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Walking the Justice Walk

2010 January 24
by Julie Clawson

I had an interesting conversation while I was at Urbana with a man who works on a university campus with InterVarsity. I had told him that my seminars were on social justice issues, and he commented that he hears more and more about students saying they care for the poor and the oppressed, but that he rarely sees them actually doing anything about it. When he challenges them on this, most on them reply that while they know they should be caring about these issues they have no idea how to put it into action. It isn’t that they are too lazy to make an effort, they honestly don’t know where to even begin. We went on to discuss how even great events like Urbana feed that dichotomy, educating people to talk the talk but not always resourcing them to walk the walk.

For example, in the large sessions I attended at Urbana, I heard a lot about the pain in the world. I saw that there were starving and hurting people. I was also told that I am self-centered for Facebooking and Twittering. I heard the stories of immigrants who have nothing and are desperately trying to survive. I was shown the magnitude of my consumption habits. And Shane Claiborne even told me how evil it is to live in empire that hurts instead of helps the world. I got the message. I felt guilty. I understood that I should care for others. But nowhere did I hear what I should be doing instead. I heard loud and clear what is wrong with the world, but nothing about what I need to do to make it right.

And these are the sorts of messages that students and churches are hearing over and over these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m overjoyed that message is getting out. We have to be confronted with the pain in the world and the truth about how our political and economic choices are contributing to it. The church has been silent for far too long about how to truly love our neighbor and care for the oppressed. But unless we are resourcing people at the same time with tangible ways they can be making a difference today, all we are selling is hollow idealism.

july09 067I had that conversation at Urbana, then I got on the plane to come home. On the plane next to me was one of the lead builders of the Earthship community in Taos, New Mexico. The Earthships are fascinating (and well worth the visit if you are ever in the area) – they are basically homes that are built from recycled materials and dirt and made to be off-the-grid and sustainable. They use the sun and wind and earth to heat and cool the home. All water is collected from the rain and used 4-5 times. They leave a light footprint on this earth. Well, this guy spent most of the plane ride talking about ways to make sustainable living a practical reality for every person in the world. He understands that the Earthships are a tad out there for the average person, but he was full of forward-thinking ideas as to how to make sustainable living doable for everyone. As he was talking, I realized that this was what was missing at Urbana and in most Christians discussions about justice. We focus so much on the negatives that we fail to actually make a positive difference. We need to be just as creatively full of ideas as this Earthship guy. If we want to make a difference we need to be out there resourcing any and everyone with doable everyday ways of how we can be loving and serving others.

I know a lot of people who live/write/talk about justice issues are often wary of suggesting practical steps for others to follow. I understand they don’t want to create a new legalism or limit the ways people can love others. But people are desperate for guidance. They want to do something but have no idea where to begin. Or they think they have to wait until they have enough time or resources to start. And then they end up getting mocked or condemned for talking about justice but not actually living it out. But what if we changed that? What if we stopped being afraid of telling people what they should do and just do it already? Not in a domineering or legalistic way, but as friends sharing resources – equipping each other to serve. If I can see examples of how others like me are serving others, I can have a better idea of what I can be doing as well. This isn’t hopeless, we don’t have to get bogged down with guilt or doom and gloom scenarios, we just need to be more like the hippie guy living in a mud hut in the New Mexican desert and just figure out the creative yet practical ways to start living differently today.


12 Responses leave one →
  1. January 24, 2010

    Hey Julie – The earthship community sounds sweet but definitely not in the cards for us right now :) I have often found myself feeling like a hypocrite in this area. My hearts desire is to serve others and seek social justice but it does often seem so hard to tangibly bring that about. We definitely need more examples and I believe we need people putting energy into creatively thinking this stuff through.
    I was just talking to my husband about your post and it led into one of my rants on this whole topic… We are getting ready to move to CA from NY and our plan is to live very minimally and change the way we have been living for most of our lives. What I have found really frustrating is the comments I get from other Christians about our future. For example we have chosen to not purchase a large space for our family of five and we are hoping to go down to one car and we are choosing to not buy a minivan for our family of five and just stick with our current car. And instead of being encouraged in doing this stuff, we get people trying to convince us that we actually need a bigger house and a bigger car. Ah it drives me crazy – I don’t need people encouraging me to be more selfish and comfortable. I need to be challenged and pushed because my own fleshly desires are so strong already! Where did we all go so wrong?
    (on another note – did you run the emerging parents site? was just checking it out last night and realized its been pretty quite for a while…)

  2. January 24, 2010

    It is so strange when Christians seem to buy into the cultural idea that our worth stems from our public displays of wealth. I’ve actually been told that I am sinful for encouraging others to simple living. It’s crazy!

