Inclusive Justice, part 2

Communities that draw identity, beliefs and ethics from scripture need inclusive practices for reading, interpreting and applying it within personal and congregational life. However, identifying these practices is only the first step and does not automatically ensure inclusive justice. Many groups committed to community discernment and peacemaking may be unaware of the ways exclusion and injustice pervade community life. Listening to each other and encouraging marginalized voices will help us become aware of where we fall short. Too often, the voices of those who have been hurt are silenced or those persons are scapegoated in order to maintain an “innocent” or “righteous” self-perception (individual or corporate). Making space for and honoring these voices may expose “shadow sides” we’d rather not acknowledge; however, they offer us the light we need to repent, reconcile and transform.

The second voice that most impacted me during TRP’s leadership cohort is that of Drew Hart, an author, activist, and professor in theology at Messiah College. In his book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Hart calls followers of Jesus to “renounce every hierarchy.”

trouble i've seen

Hart exposes the human propensity toward dominating others by engaging the story of Jesus’ disciples disputing the status dynamics within their own group. Immediately after Jesus embodies the human image-bearing vocation of love and service at the last supper, his closest followers are concerned with “greatness.” Jesus has just spoken the words, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22: 19-20). Jesus acknowledges that there will be a betrayal, and the disciples cannot conceive of such a thing. Then, it can be argued, betrayal ensues as “a dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24). They just do not get it. We just do not get it.

Hart understands that the inclination to dominate others, to strive for positions of status that enable power over others, the power to force one’s will on others and to arrange systems and resources in one’s favor, fuels the many forms of oppression plaguing the human community.

Hart writes:

This chapter explores several aspects of oppression… This book has been most attentive to white supremacy and antiblack ideology on the racialized ladder of our society. However, as Christians, we must not only challenge racial hierarchy (though in America that is particularly important). We must keep track of all forms of human-constructed hierarchies that exist in our communities. This is so that, as God’s people, we can live more and more into the new humanity of Christ. Considering various people groups’ experiences within white supremacy (racialized hierarchy) is vital, as is confronting patriarchy (gendered hierarchy) and plutocracy (classed hierarchy). Jesus reminds us that these ways of dominating others – which, as we shall see, often overlap and intersect – should be ‘not so with you’ (Luke 22:26). As followers of Jesus, we are obligated to resist all types of lording over others. (Hart p. 146)

So much of our society is built on “lording over others.” This “looking out for number one” and “us vs. them” way of being in the world is connected to a myth of scarcity. We cannot be neighbors to one another if we are competing for resources that are never enough. Instead of finding security in God’s abundant generosity, we anxiously grasp for anything that seems stabilizing in a zero-sum game world. Walter Brueggemann has explored the myth of scarcity extensively:

We who are now the richest nation are today’s main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity… The [myth of scarcity] says there are no gifts to be given because there’s no giver. We end up only with whatever we manage to get for ourselves. This story ends in despair. It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality… It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves – and it is the prevailing creed of American society.

When the myth of scarcity shapes one’s understanding of what is possible, turning to domination over others seems inevitable. Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ disciples demonstrate their inability to imagine any other way of being in the world: someone is always going to be in power over others, and they hope that their Messiah will establish a kingdom that puts them at the top. Christians today struggle with the same distorted worldview. As Hart outlines in his chapter, too many Christians “lord over others.” Oftentimes we justify our structures, systems and behavior as “practical” or “realistic” ways of maintaining or protecting the community. Again, this reveals our bondage to a myth of scarcity. Hart writes:

Jesus does not make lording over others an option for his disciples. Unfortunately, most churchgoers today don’t appear to know that. People have found a way to call themselves Christian, which means to be Jesus-shaped, and still chase after power without thinking twice about it. We disregard Jesus’ teaching on power and how we ought not to use it to dominate others. Our practice, though, doesn’t change the fact: Jesus says that it must not be so!

Lording over others in our context normally occurs at the intersection of racialized, gendered, and economic oppression. Understanding how the experiences of various oppressed people groups are intertwined is essential in all the antiracist work we do. Our antiracism work will be limited if we don’t take account of these various facets of domination. Therefore, we must understand that all of life is always racialized and gendered. In unison, the church must commit to ending all oppression. The church must become the people who renounce lording over others in all manners, whether white supremacy, patriarchy, or economic domination Instead, we must turn to the way of Jesus as the pathway to new life. (Hart p. 160)

One step we can take to “renounce every hierarchy” is to make space for marginalized voices. We need to listen to those who can show us where we have oppressed others. Even those with the best intentions have done harm, and we need to open our hearts to those who are able to speak to that harm. If we refuse to listen, we will go on perpetuating injustice. Cheryl Anderson (featured in the last blog post) writes:

The church of Jesus Christ is called to identify and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The act of solidarity becomes the litmus test of biblical fidelity and the paradigm used to analyze and judge how social structures contribute to or efface the exploitation of the marginalized. To be apart from the marginalized community of faith is to exile oneself from the possibility of hearing and discerning the gospel message of salvation—a salvation from the ideologies that mask power and privilege and the social structures responsible for their maintenance. (Anderson p. 54)

Though listening to voices we’ve excluded may feel threatening and may trigger a fight or flight response, we have to make space within our churches, without our communities, within ourselves to hear. Our salvation, the realization of shalom, depends on it.

In the next few weeks, I will be featuring voices from those who experience intersecting marginalized identities. I hope that you will listen, that you will hear, that you will open yourself to the new life only possible on the other side of mourning, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

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