Service or Social Justice?

There is nothing quite as inspiring as morning coffee, toast with honey and peanut butter, and conversation with a good friend. This past week, all of this fell into place during a trip to Chicago. The conversation started innocently enough. I asked about a conference my friend had attended. It was clear that he was not impressed. According to him the theme was justice but all they could focus on was service. I must admit that initially I did not understand his point. In my mind service and justice might not be exactly the same thing, but they are closely related. To put it mildly, I got schooled.

For him service, although important and needed, is only a Band-Aid. For example we need people to help out and serve at after school programs, foodbanks, drug rehabilitation programs, day cares, drop-in centers, and homeless shelters. This list is only a start. It is the opportunity to serve at various helping agencies and social service programs that has been at the heart and soul of what DOOR programing offers.

In my mind service was a pretty important priority for Jesus as well. So I wasn’t understanding the frustration.

Then he made the transition. Service is what we do to help folks who have been left behind by a system that doesn’t care. There is a sense in which service makes me, the service provider, feel better about myself, my life, and my privilege. And it provides some temporary relief for those who have been abused and treated unfairly by the system.

The work of justice asks us to challenge, change, deconstruct, and rebuild the system. Justice work asks questions about fair wages, access to health care, and housing costs. It is concerned about affordable childcare and quality education for all. It examines how people in power wield their power and demands that no one be judged or treated differently because of where they live, the color of their skin, or their religion or orientation. Working towards justice requires that we embrace the complexity of the world we live in.

There is a tendency among people of faith to keep things simple. It is relatively easy to feed people or offer after school tutoring. It is quite another thing to make changes to assure quality education for all children.

This summer our Denver program eliminated one of its service days and replaced it with a gentrification tour. During this tour our groups are exposed to the realities of gentrification on the Westside of Denver. Many of our participants appreciate being asked to think about the injustices that come with gentrification. There is also a growing segment of folks who are horrified that we would expose good people who came to do service to issues of justice.

I am grateful for a breakfast and conversation that satisfied my stomach and challenged my soul. Could it be possible that service without justice is just self-serving?

Justice

The other week I attended the Justice Conference in Chicago.  Quite honestly I wasn’t expecting much.  I had signed up months prior and forgotten why. But I had paid the registration fee, so I went.  What I thought was going to be a forgetful conference ended up being more of a revival for my soul. Justice is one of those biblical concepts that has been used to instill fear.  As a young child I remember going forward at a revival meeting because I didn’t want to face an angry God.  After all, I stole cookies from the downstairs refrigerator and that act was punishable by eternity in hell!  I could deal with my mother’s wooden spoon, but I had no idea how to deal with a God who was a strange and twisted version of Santa Claus, keeping a naughty list that would seal my doom.

As I got older, my understanding of justice began to expand.  I heard Tony Campolo’s sermon about 30,000 children dying every day from preventable issues.  Doing something about this was connected to both justice and my faith.

I have always struggled to get past idea that justice is mostly punitive.  When someone does something wrong, they get caught and pay the price for doing wrong.  This is the idea behind Toby Keith’s anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”: “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, It’s the American way.”  Our enemy did us wrong and justice demands that we reign down terror.

This twisted and misinformed understanding of justice is not healthy.  It has given permission to value some lives less than others.  In the USA we have seen this in the way that black lives are devalued.

When we see justice primarily through the lens of punishment, we completely miss the biblical idea of justice.  The opening speaker at the Justice Conference was Dr. Cornel West. In his address he suggested that justice is what love looks like in public.  Justice has something to do with not only believing but living and acting as if every person, even your enemy, is created in the very image and likeness of God.

A just world is not so much about who is getting punished, but believing that everyone has worth.  It’s not just about reposting “black lives matter” but working towards a society and culture that lives and acts in such a way.  It will mean reexamining our prison industrial complex, rethinking how we fund the public school systems, and calling law enforcement officials to greater accountability.  Justice means moving church out of the building and into the street.