Spirituality and the Quest for Justice

by Bruce G. Epperly

Reflections on the Lectionary Texts for July 18, 2010

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

This week’s scriptures speak to spiritual lives of North Americans today.  They diagnose our condition and provide a pathway forward. With the “perfect storm” of a massive oil spill, economic uncertainty, continuing foreclosures, the ongoing two-theatre war, the threat of global climate change, terrorism, culture wars, growing racism, and shifts in geopolitical power, many people wonder if government or business can fix anything.  Fear, uncertainty, and anxiety are in the air for baby boomers whose visions of globe-trotting retirements have faded into simply hoping to hold onto a job until 67 or 70.

Perhaps, Amos’ listeners felt the same way.  They believed that the old religious and political ways would save them, and are shocked to discover that they and their leaders are at the mercy of forces beyond their control.  They turn to God but that doesn’t even do any good.  God appears to have withdrawn and may even be punishing them for their injustice and apathy.  There’s still food in the pantry, but a famine on hearing the word of God.

The prophet connects injustice with the ability to encounter God in meaningful ways.  If we close our hearts, minds, and ears to the cries of the poor – and worse yet, directly or indirectly, participate in unjust actions, foreclosures, and profit-seeking at the expense of justice – we will also close ourselves to God’s inspiration and comfort.

Now, it is important that we avoid saying certain things such as 1) economic collapse is divine punishment for our injustice and 2) God is working through natural catastrophes to get our attention and challenge us to mend our ways.  In contrast to the threatening language of Pat Robertson and others who connect divine punishment through national and natural catastrophes with America’s acceptance of moral evil (ironically, not corporate behaviors), I would suggest the very real connection between behaviors and outcomes.  This is not linear or deterministic but causal insofar as irresponsible economic activities, shoddy products, cost-cutting at the expense of safety, and concern about profits over people, have serious and long-term consequences.  The gulf coast cries out against injustice; unemployed people witness to corporate greed and mismanagement; and the homeless and evicted unmask irresponsible lending practices. These behaviors have spiritual consequences: when we are out of alignment with God’s vision of the world, we lose touch with God’s vision for our lives.  We can no longer – or barely – hear the “still, small voice” beneath our shouts of greed, individualism, and empire.

Though they deem themselves spiritual people, adherents of the new age text The Secret and the conservative Christian prosperity gospel alike focus on individual success, rather than corporate responsibility and social justice.  Proving God’s existence because you’ve found the closest parking place pales in comparison with real spiritual issues such as poverty, racism, and ecological disaster.  Truly holistic spirituality hears the groans of creation and the cries of the poor as well as our own spiritual yearnings.

Colossians joins Christology with ethics.  The energy and spiritual vision present in Jesus Christ gives life to the universe.  We live in a universe in which human actions exist in a wider cosmic environment aiming at healing and wholeness.  Reconciliation is at the heart of the creative process and calls us beyond self-interest to world loyalty.  Knowing that God is moving toward healing and wholeness in all things, our calling is to live in alignment with God’s personal, community, congregational, and planetary visions of wholeness.  Our commitment to reconciliation reflects God’s own desire for personal, communal, and global reconciliation.

The story of Mary and Martha points to the interplay of spirituality and service and contemplation and action.  Martha is rebuked, perhaps unfairly by Jesus, not because of her actions reflecting her desire to be the perfect hostess, but because of her anxiety and lack of spiritual focus.  She was so intent on the product – doing things just right – that she neglected the process, the need for providing personal as well as culinary hospitality for Jesus.  Mary forgot the purpose of her preparations; to welcome and nourish a dear friend and teacher. Mary and Martha need one another; the activism of Martha invites Mary to leave her contemplations and straighten up the house; Mary’s intense focus on Jesus’ presence reminds Mary to consider what’s really important – is it the right touch on the dinner table or loving attention to their guest?  Both are important, but Jesus implies that relationship always trumps propriety and perfectionism.

The times are challenging and it is easy to give up hope.  Transforming and healing the earth requires marathon endurance, and not a one-time sprint.  Social reformers need contemplation to restore their energy and to enable them to experience God’s presence in their political and religious opponents.  Contemplatives need to embrace community transformation and social justice to concretize their spiritual experiences.

A wise homilist may choose to lift up contemplative activists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Mother Teresa as examples of holistic spirituality for our time.  In addition, he or she might schedule a class on Centering Prayer or other forms of meditation to give congregants experiences in contemplation.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.