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Social Change as a Spiritual Practice

Rick Rouse

American society may be in turmoil but we are also at a tipping point in history. Will we continue our headlong race to oblivion where the environment is ravaged, the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to grow, hunger and poverty claim more victims, and injustice reigns? Or will we challenge the notions that power and greed should rule us or that partisanship is a given? Is there a way to regain our moral compass and find a way to work for the common good of all and not just a privileged few?

In Western popular culture it is said that the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of two Chinese characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity”. This certainly feels like a time of danger with a world-wide pandemic threatening our lives and livelihoods on the one hand and social unrest in the form of massive protests against police brutality and racial injustice on the other. At the same time, we have an opportunity to restructure our society so that it works for all people regardless of their economic status, religious affiliation, gender, or color of their skin.

I’d like to suggest that regardless of one’s religious affiliation, we are called to join in God’s mission for the healing of the world. One of the ways to live out one’s faith in a practical way is to be an agent of change and transformation. In the Lutheran Rite of Baptism, the newly baptized promise “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Much of our history as a nation has been a Protestant project, our norms and principles shaped by mainline churches. According to columnist Ross Douthat: “One can draw a clear line from the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century to the preoccupations of social justice movements today. (“The Religious Roots of a New Progressive Era”, New York Times, July 7, 2020.) He goes on to suggest that there is a spiritual dimension to so much social justice activism, before and especially after the George Floyd killing.

One can site passages in both the Old and New Testaments that compel people of faith to action. Jesus proclaimed that the two greatest commandments were to “love God and to love others”. The reformer Martin Luther went so far as to suggest that we love God by loving others—and that while God doesn’t need our good deeds, our neighbor does! In other words, love shows itself in action. Being engaged in acts of justice and mercy for the sake of others is a spiritual practice.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about the judgement of the nations. “The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I* was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

A spiritual practice that really matters includes social renewal. John Lewis was an African American congressman and Baptist minister from Georgia who was an icon of the civil rights movement. His faith motivated him to give his life in public service; and up until his death he made it his life’s work to make the world a better and more just place. He once said: “When you see something that is not right, you have a moral obligation to speak up.” How will we speak up to the injustices of our day? We need to reflect on our complicity and support of systems that have abandoned the poor, warehoused children, failed to provide adequate health care for all, and perpetuated a criminal justice system that is weighed against people of color. We now have an opportunity to restructure our society so it works as well for the have-nots and almost-haves as well as it does for the wealthy. We can put our faith into action and wake up to the possibility of building a new order. That is a spiritual practice that can help heal our nation.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay