Social justice is a complex and often loaded term.
Where should we land on this issue as Christians? As US citizens?
Guest blogger Robin Hagen is a mother, a Christ follower, and
she has a heart for justice. Read on as Robin shares her thoughts on
this important and confusing issue.
Back in the 1980s, I thought I was a social justice expert. I was young, idealistic, and part of a Christian college fellowship group that made me confident that my love for Jesus could fix things. Right after my college graduation, I went to Washington, D.C and started an unpaid internship at a medical recovery facility for homeless men. Two college friends and I stayed the summer. We planned talent shows, worked in the kitchen, and accompanied patients on their off-site medical appointments. By autumn, I found another volunteer position. One of my friends and I became house managers for a ministry that provided housing and medical care for homeless, pregnant Salvadoran women. We grocery shopped, enforced curfews, and improved our Spanish. During this time, I also started an internship for a national, progressive Catholic newspaper. They sent me to Virginia to interview coal miners and to Florida to write about nuclear protesters. All around there were young people just like me, some working in the Capital, others doing long-term volunteer work with the Mennonites and Quakers. I made new friends and did good work. It was a happy time.
Many years later, my life seems far removed from those volunteer days. I have been blessed with a husband, children, and a home of our own. My days are filled with carpools and laundry. I remember my volunteer year, though, and sometimes reflect on the work I did. I have questions now, things I didn’t think about when I was 21. I wonder how wise it was for ministries to recruit fresh college graduates to supervise people with life experiences that were so far beyond us. Many of the men at the medical recovery facility were recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. The women I lived with were refugees from a brutal war in El Salvador. My peers and I were middle-class, white, and privileged. In spite of our good intentions, our conversations, our love, the men from the medical recovery facility often ended up on the street again. The Salvadoran women struggled to stay away from their babies’ fathers, who were sometimes abusive and addicted themselves. The women missed their relationships, even if they were broken ones. My friend and I could enforce curfews, but we couldn’t heal broken hearts.
Today, I still try to follow Jesus along crooked paths that are not well traveled. I just wish I knew how to do it better. I believe that he has always been about social justice, that he would love a world where everyone had enough good food to eat, a safe place to live, someone to love, someone to serve. In Jesus’ world, there would be no sex-trafficking because the demand for it would disappear. Pimps would help their girls get home. Drug dealers would close up shop and invest their earnings in rehab centers. Militias would put down their arms and set their hostages free. Everyone could find good work at a livable wage, remember forgotten dreams, go to flight school or culinary school or write plays. We would all sit down to dinner together.
I know Jesus still fixes things. He multiplies food and feeds a crowd out of a few fish and loaves of bread. People touch him and get healed. He restores the broken to community. He brings the dead back to life. The problem is that I am not Jesus. I am judgmental and confused. In college, it was easy to feel like I was living a life of justice. Go where people are hurting and love them. Today, I freeze when I see the man on the corner with a sign. Should I help? Would that be enabling a drug or alcohol habit? Is it true that most panhandlers aren’t homeless and most homeless don’t panhandle? Should I at least give him food for his dog? Usually, I smile weakly, and examine something very interesting on the other side of the car. Sometimes, I make a mental note to give a donation to a local charity that serves the homeless and think about buying dog food. But then I forget about that until the next time I see someone with a sign on a street corner. It is awkward. It does not feel like Jesus.
This is where I am today. This confused place is where my prayer starts. I do not have a college fellowship community anymore, and I am not a social justice expert. But I do have a church, and there are people in it who are social justice warriors. Somehow, they manage to bring justice into their ordinary lives. They run food pantries and bring water to communities that don’t have it in faraway countries. I could learn a lot more from them. Maybe together we can find a way to welcome justice more fully into my home, all our homes, into the daily rhythms of our lives. Maybe there are even small things we can do.
I get stuck sometimes in my past, thinking that a life of justice means an earthquake of change, that you have to move across the country and be a volunteer. Indeed, this is how some families have chosen to live. I admire them and wonder if I should be doing that, if all of us should do that. A good question, one to think about for sure, but what do I do in the meantime? Today, there is basketball practice, grocery shopping, homework, weeds to pull. What does justice look like here? With this breath, at that stop light, in this community. This is where it begins. Maybe we can start to figure this out together.