This article first appeared in the Salvationist magazine and is published with permission.
By Nick Coke
I hear the same question all the time. Essentially it’s this: I know we should fight for social justice, but how do we actually do it?
In terms of theological, devotional and motivational material urging us forward in the fight we have never had it so good. The biblical mandate for action is being preached with new fervour in the light of austerity, political upheaval and the refugee crisis. Resources are plentiful – campaign material regularly finds its way into our letterbox, email inbox and social media feeds. Dutifully we follow the instructions to pray, fundraise, get informed and click on the link to another petition website. Online activity in the cause of social change has led to the coining of a new word – ‘clicktivism’. Apparently we’re clicking like we’ve never clicked before. Yet beneath it all comes that nagging question – is any of this really making a difference? It all feels so detached. There’s surely more to justice-seeking than this.
Ten years ago those nagging doubts started my journey towards a more active justice-seeking faith. What follows are four lessons I have learnt along the way. I share them with the hope they might provoke and encourage you a little.
LIVING A JUST LIFE
The beginning of justice-seeking is neither an action nor a programme. As an officer once reminded me: ‘We don’t do social justice – we live justly.’ In Salvation Army theology it springs from our holiness teaching, where the inner life of a believer, orientated around a relationship with God, spills over into public life. Faith may be personal but it’s never private. The inner working of our hearts is manifested in hundreds of actions and decisions we make every day. Living a just life begins with how we treat others, who we include, how we use our wealth and time. This applies to those closest to us, neighbours and work colleagues, our corps family and, by extension, the whole of humanity. The rather wonderful truth I’ve discovered is that the more I’ve chased personal holiness the more compelled I’ve been to seek a just world and the more justice-seeking I’ve engaged with the more convicted I’ve been about personal transformation.
MOVING TO THE EDGES
While justice begins with God, it clearly involves people. In the Exodus story the groans of the Israelite slaves rise up before God and initiate a social justice movement (Exodus 2:23–25). In today’s world we constantly hear the groans for ourselves – the low-paid worker at the food bank, the refugee, the homeless and the discriminated against. Most of us long to end such suffering. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that real justice-seeking compels us to move to the edges and experience first-hand the sufferings of others before we can act. There really is no other way. Of course when we get there we discover God is well ahead of us.
In justice-seeking circles I hear the phrase ‘being a voice for the voiceless’ over and over again. But true justice- seeking demands something more costly and sacrificial than speaking on someone’s behalf from a safe distance. Far better to stand with someone as they find a voice of their own. To sit with the homeless person who just got
evicted unfairly, to listen to the asylum seeker who was mistreated at the immigration centre, to turn up at the mosque that has just been daubed with anti-Muslim graffiti. When we personally connect with the issue then we really start to get stuck in.
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT
Once personally involved in the sufferings of others, it is tempting to offer charity and stop there. We meet the need, bandage the wound and move on. Most likely people will call us saints.
Justice-seeking, however, walks a different path as we seek to move beyond the sticking plaster to tackle the root cause. Careful analysis is required to unearth the issue, to research in detail the layers behind it and to identify those with power to change things. When working for change, moments will come when we face challenge. Earthly and spiritual powers will do their best to block our way. Disturbing the status quo or pointing out an injustice will not always make us friends. No longer will
everyone call us saints and some will consider us troublemakers. This is often where we begin to falter. We like to be popular. History, however, reminds us that justice is always, always a struggle. We must purposely and prayerfully push on.
POLITICS, BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
The final stage is to move from a protest voice on the margins into the corridors of power, where decisions are made. Forcing your way into this space can happen only when we organise ourselves to be powerful enough for decision-makers to take notice. This is the work of politics – not party politics – but community-based, people politics. And this is where corps and centres come into their own. After all, we know our communities and, in most cases, we have been a constant presence for generations. Almost every local expression is connecting directly with those who suffer injustice and, crucially, we are collectives who exist to transform the world! In a society where institutional
life is waning, it positions us in an extraordinary place to be justice- seekers.
When we look at our neighbourhoods we soon discover others who share our concerns for justice: faith organisations, schools, community groups. The work of building broad and powerful alliances of justice-seekers will position us around the table where we can speak truth to power and be heard.
The good news is that I hear stories of Salvationists increasingly joining in exactly this kind of grassroots justice- seeking and of powerful transformational results. My prayer is that we grasp the moment presented to us. May God bless us with his holy discomfort to live the just life.