God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
This is a verse that many people bring out when talking about justice. But what exactly does acting justly mean? This might be a hard question for some people to answer. At least, that is what I've found when I ask people to define it. And yet, it's a critical question for Christians today as we look at our world right now and listen to the cry for racial justice.
Many times white Christians have defined justice as treating everybody the same way. So, acting "justly" has taken form in efforts to bring diverse groups of people together and celebrate difference. These are noble causes, and yet they miss a critical part of justice work.
Acting justly also means examining systems where injustice is deeply embedded. I explained it in a rather simplistic metaphor to the zoom group on Tuesday:
A man was sitting by a river fishing one day. Everyone in his town fished for a living. It was a way of life. One day his neighbor came and lamented, "I don't have as much fish as you do, and I'm struggling to make ends meet." Can you help? The man said, "Of course, I'll help. I have more fish than I need. I can give some to you." More and more neighbors came to him and had the same problem. There was clearly an inequity. The man kept trying to help in charitable ways. But at some point, he started asking, "Why? Why is it that some people are having so much trouble? What about the river or the surrounding area is contributing to the difficulty?"
The work of justice gets at that question. Why? Why do inequities occur? Why is it, for example, that in Waterloo a black family making more money is less likely to be approved for a mortgage than a white family who makes less money? Why is it that a black child is less likely to graduate from our schools than a white child? Why is it that a black man is more likely to be imprisoned or die at the hands of the police than a white man? Why is that a black women is more likely to be followed in a store than a white women? These are the questions that we must start taking seriously and asking from a systemic standpoint. Racism is not simply defined as people being mean to each other. Racism is defined by systems that give more power to one group of people over another simply because of the color of their skin. Understanding these systems is part of acting justly. Who has power in the system and who doesn't?
But it is a difficult path to begin. Here is the hard truth: we are more comfortable with acts of charity than acts of justice, which make charitable acts easier. Like the man in the story, we are happy to give away our extra fish. This makes sense. Giving charity puts the powerful in the driver's seat and maintains that power. Doing the work of justice requires the kindness and humility that the prophet Micah describes. It requires us to listen, learn new things, un-learn old things, take responsibility, and act in courageous and sacrificial ways.
I pray that many among our church are ready to start walking this road of justice, especially when it comes to understanding the deeply embedded racism that runs throughout out our economic, educational, and criminal justice systems. I know several of you have already taken steps on this path, and I pray that you keep walking it. There are a number of resources in this Pastor Connection that I encourage you to explore. If there is something specific that you want to learn more about or understand, you can always contact me. If you simply need someone to listen to you, I'm here as a conversation partner.
The path of justice is not always easy or comfortable, but it is the way toward lasting peace and in the words of the prophet, it is what the Lord requires of us. May God strengthen us for the journey.
May the peace of Christ be with you,