    And yes, I did help run the Emerging Parents blog which has been really quite for a long time now. The other moderators backed-out, and I struggled to keep it going. Strangely, I’ve had three different contacts about it just this weekend – so maybe it has some new life ahead. :)

  3. January 25, 2010

    One reason for the talk is that there are still so many people who are unaware of the injustice in the world, or even those who are quite happy with the status quo — even professing Christians.

    And actually doing something about it can have unpleasant consequences — see, for example, Shock suspension of Methodist bishop Paul Verryn: Khanya.

    I would certainly like to know more about the kind of houses you mention, and I think there may be opportunities to do something about that here.

  4. January 25, 2010

    I completely agree. This is the same issue I feel often plagues youth ministry. Pastors and parents and churches spend so much time telling teens what NOT to do but never tell or show them what to do instead.

    Rather than preaching idealism, we need to be showing a different way of living. We are far less capable of doing the latter than the former.

    This is precisely why your book is important Julie! Thanks for giving people somewhere to start- and giving pastors like me a resource to offer.

  5. Lisa C. permalink
    January 25, 2010

    Yes! I think you are so correct Julie- people need tools. Whenever, we offer tools there is that fear that is will be prescriptive, however, without tools we can easily get lost in feeling guilt and no action. It is easy to judge myself or others in that spot, but often it is truly a lack of knowledge about how to start. Creative ideas that allow people to test that waters at whatever level works for them.

    I wonder if some of the sentiment behind resisting simple living is that many churches do want to live that way within their organizations. They feel less “successful” when they don’t have big buildings, fancy coffee bars, big screen tv’s for the kids.

  6. John Munzer permalink
    January 27, 2010

    An excellent point, Julie. In my job, I’m always reminded that it’s no good telling people to stop their bad behavior until you give them a clear plan for how they can engage in good behavior.

  7. January 27, 2010

    Okay–so your first step suggestion is_________??? Logging your energy use, timing your showers, figuring out what foot print you do leave and taking one step to reduce it. How about keeping track of the ammount of packaging the products you buy use. Then chosing different products based on their packaging. Maybe giving a couple hours of time a week to your local foodbank. Watch a low income family’s kids for a couple hours a month for free. Maybe packing up everything you haven’t worn in a year and giving it to the homeless shelter. I don’t know if any of this actually would help or maybe most folks are beyond these simple steps and looking for a bit bigger step. I’d like to hear suggestions from your book. I’d like to know place to send the extra money I manage to save when I put myself on a budget. I agree with your post I just want the suggestions, the next step.

  8. January 28, 2010

    I think one thing we need to let go of, even in our desire to do good is instant gratification. I think we see people who give up if the result they are seeking does not immediately take place.

    I have led work groups on Habitat for Humanity work trips. Yes, it’s a great feeling to see a blank space of land on Monday and see a house on Friday. But the bigger issues don’t work that way. My current church takes a medical mission trip up the Amazon river every year. Because we see the same conditions each year some people wonder what the use is. We’ve been going 7 years. How long has Malaria existed on the Amazon?

    I was working with Habitat in Cleveland, Ohio one year. I met a guy who was about 50 years old and was also working there. He kept telling me that Cleveland was the city of the future. 30% of the property in Cleveland proper was vacant. With rising fuel costs, people would begin moving back into the city. They were already building more bike paths. The city’s proximity to the lake meant that potential for wind power was enormous. This place, Man, is the city of the future.

    I asked him when he saw this happening. His response: 75 years. He was already 50, and was dedicating his life to a future he knew he would never see.

    We have to suck it up and jump in for the long haul.

