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Discussing Everyday Justice 4

2009 November 11
by Julie Clawson

The recent contest to win a copy of Everyday Justice generated some fantastic comments and questions about justice issues. So I’ve been addressing some of those in blog posts. I don’t assume to have THE answers to anything, but just want to share my perspective and hope you will join in with yours as well.

Christi Bowman commented –
“As an American is it possible to not be exploitative…which is where begging for mercy from Jesus everyday comes in…no matter what I do their are countless ways in which I am exploitative and don’t know it and some ways I am exploitative and as of yet have not found ways to discontinue being exploitative…I am responsible for the damage living my life causes those who have to pay the price. I live in Babylon…I am the oppressor! You can step out of the empire in a day but it takes a life time to get the empire out of you (Shane Claiborne)“

And Dave honestly stated–
“What worries me most about the whole issue of justice is that I kind of see “working for justice” as working against me. I can’t shake the feeling that when people cry out against the unjust, the people they’re crying out against are people who live just like me and my friends. This makes me extremely uneasy.”

I admit, it is scary and it makes me uneasy too. Basically I don’t want to have to hear that I am part of the problem – that it is my actions that are what are hurting other people. Because if I know the truth, then I have a choice to make. I can continue hurting others or I can make changes so that I stop. If I am a decent human being who isn’t afraid to be responsible for my actions, then I have no choice but to choose to change my actions. But of course, I don’t want to change because change is uncomfortable and hard. If I were being completely truthful, I’d say I’d rather remain in ignorance and not have to be responsible or change anything. But I know I can’t.

The truth about injustice makes many people so uneasy that instead of taking responsibility they start making excuses for why we don’t need to bother. (and Dave, I’m not saying this is you at all, just some stuff your statement prompted me to respond to) I hear a lot, especially from Christians in this Western individualized world, about how we in reality have no such communal responsibility. That our participation in culture can’t be faulted since that is just the air we breathe. That we need to care just about the individuals we encounter, especially our own friends and family. That there is no reason to be forced to feel guilty about someone we will never meet, systems we don’t control, or events that happened in the past. I understand how a lot of that is based in a mentality of fear and a serious aversion to change, but I’ve also come to see how such attitudes are unfortunately rooted in a culture (religion) of individualism. Our faith even is individualized – all about our personal relationship with God. We’ve lost the idea of being a communal body that cares for all of its members. And we’ve forgotten the idea of corporate sin – our ability to perpetrate sins on a communal level. In fact we are so used to sin being just about personal individual heart things that we assume that the purpose of anyone pointing out issues with our actions is just to make us feel bad about ourselves.

But that’s not the point.

The point of telling the stories of injustice is to help us start living as a community – to admit that we are part of that community and be willing to work with that community. To admit that we are part of Babylon and that like it or not we are involved in the oppression of others. And that if we want to build healthy communities where the needs of all members are respected, then we need to get over this idea that it’s all about just feeling guilty. Change doesn’t come about just because we feel bad. Change happens when we admit we are part of the problem and then do whatever we can to stop. Sure, feelings will be involved, but when we start caring more about how we feel than about the injustices themselves our priorities are seriously messed up. I have a hard time understanding how people can be more upset at me for making them feel guilty about eating chocolate tainted with child slavery than they are about the child slavery. I wish I could just tell them – “Stop making this all about you and just start working to make things better! Be a part of this global community and be responsible for your role in it.”

But it’s hard to challenge individualism and personalized conceptions of faith. It’s hard to admit we’ve done things wrong. And it’s hard to change. I get that this has to be a slow process. I get that we will never create a perfect world. I get that it is impossible to ever step fully outside of systems of oppression and exploitation. I get that we just have to do what we can. I’m all about finding everyday ways to seek justice. I’m all about doing whatever is doable where you are at. I understand it’s messy. I understand that crying out to Jesus for mercy is all we can do at times. But I’m sick of those that use all of those excuses and more to just do nothing. To abdicate responsibility. To wallow in guilt and inaction. To not live as a communal body.

