Justice and Jesus on Main Street

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It’s 8:14 on an October Thursday morning in Downtown Durham, North Carolina.  Main Street is a bit busier than usual, but not for any particular reason…  Life just seems to pick up the pace some days: the cars drive a little faster, their horns blare a little more frequently, and the sun spends a little less time above the horizon.  The Bull City Connector (Durham’s fare-free public bus) pulls up to the stop where my brother, a medical professional dressed in scrubs, and I have been waiting for several minutes outside the leasing office of our trendy downtown apartment complex.  As the bus comes to a halt, it does that thing where it droops toward the curb and makes that air compression sound buses make, giving away just how bored or exhausted the bus is from traveling the same 3.7-mile route back and forth from East Durham to Duke University’s West Campus.  The front door opens.  I step onto the bus.  I say good morning to the same driver I acknowledge every morning, and then take my usual seat among the twelve other people already well into their morning commutes.  Once moving, I start calculating: “We’ll be cutting it close… but so long as we don’t make too many stops or hit too many red lights, I should be able to make it to my 8:30 class on time.”

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Six minutes pass, when—about halfway through the route—a middle-aged woman who boarded the bus somewhere before me pulls the cord to signal the bus driver she wants off at the next stop.  As the bus slows to a halt, the woman stands up and loudly announces, “Alright, y’all… this is all us black folks’ stop.  Everybody off.”  And with that, sure enough, everyone on the bus—save the two people who lived in the same chic downtown loft as me—stands up and follows the woman off the bus.  The door closes behind them, the driver puts his foot on the gas, and we continue on toward West Durham to Duke’s campus at the end of the line.

Twenty-six minutes… That’s how long it takes to ride the Bull City Connector from one end of its route to the other.  That 3.7-mile expanse is the difference between black and white; rich and poor; neighborhoods with no grocery stores and neighborhoods with stores like Whole Foods.  Though not a written policy, in effect the bus line ends one place for some people, and another place for other people.  And it’s not kindness or hospitality that indicates to a group of people, “This is the end of the line for you.”  Rather, racism and classism dictate who belongs where: “this part of town with ornate stone is for you;” “this part of of town with run-down convenience stores in place of grocery stores is for you.” To my brother and I it seemed like prophecy that the woman on the bus was able to accurately predict the unfolding of events… she guessed and happened to be right, and we were stunned by that.  But she wasn’t stunned at all… because her “prophecy” didn’t require guesswork.  It was an announcement she made from a pattern she had witnessed countless times.   Herein lies the problem… that this pattern of social division is so engrained in this woman’s life that it has become predictable, inevitable, prescriptive.

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This is what sociologists, the Church, and other socially-minded sectors of society call “systemic injustice.”  The problems are systemic in the sense that they are built in or inherent to the basic systems by which our society operates.  When this is the case, it is the mission of the Church to change the oppressive structures and systems in order that ALL may flourish… to participate in the work of transforming the world as it is into the world as it should be, as God created it. Our cities are broken.  And, as Disciples of Christ, we have made a covenant with God and with one another that we will be a “movement for wholeness in [our] fragmented world” and communities.  So, how do we disrupt broken systems and what is the Church’s role in reconstructing them to stimulate wholeness?

Justice is a necessary mode of behavior for those who follow the way of Christ.  A classic definition of justice construes justice as “giving each their due.”  Theologically, though, justice is much more than an attempt at fairness or a balancing of the scales; it is a state or system of wholeness marked by the mutual flourishing of all creation under God.  Biblically, to do justice is to cultivate love and renounce evil (check out Proverbs 21:15). Accordingly, justice is the God-given mode of existence for which we strive as Christians, an existence built on the cornerstones of radical peace, non-competitive prosperity, loving kindness, and a responsibility to care for one’s neighbor (Micah 6:8).  Since God’s love and character are such that God desires to make whole all of creation, when wholeness is diminished for any one of creation’s members, the entire membership suffers.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose life and work for justice the nation commemorates this week with a national day of service—knew the significance of securing justice for ALL people when writing his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (April 16, 1963).

