I pray everyday using the fantastic Christian prayer book, Common Prayer: Prayers for Ordinary Radicals. Today it opens with this for May 29:
On May 29, 1968, the Poor -People’s Campaign arrived in Washington, D.C. The campaign was established to broaden the civil rights movement to include disadvantaged -people of all races. The main demonstration was held at the Mall in Washington, D.C., where -people camped out in tents called Resurrection City. Seven thousand demonstrators made this tent city their home to bring attention to issues of poverty and injustice.
What’s different 43 years later, is how little genuine debate is taking place about the poor in our midst. The “Ryan Plan” at the National level, austerity measures at the state and local level, are all looking to eradicate social programs and further disenfranchise the poor. Why are we letting this happen? Workers, labor unions, poor people, are all struggling more today than anytime in recent memory. Democracy itself seems to be up for grabs.Where are the massive marches today? Where’s the debate; if people want to further bankrupt the poor (and children, and the elderly) why don’t they at least tell us that’s the goal?
What was the church doing in 1968 to energize and sustain such a strong voice that we’re not doing today? Were they defining justice in more life-giving ways than we are? Were they somehow more equiped to speak and act?
Did you know that the Bible talks about justice well over 1,000 times (a very conservative count)? Or that Jesus confronted the authorities of his day with their injustice 40 times? We are told over and again that the Lord loves justice (Isaiah 61:8) and executes justice (Deuteronomy 10:18); and that, like God, we are to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) and hunger/thirst/seek after justice (Matt 5:6 & 6:33).
But what exactly is justice? Justice, as I am learning, is mercy and kindness applied on a social scale. It’s love writ large. In the same way love and mercy should define individual relationships, justice is the biblical term for what should define community. Beyond acts of charity towards individuals, justice creates patterns of behavior, systems of community, and relational interactions so there is no longer need for acts of charity. If a ministry of mercy would feed the poor through a food pantry, a ministry of justice would explore the systemic reasons why poverty exists in the first place, then seek to change the system so poverty is no more. You can read more of my working definition in my article called “For the love of justice.”
Back to our question: what was the church (and culture in general) doing in 1968 that we’re not doing today to equip people for bold action? One thing is train people to speak out against injustice, and on behalf of the poor. With this in mind, a Speakers Training for Economic Justice and Workers Rights called Labor in the Pulpit is planned for June 23, 9-11AM at Saint Stephens Episcopal Church, 1805 West Alabama. For more information, check out hiwj.org or call director Laura Boston for questions or RSVP at 713.862.8222. You’ll here the story of a local worker, explore the differences between charity and justice and the call for justice hidden in plain site within the sacred texts. You’ll also have the opportunity network with likeminded individuals and hear of other justice work being done in the city.
In the brazen face of injustice, the ancient prophet reminds us that God requires a simple response: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” Jesus lived this life from cradle to grave, though you might miss it if the extent of your Jesus-knowledge is recitation of the creed. In 20 verses of his most famous sermon Jesus calls this ethic to mind twice: once positively, and once negatively. In Matthew 5:6 Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” Hardly what we’ve seen from our politicians these days. Fiscal responsibility? Sure. Safeguarding business? You bet! Advocating charity? Like its the core of the gospel. But we’re not seeing too much hungering and thirsting… except, actually we are, just not for justice. Then, in 5:20 Jesus says we had better have more justice than the religious leaders of the day, who loved preaching about piety, fasting, and (you guessed it!) charity!
Based on his understanding of faith, Tim Keller, author of Generous Justice: How God’s Grace makes us Just, says “If you are a christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life – you are failing to live justly and righteously (pg 112).” He goes on to say there are three levels or ways of doing justice: Relief, Development, and Social Reform. This third layer, social reform, is really what was happening on May 29, 1968.
Has the time come for us to again move past responding through charity or mere relief efforts? Does the social storm of injustice demand we march, speak, and do what those of ancient times have done before us? There are many in the city doing it already. I think of The Metropolitan Organization, a group of religious congregations and non-profits working for a just and wholistic Houston at the grass-roots level. Check out their recent blog responding to economic injustice called, “Please! Raise my taxes!” And I think of The Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a local group of faith leaders working alongside workers to combat wage theft (yes, employers in Houston actually steal wages!) and further economic justice in our city. I’ve been a part of many actions with this committee, standing up for folks who need an advocate. It’s exciting work! Unfortunately, it’s also necessary.
So let’s channel our ancient prophets, from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the 60’s, calling our culture to connect faith and work like in Scripture; to safeguard the working poor with a living wage; and to hunger and thirst for justice.
First posted at Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog, The Peace Pastor, at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor.