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?

Attitude

I have two teenaged boys.  Every once in a while they develop what can best be described as an “attitude.”  Please do not read this as a positive thing!  Their negative attitudes can be quite diverse.   One moment I am a lousy incredibly unfair parent and the next they see no reason to participate in family activities.  They argue about the importance of homework, getting enough sleep, going to church, and the friends they hang out with.  During every one of these discussions they spend a significant amount of time ranting about how uninformed and out of touch I am.  None of this is good for my self-esteem. I cannot help but wonder how often I cop an attitude with God.  For example, I am the Executive Director of DOOR.  In my mind this means I need to be powerful.  For me, power has something to do with an ability to control.  Then I read Scripture and Jesus seems to contradict this idea.  For Him power is about service and self-sacrifice.  On paper this sounds almost idyllic, but in reality service and sacrifice can be view as indicators of weakness.

Can you imagine living life as a servant?  Servants are people who need to figure out how to survive under the power of a master.  What happens if the master is evil?  Aren’t Christians called to defeat evil?  If we are going to win this battle then we need to be people of power.

Donald Kraybill is credited with coining the term “Upside-Down Kingdom.”  This is another way of thinking about what Jesus was called his followers to.  In this kingdom everything we know about leadership and power is reversed.  Enemies are to be viewed as future friends.  Non-violence is always the response to violence, even when terrorists attack.  Service to others, regardless of social position, is always the starting point for relationship.

Living and acting this way is counter-cultural.  Living counter-culturally is not easy; sometimes it leads to copping an attitude with God.