Despite our nation having pledged to pursue “liberty and justice for all,” some members of our communities thrive off the nation’s unfair systems while others are victim to the systems’ in-built prejudices.  This is injustice: a set of socially constructed conditions that prevent the possibility of a flourishing common life for ALL members. These oppressive conditions are so deeply integrated into the fabric of American social systems, political policies, and even religious institutions that justice-seekers must undo them to free all members of creation to live as God intended.  Without question, then, social justice is necessary work for the Church.  That said, “social justice” (the term and the act) has been stigmatized in recent years, swept up into the political arena where many churches seldom tread.  So, if churches are to be involved in restoring creation to God so life may flourish as God intends, then the Church needs to reimagine what “doing justice” entails.

Throughout Scripture, justice and righteousness are co-conspirators in God’s plan to restore creation to its intended glory.  We might, then, understand a “ministry of social justice” to be that work in the church which restores creation to God such that all of God’s people may flourish. For, God’s creation is only whole when it is so filled with justice, peace, and loving-kindness that creation overflows its capacity to contain them: when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).  This justice work involves addressing the needs of people, animals, and land on a more systemic level by stimulating the social change necessary for more wholesome living of all creatures.  This looks like protecting the land, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, etc. (Matthew 25:35-36), as well as changing the oppressive policies or infrastructure of our systems that create these needs in the first place.  Here, it starts to become clear that justice has a symbiotic relationship with love. This construal of justice, which begins as a somewhat abstract concept, finds its fullest embodiment in the lifework of Jesus.  Jesus is justice incarnate, God’s very self made manifest in acts of healing, peacemaking, hospitality, and love.

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Back on the bus… In the heart of North Durham, about halfway into the bus’s route, lies St. Joseph’s, an Episcopal church with a modest building but extravagant ideas about what justice, hospitality, and Christian community should look like.  The church’s statement of welcome reads: 

Our church grounds are always open to anyone who would like a place to rest and renew.  St. Joseph’s welcomes our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, that they may find respite and relationship in the church and on our grounds.  We share breakfast Monday through Friday at 8:00 a.m., following Morning Prayer, with anyone who is hungry.  Through our conversations with our neighbors, we seek to provide assistance as we are able.  We are always interested in meeting our neighbors around St. Joseph’s, both new and long-time, and in learning what the needs are in our neighborhood.  Everyone is welcome at St. Joseph’s.  We look forward to meeting you!

East and West Durham occupy opposite ends of a geographic and socioeconomic spectrum, and at the center exists this church that’s committed to being Christ in the middle of it all.  At the edge of the church’s lawn, not ten feet back from Main Street’s heavily trafficked sidewalk, lies a bronze statue of a person sitting cross-legged, shrouded in a cloak that renders his/her features indistinguishable.  Head bowed and arm outstretched, the figure appears to be asking for help from kindhearted passersby.  The statue is reminiscent of the countless persons experiencing homelessness on Durham’s downtown streets.  But a closer look reveals the figure’s defining feature: buried in the palm of the outstretched hand is a hole, the wound of a Savior who knows all-too-well the struggles of being human.  For the community of people who frequent St. Joseph’s, few depictions of Jesus so thoroughly communicate God’s with-us-ness.

“Whatsoever You Do” statue | St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church | Durham, NC

“Whatsoever You Do” statue | St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church | Durham, NC

Recall the bus stop where the woman announced all the black folks would be getting off the bus. This stop is right outside St. Joseph’s Church… a church that has established itself in the community as a place of radical welcome, hospitality, and love. Is this not the call of the Church… to be a people with whom it is safe to be yourself and a place where those whom the world rejects are valued; to be a force that straddles the dividing lines in our communities and commits to the work of justice there until all are welcome and all may flourish as God intends? By the grace of God, it will be these spaces and these people who are so transformed by the love and hospitality of being church together that they will be the new hubs of “wealth” in our communities. Transformed by the work of justice, our communities will measure wealth by the strength of their human resources rather than the amount of their financial ones. Until then, re-present Christ in the world by entering into one another’s brokenness and cultivating justice there.