Trayvon Martin. John Crawford. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Freddie Grey.
I’ve been watching the names pile up. We all have. But there’s something about the #McKinney Pool Party that caught me. No, there wasn’t a body (not this time), but I could smell the chlorine. I can feel the the pruny fingers that are sore from gripping wet concrete. My skin is ashy and warm from too much time in the water. The sun beats on my face. I can feel Dajerria’s braids. I can hear her cry.
Pheobe, Norline, Priscille, Cardorie, LaLa, Tieeka. Their names run through my head. These are the girls that I had pool parties with growing up. It’s how you waste summers in the bright Florida sun. We didn’t have a pool either, but sometimes we went to a friend’s neighborhood pool to swim. You see, I would have been the one using their community pool growing up.
Dajeeria and her friends are us. I wonder, would I have been thrown to the ground? I don’t look that different.
I’ve just finished my first year working in Christian higher ed and I must say the dialogue around ‘justice’ and reconciliation is muddled at best – if it’s even happening. To some, social justice has political implications that don’t sit well. At the same time, we are caught between tensions when authority doesn’t seem to uphold the law evenly.
But when incidents like #McKinney and #Ferguson continue to pile high, what are we to do? Since when do we have to fight authority about broken necks and pulling braids? And these are only the incidents we hear of. These twinges of discomfort become louder, stronger with every name and case that flashes across media. How do we respond when we hear chants about #BlackLivesMatter?
After listening to my colleagues wonder through these court-cases and verdicts, I want to posit a few practical considerations when framing a Theology of Justice. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it might provide some good starting points when thinking about faith and justice.
1. Separate law from justice.
Although it is easy to conflate legality with justice, we must start by distinguishing the two.
Justice, in its truest definition, is intimately intertwined with righteousness. This provides insight to both what justice is and what it does. The word tsedeq (righteousness) in Hebrew– it is defined as justice. The Old Testament continuously shows us that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89). His justice enacted is oppression fought (Jeremiah 22), and equity restored (Psalm 99) so that we have relationship with him. Justice and righteousness is about restoration of humanity.
The law however, has not always maintained what is ‘just’- it has not defended the humanity of others. America has a history of policies like the ‘⅗ law’ and the ‘not one drop’ rule, which have systematically marginalized people groups. We created laws that put American citizens in internment camps. Women could not always vote. Interracial marriage was not ‘legal’.
In distinguishing justice and law, we are able to re-center around the value of humanity. Jesus recognized that the laws of his time did not affect or protect each person the same way. This created isolation, marginalization and inequity. Jesus looked beyond the law and asked what was just. He touched lepers and spoke to women. Jesus exacted justice by honoring humanity apart from the standards of the law. We start building our theology of justice by affirming humanity. Start in asking: Who do our laws protecting? What are our laws telling us about the way we ascribe humanity?
2) Practice Compassion (Listen to those with a different story)
One of my favorite researchers, Brené Brown, does research on shame and vulnerability. But I think some of her strongest work is in the way she connects shame to our capacity for empathy and compassion. She states:
Practicing compassion allows us to hear shame…The prerequisite for empathy is compassion. We can only respond empathetically if we are willing to hear pain. Compassion is possible for anyone who can accept the struggles that make us human– compassion is not something we don’t have, it’s something we choose to practice. Compassion is not a virtue, it is a commitment (Brown, 2007).
Scripture tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them. In fact, this is Jesus’ M.O. when he encounters any person affected by oppression. He listens to the woman at the well, he hears the cry of the man possessed by unclean Spirits. Jesus practices compassion by listening and responding to the marginalized. Jesus continually created space to acknowledge and hear pain. Compassion allows us to sit in discomfort. A theology of justice creates capacity to hear the pain of others.
3) Embrace Discomfort
Somewhere in the evangelical church we have swallowed the notion that justice and equity is about comfort. Reparations have becoming about silencing pain and minimizing the past. But Jesus did not turn a blind eye to inequity in order to justify it. Rather, through suffering Jesus modeled the transforming work of justice.
Sometimes it’s easy to turn our ears and hearts away from the news stories like #McKinney because they are uncomfortable. What if we knew those kids at the pool party? What if we were at that pool party? But when we defend the justice of others, it will often (if not always) come at an expense. It could cost me my voice, my popularity or relationships. It will cost the emotional energy of listening and time. But solidarity becomes a way to honor the image of God in those who are marginalized.
Holy compassion reminds us that ‘endurance as forgiveness’ is the way of the cross. If we are truly practicing compassion, we will be affected by the voices of others– awakened to their humanity. A theology of justice produces a willingness to sit in discomfort to move others toward righteousness.
4) Be Urgent
Say the names. Read the stories. Watch the videos. Make the connections. Even if it's uncomfortable. Talk to your neighbor, your co-worker, your small group because talking about it makes it real. These stories aren’t just headlines, statistics or case numbers, but people. Protest. Raise awareness to raise compassion.
In 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King wrote:
In an atmosphere devoid of urgency the American people can easily be stupefied into accepting slow reform, which in practice would be inadequate reform. "Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream," said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down.
His prophetic words still ring true. I listen to these news stories and ask if it could be one of my friends next. And then I wonder, what if everyone in the church thought that way?
50 years ago MLK cried out asking where the church was. I fear the church will miss the call again. Don’t wait for one more name. One more court case, one more fact. Fight for humanity over legalism.
Practice compassion and listen into the marginalized; begin to see that brokenness is rampant. A theology of justice starts in small ways, but it starts now.
A theology of justice can begin because of a pool party.
Brown, B. (2007). I Thought it was Just Me (but it Isn't): Making the Journey from" what Will People Think?" to" I Am Enough". Penguin.