Justice in the Burbs

Justice in the Burbs September 24, 2007

This book is about living the justice life. I want to recommend that you read Justice in the Burbs all the way to the end. I almost didn’t. I almost put this book down after two chapters. It is co-authored by a husband/wife duo Will & Lisa Sampson. Each chapter has three parts: a narrative section written by Lisa who is a popular fiction writer (essentially a novella divided into 13 short sections), a discourse section authored mostly by Will (I’m guesing), a PhD student in Sociology at Univ. of Kentucky, and a meditation section, each one composed by a different author/thinker/artist within emerging church circles.

I almost put the book down early on because the structure was throwing me off a little and the discourse seemed overly simplistic, the first meditation was lackluster – it just wasn’t grabbing me. Then a funny thing happened…the story sucked me in. The truth is that Lisa Sampson is a really good writer. I realized how difficult a task she was undertaking – developing plot and characters so quickly, way more quickly than a typical novel, trying to tailor a story to a theological discourse without making the story appear contrived, splitting a short novella into 13 sections all of this while trying to make us care about not only the story but the idea of justice. This is a really difficult task. The truth is, she did great. When really good artists are left to just provoke and preach, it’s pretty amazing what they can do. This book is a great example. The story is great. I liked what was happening and I found that the more I cared about it, the more I enjoyed the discourse sections & appreciated the points that were made.

The book starts out by posing an inescapable question for those of us who live in the suburbs: what if we are living lives of busy insignificance? Seriously, what are we doing with our lives that is significant for the kingdom of God…and don’t say your kids because that’s cheating. You weren’t created simply to raise kids. The Sampsons insist that there has to be a way for “suburbanites who don’t feel called to relocate but care about issues of justice to live out the commands of Jesus in Matthew 25.” (p.25) God I hope they are right.

I really hope you’ll just buy it and read the whole book, but here are a few interesting points they make:

We are completely unaware of the privilege which each day holds for us – three good meals, all day snacking, great homes w/working everything, money, leisure, education, etc.) Even to live among the poor as an educated person with other options is an act of privilege. You can NEVER escape your privilege. For most of us there is always a safety net.

Most of us read the bible seeking to affirm choices that we have already made. Few of us read the bible with justice eyes and see that it is a story of justice.

The burbs are all about comfort. If you want to live a justice life, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you want comfort more than justice then you have made your choice.

Exile is a part of justice. If you want to live a justice life, don’t expect your family, your friends, your pastor, even your church to like it. You are going to get so much crap from everyone that it will test your resolve constantly.

Why should I care about justice?, because no one else is coming to make the world a better place. As Jim Wallis says, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” (p.90)

Shalom does not mean “peace,” it means community of peace and justice. The question is do we want to just show up every four years and vote and claim to have done our part or do we want to show up every day to be the agents of God’s work in the world.

You will not ask the right questions about justice if you don’t make it out of the burbs. Few conditions in the burbs prompt us to ask them because the burbs are designed for pain avoidance. We have to go find the pain because Jesus is there.

Here are the questions we should all ask: 1) Who is God, 2) What is God doing in this context? 3) How can I be a part of this work of God? This is a key point because they are rooting the need for living a justice life NOT in the heartbreaking need, but in who God is. The reason this is essential is that the need is too overwhelming. If are efforts toward justice are rooted in the need, then we will operate well only as we are making a discernable difference. But if our efforts are rooted in who God is, then we live justice lives because we imitate the God who is justice. We live justice lives because we are drawn into the life and actions of the justice God. When our justice lives are rooted in who God is, they do not wear out when the results are not what we’ve hoped for. This is fundamental to any theology of justice.

Sometimes leaving the suburbs and moving to the inner city actually lets everyone in the suburbs off the hook as if “we’ve already done our part because we sent so-and-so down to the hood to do ministry.” They posit the idea that some of need to stay behind and bugger our friends into giving a crap. Just live the justice life right now, where you are. You’ll have years to decide when or if relocation is what you are called to do.

If you commit to a justice life, then you begin to see that every decision you make is a moral choice. What does it mean to eat responsibly, use energy and water responsibly, serve needy and latchkey kids in the burbs, be a real friend to your neighbor, pare down kid involvement so you can be involved in an inner city neighborhood, buy used things first, recycle, buy only in fair trade circles, and the list goes on.

Get the book. Read it. Give it to a friend.

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  • Amy

    Great post Tim. I will have to check out this book.

  • done. getting it.