    It took us a long time to get into this mess; it’s going to take a long time to get out. Sure, there have been some conspiracies, greed, and oppression, but there have also been other places where we are simply experiencing the price of progress. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that the guy who invented styro-foam was just looking for a way to keep your beer cold, not to develop something that would never bio-degrade.

    We know now what we didn’t know before, but it’s going to take a long time to put that knowledge to work and move forward.

    I’m sorry to ramble, but I remember a TOP-TEN on Letterman from when I was in college (1988-1992). It was TOP-TEN headlines of the year 2000. One of them was, “Oat Bran: the Silent Killer.” While that hasn’t proven true, it does lift up that there are times we discover something that seems fantastic at the time, only to find out later that it’s not.

    “Look, Honey. There’s this black stuff under the ground. We can burn it and keep our house warm.”

    “Sir, your x-ray shows you have Black Lung from all the coal dust you’ve inhaled.”

    “Sir, you have cancer from all the radiation you received from these x-rays.”

    If we want to make real change, we need to be willing to work for change we will never see.

  9. Erica permalink
    January 29, 2010

    I love the post and the comments. It resonates so deeply with my personal and professional attempts to find a way to move from the theoretical to the practical. Julie, your book was fantastic in this regard. I bought it at the CCDA annual conference (which, by the way, is a conference that devotes significant time to generating and celebrating solutions to the problems we see in the world) and bought a couple of copies for Christmas gifts. One of the recipients then bought several additional copies to give away. Between gifts and sharing copies of the book, the “let’s do something about this!” message is getting out.

    I agree that we can get bogged down with the problems to the point that we give up on finding simple solutions. Our family has also been accused of “jumping on the liberal bandwagon” for making choices that we feel move us towards living justly, as God calls us to live.

    A recent event in our journey was to buy a car that runs on vegetable oil. I know – it seems extreme, but it is also a lot of fun! My husband, myself and our three daughters approach things like that as adventures with a purpose. We talk about it and participate in the efforts together. A big way we have done this over the past 2-3 years is to change the way we buy and prepare food (family farms, baking bread, a vegetable garden in the back yard for us and our neighbors). Thanks in large part to your book, Julie, we also have reduced how many single-use items we use around the house.

    I work as a youth pastor, so the comment about how we approach guiding students really connected with me. Parents want us to “fix” their kids and keep them from certain behaviors. And they want us to do it in two hours a week, starting at age 13. It isn’t popular or always well received, but we tell them no. We are not going to use the limited time we have with their students to primarily address a list of “forbidden” behaviors. Instead, we spend the majority of our time talking about who God is and casting a vision for how we can participate in God’s activity in the world. This starts with helping them shape their identity as the beloved of God. If that is in place, we trust the behaviors that represent humility, mercy and justice will follow. Then it will be their idea, not ours or their parents, which means they will actually follow through!

    Sorry to ramble, but, like I said, this thread connected with me on so many levels. I’m looking forward to learning more about how people are living differently and creatively.

  10. Jeff permalink
    January 30, 2010

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile, now, and would like to offer something from the Earthship perspective: most folks who live in that space are not professing Christians and are looked down upon by those who are. What we need in this world is more cooperation, love, and understanding and less arrogance, pride, and finger-pointing. I am not a Christian but I’ve made an attempt to understand those who are and I’m so discouraged by the stereotyping that goes on. A friend who lives her Christianity encouraged me to check out the house church movement and that is how I found this blog. I like what I read here and hope that you continue to make progress in breaking down the barriers to communication between the secular and religious worlds. We are all in this together, after all.

  11. E.G. permalink
    January 31, 2010

    Excellent post, and excellent comments.

    Each and every one of us ought to see some form of injustice near us. If we don’t, we’re blind. And we can each work in that sphere. It’s unlikely that that injustice will be something with the media attention of, say, Haiti. But, it’s injustice none-the-less. And something can, and should, be done about it.

    As for the Haitis, and tsunamis, of this world. Give generously to those who are there working on the ground. And, as you grapple with injustice near to you, don’t be afraid to ask your fellow Christians to help you out in a tangible manner as well.


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