Social Justice Is Not a Political Statement

As I shared in my post “Handouts Do Not Equal Social Justice,” I believe some people have a really confused notion about what social justice is and is not.  After reflecting on some of the comments I received on the post, I think there are some who think I am trying to make some kind of political statement and seem to be very confused, threatened and even fearful of the concept of Christians seeking social justice through the church.

So I decided perhaps it would be easier to give an example of how charity and justice can work together and do not lead to anything sinister.

Meet Al.  Al is a slim fifty-four year old African American man who lives in Hillside Court.  Al has a bright smile and a gentle spirit.  He started coming to our community conversation about six months ago and expressed interest in helping us address the issue of food scarcity in his community.  Al knows firsthand the desperate need for food in his community and was anxious to help us figure out how to start a food coop.  Al has been looking for a job for over two years but has been unable to find steady employment.  So every day, Al eats one meal a day at a local feeding site a couple of miles from his home.  If he can find an odd job he may have enough money for dinner.

In August, the week before we were preparing to bring Al onto our Embrace AmeriCorps team, Al became very ill and was hospitalized.  We learned that Al has stage 4 lung cancer. Sadly the cancer is now in his bones which are causing him a lot of pain.  Al no longer has the energy or the ability to walk to the feeding site to eat lunch and he has no money for food.  His doctor told him that he needs to gain some weight in order to be healthy enough for the chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  When we learned of Al’s lack of food, a volunteer who serves with Al in our Hillside community contacted their local church who got Al a gift card to a grocery store.  The nearest grocery store is nearly five miles away, so my AmeriCorps members took Al grocery shopping.  They said he was so grateful that he could actually pick out what he wanted to eat. Al rarely has that luxury.

As I have been in prayer for my friend Al, I can’t help but think of Jesus words in Matthew 25.  Jesus said, 34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.  37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

In order for Al to make the journey that lies before him, he is going to be dependent upon the charity of others in order to eat.  Without charity, my friend Al will starve.

However, food alone will not meet all his needs.  He needs Jesus.  Not a supernatural being in the sky.  Not the promise of Jesus in the afterlife.  He needs a tangible flesh-in-blood Jesus who will walk with him through this terrifying life or death ordeal.  You see Al is pretty much alone in the world.  He has no family in Richmond and a very small social network.  None of them have the capacity to really be Christ to Al in his time of need.  I can’t imagine facing something like cancer alone.  I can’t imagine going through chemo treatments alone.  I grieve at the thought of Al lying exhausted in a tiny apartment all alone.  Al needs the body of Christ to do what Jesus called us to do in Matt 25.  He needs us to care for him.  All week I have been praying, “Lord, who will look after Al? Where is your body?”

The heart of social justice is a willingness to walk in solidarity with the stranger in a time of suffering.  It is in our solidarity with those who suffer that justice is achieved.  We balance out the inequality between Al who will suffer alone and the suffering of others with stronger social networks, simply through our presence.

If any of us had a family member facing what Al is facing, we would not hesitate to help that person in their time of need.  Jesus says in Matthew 25, “Al is my brother.”   Jesus stretches us and calls us to care for the total stranger in the same way we would care for him.  We do these acts of compassion toward the stranger, not out of our own power, but solely because we are there to represent Christ who would never want his brother Al to make this journey alone.

The mystery lies in the fact that by being Jesus to “the least of these,” we are ministering to Jesus.  We receive from Christ far more than we give on Christ behalf.  This is a beautiful mystery, a divine paradox.

I invite you into the mystery, not because I am trying to influence your political views, but because I want you to experience this mystery.  Will you be Jesus to and see Jesus in my friend Al?

Just in case you were wondering, this is not a rhetorical question.  I really am hoping someone out there will feel called to spend time with Al or to offer to help Al with his need for food.  He is terrified and really needs friends.  He needs his brothers and sisters in Christ to surround him with a love, support, and with a peace that passes understanding.

