth is that God’s heart aches for the poor. In Exodus, God hears the cries of His people enslaved by the Egyptian empire—and then He acts compassionately, freeing the Jews from their bondage through the common man, Moses. In Isaiah, the purpose that God calls us to is this:
…to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the
yoke, to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke… then
your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become
like the noonday.9
This is what “worship” means to God, to rid the world of all that speaks oppression and death. This is the meaning of resurrection. Jesus, through His death and resurrection, took the weight of sin upon Himself as an act of love, an act that made death move backwards, an act that turned the most rigid finality known to man into the dawn of a new morning. According to this picture of God, justice is an integral part of our identity as human beings. In the beginning, God created us in His image.10 If God is love, and love and justice go hand in hand, then He is a God of justice and our created purpose is in service of justice. As the poet Wendell Berry put it, we must “practice resurrection:”
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
… Practice resurrection.11
Love is not about the show and discipline of religious habits, but about the raw, arduous, and messy everyday work of justice.
Jesus uses the phrase the “Kingdom of God” to describe the space and place where justice reigns, where relationships are righted, where we find shalom. This kingdom exists in resistance to the oppressive empires of the world. The problem is that many people, both those who believe in Jesus and those who do not, spend their lives waiting for the end times when things will be right in the world, instead of acknowledging through action that the “Kingdom” or a new order is possible here and now. Once, a mentor figure shared a metaphor for the Kingdom of God with me. “Have you ever been camping?” he asked. “When it rains, the tarp always fills with water and creates a bulge in the tent or tarp fabric. But if you ever touch the bulge, that small act breaks the surface tension of the water droplets and creates a path for the water to follow. Soon, you’ll have a full leak between the inside and the outside of your tent.” This is how the Kingdom of God behaves. For me, the Kingdom of God is not something that we are waiting for at the end times, but something that exists here and now. It is bulging into the world, just waiting for someone to reach out to its goodness and create a path. This work is not a wo(man) acting as an individual unit, but a work that is undergirded by the power of God. With this knowledge, I am empowered to act in the now, working towards a larger idea of Justice than I could have imagined on my own.
Injustice and suffering even make God’s heart ache. So, I ask myself, what does my heart ache for? What injustice in the world actually makes me sick? For me, the answer was mass incarceration, specifically, the school-to-prison pipeline.12 My heart literally felt heavy for these people, like it was going to fall through my stomach and to my feet. The horrors of this systemic caging of human beings shared with me by my incarcerated classmates in our Inside-Out course,13 Politics of Punishment, floored me. Some background statistics horrified me: America incarcerates its population more than any other nation in the world. Currently, 2.3 million people are incarcerated, making up 1% of the general population.14 1 in 3 Black males are currently in prison, on parole, or on probation.15 This is mainly due to powerful political rhetoric associated with the War on Drugs, failing urban schools, dilapidated local economies, and unjust sentencing laws; this really is “the New Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander coined it.16 The criminal justice system focuses too heavily on retribution and not enough on rehabilitation. This is death.
How can I practice resurrection in the face of this birdcage of systemic issues? Well, I’m beginning with writing a massive thesis about the class we did in the prison and resultant prospects for justice and equality. The course created the space for identity transformation from a criminalized identity of deficiency to an expanded identity of possibility. It provided a space where both types of students could come together to work towards restoration in the systemic problems of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. Maybe these words will prove helpful in bolstering a new Inside-Out course. Perhaps they will change the way some people in power understand crime in a more positive light. The process has given me the space to stumble through my own blind spots, pride, and prejudices. Honestly, I am not certain whether my very small contribution will make much of an impact if any. Even as I write this, I grow a little anxious and discouraged about the sheer monstrosity of suffering, inequality, and dehumanization in our world. Humans can do so much, but at the end of the day humans can only do so much. As little as I know about God, I do know that God is already at work. Jesus is God made man, a God who, out of radical love, chose to enmesh Himself in our messy, broken, suffering, and fleshy world with his own hands. I think that this is what restoration looks like: it’s about becoming enmeshed in messy, difficult, and corrupt spaces with a vision of lasting change no matter how long it takes. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of incredible faith, says it best:
“I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice…’No lie can live forever.’”
Throughout this process I’ve come to realize that the work of justice is messy, self-sacrificing, and arduous. My current challenge is not that I finish my senior thesis, but that I recommit to stepping into the next part of my role in restoration. It’s a question I must ask for the rest of my life: how will you respond today? Some days, I honestly fear this and see this call as a curse, rather than a blessing. Yet, simultaneously, working towards justice is taking a step into the arc of God’s work that he has already begun, into my fullest purpose as a human being.
I will not despair.
1 One Church, Many Tribes by Richard Twiss.
2 I realize that using the phrase “the poor” can be objectifying, but in this case I define it as any person or group who has been denied equality or worth in any respect and those who have bore oppression.
3 1 Corinthians 12:15: 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
4 For more information see Protestant Work Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism by Max Weber.
5 For more information see Elementary Forms of Religious Life by Emile Durkheim.
6 For more information see The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach.
7 There is a important, but subtle difference between “Church” and “church.” When it is capitalized, I am referring to the God’s people as a whole and when I say “church,” I am referring to the social organizations.
8 This is a major atheistic critique of religion that clearly resonates with me. It is very easy to conflate scripture, faith, church, conservatism, and religion. Here I am critiquing many “comfortable churches” that I have been a part of, not faith, scripture, God, or the larger concept of the Church.
9 Excerpt from Isaiah 58.
10 Genesis 1:27: So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.
11 “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” a poem by Wendell Berry.
12 The school-to-prison pipeline generally refers to the school policies and practices that contribute to the alarming rate at which “at-risk” students in underserved areas are being pushed out of school and funneled into the juvenile and criminal justice system.
13 The Inside-Out program brings together outside students (e.g. traditional college students) and inside students (e.g. people who are incarcerated) to have class together in a correctional facility.
14 1 in 100 Pew Research Report 2008.
15 “African American Youth and the Juvenile Court System,” Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Washington, DC, www.juvjustice.org.
16 The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Hana Lehmann ’13 is from Rapid City, South Dakota and is completing a special major in Political Science and Educational Studies with a focus on the school-to-prison pipeline and a minor in Peace and Conflict Studies. She likes to dabble in rock cello, motorcycles, and extraordinarily hot Indian cooking.Tags: church, economics, education, God, joy, justice, Martin Luther King Jr, Michelle Alexander, politics, prison, Richard Twiss, social justice, Swarthmore College, Wendell Berry, worship