‘Can’t we just play nice?’

To understand justice, you must understand oppression.

By Corey Fields

“Look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can.”

That was the advice of Glenn Beck to his radio show listeners on March 2, 2010. It was one of several times that he criticized the concept of justice as a distortion of the Christian faith and a code word for Marxist philosophy.

Fortunately, Beck was brought to task in the blogosphere by scholars, theologians and pastors who actually know what they’re talking about. Not only is justice a biblical value, it is second only to the value of love in terms of how many times it is mentioned. Concern for a just and fair society is reflected in Mosaic law (Exodus 23:1-13), and was an integral part of prophetic visions for God’s people (Isaiah 58:6-12). Its neglect was said to nullify ritual worship or any other attempts to please God (Amos 5:21-24) and Jesus said it was among the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23).

To “do justice” is to ensure that no one is harmed or oppressed due to circumstances beyond their control. Although not every issue is a justice issue, it is about creating awareness of systemic problems that create or maintain unjust situations and seeking to correct them. Justice is also often about protecting or speaking up for the most vulnerable, something the Bible often expresses by using the phrase “the fatherless and the widow.”

I am privileged to serve a congregation in which people of all political stripes have at least given assent to the biblical call to do justice. But as I recently learned, understanding justice in principle is the easy part.

We are one of 16 churches in our community who make up an ecumenical justice organization. We go through a process that begins with house meetings to listen to community concerns. After selecting one issue to focus on for the coming year, an intensive research process narrows the issue and seeks best practices for addressing it. The culmination is a community-wide action assembly, modeled after Nehemiah 5, at which we raise awareness of the problem and ask appropriate community leaders to implement the solution. One of my favorite success stories is one in which a community found that prison inmate drug treatment was only available for men. By gathering thousands of Christians from all over the community, the justice organization was successful in calling on the mayor to work to reinstate drug treatment for female inmates.

In our community, we just completed our first round of this process and addressed the issue of education. Specifically, we found that the local school district only had the resources to serve 15 percent of its at-risk student population. At our community’s public assembly, we gathered approximately 1,200 people to rally around the cause of expanding a program called Communities in Schools, a separate, largely privately-funded organization that has had tremendous success in addressing non-academic barriers to learning (such as poverty, dysfunctional families, or health problems).

To make a very long story short, our public meeting did not go well. School officials had a negative attitude about what we were trying to do, and the district superintendent came ready to turn the meeting into a public relations speech rather than address the problems facing at-risk students. Our organization’s representative handled the situation poorly and it became very awkward and tense. The local paper’s reporting of the meeting focused on the negative, including a scathing editorial. All of a sudden, those of us who were trying to help at-risk students looked like the bad guys. Most don’t know the inside story. For example, the superintendent had become defensive early on in the research process when she learned that statistics about the district’s at-risk population were going to be made public. She was more concerned with image than addressing the issue.

In the midst of all the evaluation and regrouping that is taking place, I’ve been reflecting on a particular type of response from a few people who were a part of this effort. To summarize, they are asking the question, “Can’t we just play nice?” Beyond the particulars of what went wrong in our context, some people are asking broader questions about this process of seeking justice and questioning any method that calls out, places pressure on, or otherwise confronts public officials who have the power to enact change. In explaining why the process made her uncomfortable, one woman shared about how her mother had taught her to take no for an answer, politely say “thank you,” and move on.

But the ability to say “thank you” and move on indicates that one occupies a place of privilege and has other options that some may not. Others in the community, those who are more personally affected by issues of justice and fairness, have had an entirely different reaction and did not see the public officials as the victims in the way our more privileged citizens and print media did. It has made me reflect on how those who have experienced systemic oppression are the ones who more fully understand the need for justice and why it requires direct action.

This is particularly striking when you consider how non-controversial our organization’s proposal was in comparison to all the other struggles for justice throughout history. Although personalities and other issues got in the way, virtually no one was against our proposed expansion. History is replete with much more serious examples of injustice, and the now famous leaders who confronted it did not have the luxury of public consensus.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is his direct response to fellow clergyman of his day who would have preferred that he play nice and not stir the pot. I would urge you to read the entire letter, but here’s a key excerpt:

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

King was addressing those who believed in his end goal but were uncomfortable with what it took to get the attention of those in power. Leaders like King are often celebrated and idolized once their cause becomes a reality. In the midst of the struggle, however, they are seen as agitators. Among those who are comfortable within the status quo, there is little urgency or motivation to challenge it, even if they are not Glenn Beck and believe in justice in principle. King realized that those in power who withheld justice from black citizens were not his only obstacle. He also faced resistance from would-be allies who didn’t want trouble.

We face similar dynamics today. To understand justice, you must understand oppression. It is especially disconcerting in our day to see how some American Christians have adopted a false narrative of oppression, whining about being persecuted when their beliefs are criticized or things don’t get their way. (Christians are persecuted in other countries, to be sure, but not here). As a result, we are blind to the real ostracization and oppression still faced by religious minorities in this country and around the world. The cause of justice, it seems, can be impeded just as handily by those who falsely believe they are victims as it can by the oppressors themselves.

Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and it never will.” We must learn to identify with those who know this firsthand. It is only the perspective of the oppressed that can open our eyes to the need for direct action.

May God grant the rest of us the empathy to identify with the oppressed, and the courage to join them.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.