Three blocks from my house there is a garden. It’s about two acres of dirt that sits at the corner of a racially charged section of my city, Lexington, Kentucky. It is ground owned by a congregation that, in the past, has acted in ways that made the racial tension worse; they are now seeking to change that dynamic.
Some of us in our little community have planted seeds in that garden in the belief that growing food can help transform our culture and help heal decades of systemic racism. There is not much about that belief that makes sense, but it remains our belief.
About an hour from my house is a mountain. Or, at least there used to be. In our nation’s rush to get “cheap” energy in the form of coal from the ground, energy companies have begun to blow up the mountains. Left in the wake of this destruction are polluted streams and sludge ponds filled with millions of gallons of toxic waste. But, more importantly, left in the wake of the destruction are people who cannot drink the water from their own tap or breathe the air without respiratory devices.
Some of us in our little community have made a commitment to stand with those folks against the large companies. Ours is an audacious hope that the power of standing with those in need will prevail over the power of profit. In a world where money talks, our hope doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But it remains our hope.
All across the world, people are suffering from what Jeffrey Sachs calls “stupid poverty”—needs that could be fairly easily met with small allocations of resources. According to Bread for the World, “Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes—one child every five seconds.” Much of this hunger comes from poverty driven by the inability to generate the most basic business activity.
Some of us in our little community have joined forces with Kiva, an organization making micro-loans to people across the world. We’re part of a bold dream happening in far-flung places, a dream that small loans of $25 and $50 will help change lives and create a more just world. On a planet where the needs seem insurmountably large, this dream doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it remains our dream.
In fact, there is not a whole lot about working for justice that makes sense, if you measure it in rational terms. But then, for Christians, has it ever really been about making rational sense? After all, we’re part of a story that began with a virgin birth, traverses through the resurrection of a man who was God, travels through His ascension back to heaven and concludes when He returns to Earth to reign as King.
In between the Ascension and the Second Coming is the work of the Church. And what is that work? “To preach good news to the poor. To proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Suddenly social justice is all the rage. When I speak at seminaries and divinity schools, people invariably ask me: How do I implement justice in my congregation?
That is why I started with the bit about justice not making sense. So much of our understanding of how to “do” church comes from the rationality of the last 150-200 years. We want formulas, metrics, ways to analyze whether our efforts on behalf of a world in need are effective. We want to know, Did they work?
I can’t offer foolproof methods. I wish I could. What I can offer is what little bit of knowledge I have gained from a few years of seeking to act justly.
Act into a new way of thinking
In the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus lays down all this heavy stuff on the disciples. When Jesus suggests they can follow Him, the disciples were confused.
Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And what does Jesus say at that point? “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:5-6). I think what Jesus was trying to convey is that there is a way of understanding that can only come from doing. Thinking more justly will come from acting more justly. And thinking and acting more justly will come as we follow in the Way of Jesus, sacrificing ourselves on behalf of a world in need.
Communities of moral formation
Well, you might ask, how do we get people in our pews to act more justly? The greatest place to start is by committing to transforming our congregations from providers of spiritual goods and services to communities of moral formation.
In this time, when there are so many evidences of God’s emergent work in the world, we often feel uncomfortable teaching people to live morally. But to shape a community into the image of Christ is also to engage with issues like poverty and homelessness. Being shaped in the model of the Bread of Life is to ask why whole populations in our community have only Wonder Bread, and have not eaten real food in years. As we seek to form a community transformed by the radical life and work of Christ, these are the kinds of moral concerns we need to address.
Think wholly, act wholly
Nearly 40 years ago an environmentalist said, “think globally, act locally.” That made sense in the late 1960s, when only the wealthiest traveled around the globe.
This morning, on the Internet, I read the morning news from a South African paper, and listened to the BBC. On Facebook, I traded messages with friends from two different continents. I listened to music on my iPod with parts from as many as a dozen different countries. Tell me, what is local and what is global anymore?
Distinctions like global and local are going away. So must our understanding of how to do justice. In place of these local and global distinctions, I want to suggest that we think wholly, and act wholly. The biblical concept of holiness is equivalent to the idea of being whole, and so should our understanding of ways we can participate in God’s work of justice, both in our local communities and in the global community.
Take small steps
Get out of your car: Start walking or biking around your neighborhood. This will help our energy crisis, but that’s not the real reason I suggest it. My motivation behind starting here is that there are things you will notice at five miles per hour that you’d never see at sixty miles per hour.
In our global economy, the needs of your neighborhood are connected to those around the planet. Take time to see those needs. If you want to know how to connect your church back to the community, this is the best place to start.
Plant something: Plant anything, really. But food is a good thing to plant. A few years ago I was asked to address a group of mostly mainline pastors and talk about how they could engage their congregation in issues of global hunger. I told them to grow a garden. They looked disappointed.
The simple fact is I have absolutely no idea how to solve world hunger. But, for the last several years, I’ve tried to grow my own food in the city of Lexington. It’s pretty hard. But I’ve gained the knowledge of the difficulties in solving hunger issues, as well as a sense of gratitude for my food.
Live sacramentally: teach yourself and the people in your church simple prayers of gratitude for what others have done for us. These prayers can serve as reminders of the world in which we live. One easy prayer is to thank God at the evening meal for all the people who helped get the food to your table. Or, thank God as you stand at the checkout line for all the people who sewed, boxed, trucked and displayed those pants you’re about to buy.
Commit to a place: God’s blessing and the blessing of our community are bound up together. (Jeremiah 29:4-7) Yet, in this hyper-consumeristic culture, we hate to think of being stuck in one place for the rest of our lives. But I am going to suggest that, while God may not call everyone to this kind of decision, a move toward God’s justice will involve committing to one place.
Rick Warren popularized the idea of 40 days of purpose, and it’s a good place to start. But I want to suggest that if we, through Christ, are to bring about peace and reconciliation in the world, we will need 40 years of purpose. We need the capacity to see the world in a long-range view, the way God does.
Will Samson is the author of Justice in the ‘Burbs: Being the Hands and Feet of Jesus Wherever You Live (Baker, 2007). Will, his wife, novelist Lisa Samson, and their family are participants in the life of Communality, a missional Christian community in Lexington, KY.