Embracing Conflict Faithfully:
The Future of Social Justice and Peacemaking in the Church
By David LaMotte
In March of this year, Fox News' Glenn Beck kicked off a firestorm of debate by urging viewers to leave their churches if they could find the words "social justice" on the church's web site. As a prominent champion of Christian social justice movements, Sojourners' Jim Wallis responded, saying that social justice is actually at the heart of the gospel. Several months later, their public sparring continues. The mainstream media and pundits have picked up on the drama, and it's good that people are wrestling with these questions.
Before getting too far into these conversations, though, it is worthwhile to investigate the difference between aid and social justice. Aid work involves trying to meet people's needs when they are unable to care for themselves. Social justice work takes that one step further, challenging the structures and systems that stack the deck against certain individuals and groups, making them more vulnerable and more likely to be in need of help. The progression from the former to the latter is natural -- trying to prevent a mess is a logical next step after years of trying to clean it up.
Challenging powerful systems and structures is inherently more controversial than charity, though, partly because some people benefit from the oppression of others and naturally don't want the systems to be challenged. To be completely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that many of us benefit from the oppression of others.
If you doubt this, check the tags on your clothes the next time you're folding laundry. Most of the countries you'll find there likely share two qualities: extreme poverty and minimal regulation to protect the rights of workers. Choosing to manufacture clothes in those countries is a great way to maximize profits, and with very few exceptions, this is done at the expense of the workers more than to their benefit. The benefit is reserved for me; as a citizen of the ‘developed world,' I can buy relatively high quality clothes (compared to what those workers are wearing, for instance) quite cheaply.
Having that conversation makes us fidget a little more than asking people to contribute for disaster relief in Haiti. It is hard to face our own complicity in systems that hurt others, and harder to accept the responsibility that comes with that knowledge. Having a conversation about spending public money on affordable housing for people who are at risk of homelessness, for instance, gets one step more uncomfortable than donating canned goods for them to eat. And as we've seen in recent years in the U.S., talking about public health care for vulnerable people whose mental and physical health issues place them at risk of homelessness is, well . . . a bit contentious.
Those conversations are hard, and we need to approach them with humility. I've been wrong about plenty of things in my life, and it would be unwise to think I won't ever be again. Listening to each other is at least as important as talking to each other, but speaking truth as we understand it is also necessary, as uncomfortable as it may sometimes be. This will be one of the central questions mainline Christians have to wrestle with in coming years: Are we willing to embrace discomfort as part of our faith? Looking at the sacrifices of biblical prophets and disciples, not to mention Christian activists like Dr. King or Desmond Tutu, getting a bit outside of our comfort zone seems a moderate price to pay. Even if it is steep, though, it seems to be part of the price of faithfulness.
We are wrestling with the precarious balance between working for unity in our congregations and denominations on the one hand, and challenging inequity and oppression on the other. If a church or church governing body does take a position on a contentious issue, there will be people who are deeply troubled by it. There may even be those who no longer feel comfortable being a part of a particular church, or any church, and those losses should not be taken lightly.
But what is the alternative? Is it possible to be faithful and yet never engage controversial issues? It seems to me that to answer that question in the affirmative requires a fairly shallow understanding of what Jesus meant when he exhorted us to love our neighbors. I am convinced that "love," as Jesus used the word, is not an emotion -- not a more extreme version of "like." Rather, it has to do with holding others' value up as equivalent to our own, as children of God. To do that in any meaningful way, we must work for justice, and that will sometimes be both controversial and costly.