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9 Comments

Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

9 responses to “Social Justice Is Not a Political Statement

  1. Wendy, hope you don’t mind another comment from me. I partially agree – the call for justice is not just a political platform. I believe, as you do, that justice was central to the message of the prophets and Jesus. But I also think that social change – for better or for worse – must often be achieve through political means. While the practice of walking alongside the suffering is a powerful and much needed ministry, I think of social justice more in terms of the reformation of systemic patterns, laws, and societal norms that result in oppression. To put it another way, a ministry of presence stands with the Al’s of today, while social justice works for the Al’s of the future.

    I’m not sure if Al has adequate health care and coverage or not, but to use that issue as an example: Those who want but cannot afford health insurance most definitely need people to walk alongside them and be the presence of Christ, but there’s also a longterm need to change the laws and norms that caused the problem in the first place. Or, as we chatted about recently, people in communities like mine have to stand up and go to the powers that be to stop the neglect of one side of town. So it goes back to the quote we’ve both used: Charity sees a hungry man and feeds him; justice asks, “Why is that man hungry”…and works to prevent less hungry people.

    What do you think?

  2. Howard P

    Corey, I think you are right that social justice requires work on the legal front. I believe however that systems that are the most damaging to the aspiration of a healthy community are the social systems whose dividing lines are determined by the social attractions and aversions we are conditioned to accept inside ourselves. Human nature is to gravitate to (be attracted by) people who help us move up the socioeconomic food chain and/or who we find it easiest to be with. And human nature is to be repelled (even repulsed) by people whose appearances, lifestyles, situations, etc. are “less attractive” (by society standards), and who require us to be uncomfortable to be in relationship with them. As this “system” of open and closed doors to others grows inside ourselves we create a society that reflects it. The story of Jesus is one in which the Love of God inside of him for “all kinds” of people was so strong that it “flipped the script” on his social, gravitational pulls, leading him to spend time and invest in friendships with people in ways that turned the social norms of society on their head. We can and should change laws that create systematic disadvantages for people, but that will never change the “nature” we experience in ourselves to favor association with people who make us look better, help us climb the ladder, and are easier to relate to. For me, all talk of social justice must ultimately point to the place most people don’t want to deal with, to all the “walls” and “issues” built up inside us that prevent us from loving “different” neighbors as ourselves.

  3. wmccaig

    Totally agree. There is a systemic level of injustice that has to be addressed and I do believe often through political means. But I think the most powerful political force are those who identify very deeply with the need and who advocate for those who are being unfairly impacted by the system. This all starts with relationships with folks like Al. I totally get what you are saying so maybe the title of this post should be “Social Justice is not a political statement but often involves a political process.” I struggle with over emphasizing the systemic injustice because I think it can seem to daunting for the average Christian to make a difference in the system. However, stories like Al’s show how just one Christian can make a difference. I will ponder this a bit more. Great comment as always!

  4. wmccaig

    Howard, I love your insights into how cultural norms create systems of injustice. I struggled putting this story into this conversation because there was no clear system of injustice to point to but you hit the nail on the head.

  5. Karen Scherling

    I think in terms of micro and macro social justice. As we meet and minister to the many Al’s in our community we do what is possible in a micro way. Food, rides, support…. these micro experiences often lead us to the macro stuff. This is complex, often overwhelming and open to all sorts of philosphical points of view. Just like in Jesus’ time lots of inequality exists in our world and it is systemic. We live in a world that, in my opinion, believes all can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The problem with this thinking is that not everyone got the same set of boots. As a society we must recognize this reality. All people have equal value yet all are not given equal gifts (bootstraps). This is no great moral flaw, rather reality. Jesus walked among all people and saw the
    inequality and reality.
    This is a very complex topic and does not lend itself to quick fixes. Sometimes when I think about this it more than I can wrap my brain around. What should God’s kingdom look like here on earth?

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