Being part of the Kingdom of God is hard. It is uncomfortable. It takes work. It requires us to get over ourselves and not insist that the world should revolve around our desires. That’s not a popular message in a faith that has attracted followers based on the message that Christianity is all about the wonderful things Christ does for us. But nevertheless, it is what it means to be a part of the body of Christ, and hard or not, it’s how we are called to live.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Dave H permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Thanks for another insightful and provocative post Julie. I strongly agree with what you say about guilty feelings.

    My institution (I work at a Christian college) is currently conversing about issues of race. The whole thing goes off the rails as soon as white people start feeling guilty. That doesn’t help anybody, and doesn’t produce much of value.

  2. November 11, 2009

    This is an issue that deserves some deep consideration. Grace is a good thing, and yes, some churches have leaned too heavily on the guilt and condemnation side of things, but on the other hand, at what point does an emphasis on grace and an aversion to guilt become an avoidance tactic used by an oppressor society to not have to face those hurt by their systemic sins or do anything to change their destructive patterns? I wonder if any theologians have written anything about this phenomenon (liberation or feminist theologians maybe)?

  3. K. Plescher permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Love this post! I couldn’t agree more, and it applies to so much of our lives. My daughter recently learned in church: Wisdom is learning what is right and then doing it. It makes attaining wisdom an action verb, which is a lot harder to come by than simply hearing someone’s words and doing nothing about it. I completely agree about your thougts on truth, which also can have a broader perspective. Many people are accustomed to making truth fit into their own reality, instead of changing their reality in response to learning the truth. Like you said, we often make excuses for our behavior as a way to justify ourselves before others and ultimately God. We don’t want to believe that we are actually wrong about something because we cannot see how our immediate actions are considered wrong. Societal sin? What the heck is that? LOL Well, Jesus had a lot to say about it, and so does the Old Testament. Yet, Christians today are incredibly individualistic and “me” oriented. To the point that when anyone presents the truth of something to them, they immediately begin the excuses and blaming. They turn on the one presenting the truth by saying they are judgmental or legalistic. It’s all about personal conviction anymore, not even a personal relationship with God. One response to me recently was, “It’s not like I am going to hell for it. I am strong in my faith, and this won’t affect my relationship with God.” Not a personal motto I would want to live by, but hey…who am I to judge?

  4. Dave H permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Mike – great response, I agree completely that some people make an art of avoidance that becomes an abdication of responsibility.

    It’s hard to find language for what I’m talking about. I chose the phrase “guilty feelings” but that may not be the best rhetoric.

    I’ll refer again to my community’s recent conversations about racism and racial justice, because I don’t want to be too abstract. During dialogue, when feelings of “guilt” are raised, my African American friends have essentially said, “Nobody wants or needs your guilt, let’s instead talk about cooperative action.”

    I think the issue is that spending time on guilty feelings is all about the guilty person, rather than addressing the pressing circumstances of people experiencing injustice. Certainly compassion and reflexivity should lead us to recognition (and confession!) of the reality of complicity and guilt. But I read Julie’s post as a caution that it’s easy to get bogged down there and not move on toward active peace-building and justice.

    A friend once said to me, “Yes, Dave, you’re racist. Accept it, get over it, and move on!” This was advice that freed me to move beyond focusing on myself and into a place where I could begin to listen to the voices of others and work for a better world.

    I really value the discussions on this blog. Thanks everyone!

  5. November 12, 2009

    It strikes me that the notion of excusing our behavior because it’s the culture — the air we breathe– and we can’t do anything about it is the worst form of moral relativism. How ironic that people who would argue til they’re blue that there are moral absolutes on the individual level will turn a blind eye to the way those absolutes are broken on the corporate or cultural level.

    I think one of the problems is that we lack the moral imagination to see alternative possibilities. The way we live is normal, and we can’t quite see how it could be different, so the defenses go up when someone calls our normal “unjust.” I think that’s where we really need prophetic people to make us aware of the truth, even hard truths about ourselves and our culture, to help us imagine a life that is more just, more in line with the Kingdom.

  6. John Munzer permalink
    November 14, 2009

    I agree with what you say about guilt. Guilt doesn’t change behavior (at least, not for long); but changing behavior relieves guilt. Take it from a Behavior Specialist, it’s true.

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