Last summer, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, large numbers of people came together to learn about and to speak out about the injustices happening in their own backyards. The media put a spotlight on the prevalence of injustices that had often been ignored before. At the same time, members of predominantly or historically white churches began to read the books and listen to the stories that they had not been familiar with before. People posted on social media. People attended rallies. And we saw a real impact! Statements were made, people were arrested, and commissions were formed.
But then at a certain point after that, some of us got stuck or overwhelmed. We got weary of or confused by the controversy and hard conversations. There was hurt from the pushback we faced. We realized the problems we were learning about had more complicated layers than we thought. Now, many people are still engaged and learning and advocating, but some people have stepped back.
Part of this has to do with attention span and all the ills of social media. But it’s also impossible to stay standing with shallow roots. It takes focused work to build strong, deep roots around the work of justice, but this type of training isn’t always available in the church.
How can we use a more adaptive, long-term approach to shift from one-off events and pronouncements to equipping communities for the deeper work God calls us to? Here are seven ideas of ways to keep growing those deep roots.
Do the work of leading by example as a leader and a church
Before you start the work of addressing broader injustices, make sure you and your community do your own work of addressing past injustices—big and small—that you’ve been involved in and preventing future injustice in your own sphere. Do the private work that you need to do before you become a public advocate. Start with humility—ask for honest feedback, invite anonymous feedback that people may not feel comfortable giving openly, circle back to people who have raised issues in the past, and seek out ways to learn about how and your community may have missed the mark. Then make it right. This work includes listening, apologizing, repentance, putting accountability systems in place, preventing abuse, being purposeful about facilitating whistleblowing and transparency, and putting systems in place now to address issues that may arise in the future.
Keep reading and learning God’s vision of justice
In Scripture, God lays out the design for a community that both prevents injustice on all levels and addresses injustice when it arises. God’s design paints a picture of humans flourishing in a society based on equality, rest, relationship, and safety. Dive into the practices of sabbath, jubilee, safety nets, community feasts, protection of the vulnerable, and mandates for a justice system that is free of bias and corruption (see Leviticus chapters 5, 19, and 25, and Deuteronomy chapters 5, 16, and 23-27). What do these passages and teachings show us about God’s priorities for justice?
Learn the injustice playbook together
Injustices across time and space all have similar underlying mechanisms. Scripture calls out 1) biases, 2) bureaucracy, and 3) bullying in creating injustice:
- Biases: While God created communities to care for each other, our unjust personal and cultural views are the gnarly soil of bias and prejudice that stunt compassion. Our biases prevent us from caring about people equally and from loving others as we love ourselves.
- Bureaucracy: While God designed systems to promote justice and address extreme inequality, our unjust systems further exacerbate inequality. Bureaucracy can and should be a good thing—layers of accountability and protection. But too often, our systems—whether in the faith, economic, social, political, educational, or judicial realms—are rigged for or against certain groups of people either intentionally or simply through neglect.
- Bullying: While God intends our relationships to be based on self-sacrificial love, our unjust relationships exploit and abuse. As Gary Haugen says in his book The Good News about Injustice, you can usually boil down these exploitations to some form of deception or coercion.
Learning more about how these mechanisms operate allows us to identify injustice in real time and then develop multi-pronged, multi-stage strategies that are targeted at destroying the foundations of each particular injustice.
Unpack what warps our injustice radars
I have been in many situations where I have been completely oblivious to injustice happening right around me. On many occasions, I have read about an injustice or someone has told me about an injustice they personally experienced and even then I doubted it was really true. Injustice thrives in contexts where people aren’t looking for it, don’t really believe it exists, or think that it rarely happens. Oppression can be so confusing and isolating that even the people experiencing the injustice might not recognize what’s happening or may think the abuse is their fault. Fear, disgust, sadness, and naivete can make us not want to see injustice. Or we might notice an injustice and feel it’s not “as bad” as something else out there so maybe we let it slide. We need to learn to take these “planks” out of our eyes so that we can see clearly.
In addition, injustice can be the hardest to recognize and acknowledge in our own circles—our own neighborhoods, churches, cities, countries, families. It’s where we have the most at stake and the most to lose if we speak up. We all are aghast at and condemn the injustices “out there,” but true righteousness means being ready to use our radar closer to home where we have the most to lose but also the best chance to make a difference.
Build our faith and imagination for the work
So many of us don’t really believe justice is possible. We need to hear real-life stories of justice being done so that we can picture it! Share stories of justice being done in big and small ways in your own communities. Tell the stories from Scripture of God’s people (and God!) doing the work of justice in different ways in different contexts. Boaz, Nathan, and Reuben tackle relational-level injustice and each intervene in different ways. Boaz protects. Nathan confronts. Reuben negotiates. The prophets, the Hebrew midwives, Moses, Mordechai and Esther are among those who act to counter systemic injustice. Isaiah warns. The midwives ignore evil mandates and lie to Pharaoh. Moses makes an appeal. Mordechai investigates. Esther advocates. There are endless ways to do justice – make sure your people can see that there’s a role for everyone to do justice in different ways to creatively meet the needs of particular people in a specific situation.
Learn how to counter injustice
In the story of Esther and Mordechai’s work of justice to save the Israelites from genocide, there are three elements: 1) investigation/research, 2) direct intervention, and 3) advocacy. While the tools and contexts for this work have changed during the past few millennia (social media campaigns didn’t exist then), these three core elements are the same. In investigating and researching, we’re doing the work of finding out what really happened. With intervention, we’re stepping in personally or as a group to confront the injustice. In an advocacy role, we’re building a compelling case for action to someone else who is needed to address the problem. As we learn and practice these skills, your community will be equipped to do the work of justice in the day-to-day situations where one person or one group really can make all the difference.
Connect with and support justice-oriented organizations in your community—those doing the work of investigating, intervening, and advocating. Advocacy groups, newspapers, Legal Aid, etc. Take the time to learn from them about what is happening in your own community, what it takes for the work of justice to succeed, and what support they need. Invite them to come tell their stories. And then invite them back. Keep listening. Keep learning.
As with any skill, when we haven’t learned how to do justice, it seems intimidating, overwhelming, and impossible. But once we understand the mechanisms that drive injustice, we are able to engage in more savvy ways in the work of justice that is all around us. If we know what the work of justice involves in practical ways, we can move from hashtag activism to community-based action. As we build a deeper foundation for the work of justice, we will be able to grow more effective in our work for justice—using those deep roots to persevere in love.