What is the Work of Justice?

I’ve been chewing on this question for a while. Too long, if I’m honest – I feel like I should just know by now.

*Put your shoes on – this may hurt some toes. That’s not my intention even a little, though. I am sharing this because I have been so thankful for the people and events that have caused me to question myself where justice is concerned. It has changed and continues to change my life. This is not political; this is about taking responsibility for my opinions and actions/inaction. I’m sharing for those who are willing to look inward.*

© Angela McMichael

A few years ago, when I started periodically serving the homeless, I was confronted with my own ignorance. Over time, I regularly came face to face – literally – with people who were affected directly by my own uninformed and self-centered voting choices, and with the painful injustices that happen right here under my own nose in my own country under my own watch. It has been very humbling, to say the least. And as the frequency of my time with them increased, so did the amount of individual stories I learned. And now that I know so many of their stories, I cannot go back. I cannot ever again act like I don’t see them, or like it doesn’t matter if I don’t step up and personally do justice.

Back in February, Brené Brown and DeRay McKesson had an extremely important conversation about justice and equality, and one of the main things that I took away from that incredible example of open, thoughtful and respectful dialogue was an awareness that believing in justice and equal treatment is not the same as doing the work of it.

This hit me right in the gut, because my faith practice challenges me to “DO justice, LOVE mercy, and walk humbly with (my) God.” (Micah 6:8, emphasis mine.) I have not been able to shake since then the awareness that it is not enough to simply believe in justice, which I would say I do. I am commanded to DO justice. And whether or not you are motivated by your spirituality or religion, it is true for all of us that there is a significant difference between believing in justice, and doing the work of justice. A personal trainer would say that you can believe in bigger muscles or a more fit body all you want, but it’s doing the work to get there that gets you there. A dentist would tell you that you can believe in brushing and flossing, but only doing it will help protect your teeth. A teacher would tell you that you can believe in straight A’s, but only doing the work will get you the grades.

Believing in justice is not enough. I realized a while back, when sitting with someone on the street, that I can’t just believe in what they deserve as a human being; I have to personally fight for it.

So what does that look like on a personal level?

This is the thing I haven’t quite sorted out yet. Here are some things I have come up with when I consider my homeless friends, my addict friends, my elderly friends, my poor friends, my black friends, my LGBTQ friends, my immigrant friends, my friends of other faiths or none, etc.:

  • When I vote, I need to be especially informed about how my options will impact those who have no voice, and no power. I cannot overstate this.
  • When I see a group being oppressed in a way I do not wish to be or have my loved ones oppressed, I need to find a way to link arms with and defend/stand up for them.
  • You don’t have to agree with all of a person’s life choices or circumstances to do justice where they’re concerned. Jesus exemplified this. For example, I see a lot of desperate drug addiction on the street. I can live in the tension between the conviction that doing drugs is not a good life plan, and doing the work of justice that (hopefully) leads to my critically hurting friends having access to the help they need and deserve – regardless of what got them to the state they’re in.
  • I am going to have to, at points, enter in to some uncomfortable dialogue. This is hard for me. I really struggle with being in situations where there is tension. I’m fine with civil discord – I love it. But that’s rarely what is taking place where people are voicing their opinions around justice, equality, and any related politics. As soon as the tone of a conversation starts to change and the temperature begins to rise, I really do get triggered. My brain hits the fire alarm and then my body is hijacked – I shift from the reasonable prefrontal cortex to the instinctive limbic system, and I freeze. But I need to find a way to practice healthy boundaries and good self care while also doing the right thing for others. When a conversation is taking place where others are speaking for our neighbors without knowing anything about their lives or their hardships, I’m going to need to dig deeper and find a way to show up and advocate for them. For justice
  • I need to carefully examine the opinions I have and the choices I make every day in terms of how they affect justice for others. I need to question, deeply, my strongest convictions. Are they rooted in doing justice, or are they centered around my being comfortable? For example(s): Do I value a symbol or anthem more than people and justice? If I don’t want people to interrupt my regularly-schedule program to protest peacefully, am I listening when they try in other ways to share their struggles and am I trying to do something about what I hear/see? Do I care more about my personal tax situation than what the implications of a tax change in my favor will do to those who’re already starving, or already unable to see a doctor? Am I doing everything in my personal power outside of the voting booth to help those people? Am I thinking of my bank account and mine alone when I gripe (and vote) about healthcare changes, or am I making decisions that include the impact to neighbors who are dying on the street, and to extremely hardworking people who don’t get paid enough to survive on – and to school and community programs that make sure their kids eat? Do I equate hard work with higher income, and low income with less work, inferior work, or poor choices? Do I believe in “liberty and justice for all,” or just me and mine, and people who think like me and look like me and choose like me and believe like me? In other words: do I harbor any opinions or judgments, or make any decisions/take any actions, that somehow result in injustice being done to others? Do I personally justify the perpetuation of injustice done to others?
  • I need to educate myself on all related matters – not with persuasive news articles and tsk radio etc, but through the people who actually suffer injustice, and through research and statistics and nonpartisan information resources, etc.
  • I need to find actions that carry out what I say I believe. This means I need to show up at town hall meetings, and vote every chance I’m given, and call my local representatives when needed. I need to advocate for people with my signatures, my voice, and my presence on the street – including, when possible, at peaceful marches. That scares me some, the last one – it does, for multiple reasons. But if I personally believe that Jesus would be on the ground with people who are suffering and on whom injustice is being perpetrated – in a drug den, or in line for soup, or at their hospital bedside, or at school, or in the workplace, or on the turf at a football game, then I need to find like ways to do justice and actually do it. 

Any ideology I hold that absolves me from any personal responsibility to do justice is wrong. If my beliefs or opinions relieve me from doing the work, by allowing me to look the other way or to blame people/groups for the injustice they face, then I’m doing it wrong. (I’ve done it wrong, by the way.)

Justice is not about revenge, personal comfort or preference, or “deserving,” but about each person being treated with the same dignity, respect, rights, rules and (appropriate) consequences.

Our individual life circumstances are all different, so it is going to vary by person, but we each need to deeply consider what we think justice is, and looks like when it’s properly executed. We need to evaluate our own personal ideology and role in justice and injustice, and we need to answer the question: What does it mean, personally, to do the work of justice in my circle of influence?