Social Justice

Practice of the Week
Justice Making

Category: Main Practice, or Key Supporting Practice
from Art McDonald, Deborah Holder, and Stephen Furrer,
"Social Justice," in Everyday Spiritual Practice, abridged and adapted.

The Civil Rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s and 1970s altered our understanding of “religious,” and “spiritual.” The sit-ins and the anti-war and anti-nuclear efforts were far more than skillful civil disobedience. They were a spiritual practice. These activists prayed before, during, and after each action. Liturgies often preceded their actions, during which they knelt in prayer in front of nuclear missiles only to be handcuffed and incarcerated. This was embodied spiritual practice. It was immersion in the world, and it aimed to enlist all of our spiritual power in the service of social, cultural, and political transformation.

Justice-making and spiritual wholeness go hand-in-hand, two sides of the same coin. Spiritual practice is engagement in the world, not withdrawal. Liberation theologians and practitioners in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have developed a spirituality that helps to overcome their oppressions, that grows their spirit by working to alleviate suffering. Ghanaian feminist theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye defines spirituality as "the energy by which one lives and which links one's worldview to one's style of life.” Recognizing the systemic dimensions of oppression in modern life, one's religious life must begin in solidarity with the oppressed and must result in community. “Religion held with deep conviction leads to political involvement," said Oscar Romero, the slain Archbishop of El Salvador.

Latin American “base communities” come together and employ an action/reflection model in which experience and action, analysis and reflection, prayer and sharing of faith all flow in and out of one another as one practice. Adapting the base community model to a North American context has led us to involvement in a local interfaith group operating a multifaceted social service/advocacy agency that provides shelter for homeless men, a food pantry for local families and individuals, and a program of transitional housing for those trying to escape homelessness. We also do considerable advocacy around issues of hunger, homelessness, welfare reform, and economic injustice.

Suppose that in our community the issues of hunger and homelessness were our focus. First, we act: by, for instance, signing up to cook and serve meals to the men in the homeless shelter, which brings us “sacred encounters" with other human beings. To bridge the distance between our service and the residents, we talk and eat with them. From there, we begin organizing lobbying efforts within local congregations — for instance, letter writing and congressional visiting around welfare, food stamps, and related issues. We encourage ministers to preach on these issues, and help organize religious education programs about homelessness and hunger. We join with other local advocacy groups to hold marches to raise consciousness about hunger and homelessness, and we put pressure on politicians. We work with local activist groups addressing the issue.

Activities like these form the basis of our spiritual practice. They flow from our faith, our values, our reflection and analysis, and our prayers. As part of that process, we read and analyze to understand better why there is such need. We share our experiences and explore the roots of the problems. Why is there an ever-widening gap between our country's (and the world's) haves and have-nots? Why are food pantries and shelters under continually increasing pressure to provide more space and services? We want to understand just what is happening in our society, because we want our actions to be effective.

We are not just about service but also change: both societal, institutional change and the personal, psychological, spiritual change that comes from living and working in a community committed to justice-making. Today’s dominant commercialized and hypermobile monoculture increasingly celebrates manic individualism and overconsumption. Collective action and reflection provides a healing corrective and a powerful model of a justice-seeking community of resistance.

Learning about and practicing anti-oppressive behaviors while celebrating the Spirit means moving beyond unexamined and insight-limiting assumptions into more inclusive communities of trust and support – and presents us with sacred encounters. This work heals powerlessness and alienation. It puts us in direct relationship with the mystery at the center of our faith, where justice is forever newly revealed. It provides shared and confirming experiences of grace and discloses our belonging as a part of something larger than ourselves. In supporting one another through both the successes and the failures of this struggle and helping one another become more compassionate and fully human, we begin to recognize and feel our true identity in God.

Any spirituality must begin with a sense of deep solidarity with the oppressed – not with transcending the suffering of our dispossessed siblings across the globe. A sense of oneness with their struggle is the ground for all spiritual practice.

Religion without social action is idolatry. We must be clear about the truth, the reality that our world is full of injustice and inequality. This doesn't mean that spiritual practice is only about activism. Though justice is at the center of authentic spirituality, its realization requires a deep need to be quiet. Meditative practice is critical.

Social action without spiritual grounding is also idolatry. Activists are often tempted to overextend themselves, to fill days and nights with constant action. When this happens, our activity becomes less a spiritual practice and more one-dimensional, unsustainable, and self-undermining.

We are not always effective or successful. We tire out, or face opposition and find it too painful to carry on. At such times, we remember that we are not called to be successful, but to be faithful. Perseverance is a key part of our practice.

Social justice as spiritual practice heals and rebuilds the community, reconnects with the whole. Ultimately, this is a hopeful spiritual practice, filled with imagination and energy.

Our spiritual practice is ultimately about relationship -- with one another and with the whole. It is a spiritual practice about sacred encounters. By grappling with injustice and inequality as a starting point, we go beyond our own experience and into the world of others. This spiritual practice begins by being honest about social and political inequity and by calling together other people of faith. With action and reflection as two complementary aspects of one, unified existence, social justice as spiritual path becomes a natural rhythm of the life of faith.

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