by Stephen Tickner
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
It was the last straw in a week of contemplation and argument. The last straw, in the form of a simple statement made by a disarmingly sweet woman working as a security guard in the Cincinnati airport, that coalesced the various stars of thoughts into one bright burning sun.
“How are you?” I said dryly yet respectably, as any good middle-American born boy would who was not expecting a response.
“I am highly favored and blessed!” She responded cheerfully.
BAM! Those words - “I”, “favored”, “blessed” - and the sentiments around them crystallized the message I feel I was to receive during the 2009 Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference.
It’s not an accident that I went to this particular conference. It’s also not an accident that this was the year they put a high focus on advocacy and action. It is the continuation of a series of events recently that have occurred in my life. Each leading me further down the same road - the road for justice.
I realize the word “justice” in recent months and years has become a bit watered down. It’s a popular subject right now and when things gain in popularity they often lose some weight.
On the other hand, the focus on justice gives people and communities, who would have never known about certain issues, a chance to learn about the prevalence of oppression occurring in our own back yard.
Things like the level of toxic dumping and existence of food deserts in our nations poor and minority neighborhoods, families being torn apart because of our nation’s inconsistent and harmful immigration laws, and the practice of racially targeted predatory lending that occurred before the housing crisis. These are just a few examples of the type of oppression that faith communities, especially the more conservative middle and upper-class evangelical and mainline communities, are being introduced to because of the renewed focus on justice.
But because of this renewal and because oppressive systems are becoming easier to see, we now have a choice to make. In recent years, the North American church has moved away from the teachings of Jesus in regards to seeking justice. With the rise and prevalence of the “mega-church”, middle and upper-class churches have mimicked their secular counterparts and run themselves like a Fortune 500 company. Consequently, a major focus has been placed on the individual aspect of Christianity and it’s “live the best life now” quality. Too often we sell the gospel as if it was a winning lottery ticket – the thing that will help us live a life of comfort and fulfillment without worry as long as we follow a few moral rules.
What we have forgotten is the communal aspect of Jesus’ message and the over two-thousand biblical verses about helping the poor and oppressed. And now, we are being shown vivid examples of current day oppression. We can no longer claim ignorance. We must choose whether to live using Jesus’ life and teaching as our example or worry about the bottom line and losing congregants.
So too with those of us that make up the church. Too often we, including myself, treat church like a spiritual Exxon station. We expect to be filled up with “the spirit” and don’t really want to be challenged. If our pastor takes a controversial stand, we're likely to leave the church or hire a new pastor that will leave controversy behind and just make us feel good. It is this reminder of Christian narcissism that hit me when the woman stated she was favored and blessed.
Fortunately, there are exceptions. For example, if you’ve done any research on Sanctuary churches along the U.S.-Mexican border and the people behind them, you get an excellent example of a church living out Jesus’ message. It is a brilliant example of individuals putting personal concerns aside and uniting as the “body” to help their fellow human beings who are made in the image of God. It is churches and individuals like these that give me hope that their spirit will spread like a wildfire throughout the North American church.
It also gives me hope that thousands of members of “the Body” would come together at conferences like CCDA to learn knew ways to live out the Christian call to justice. We have plenty of paths to follow and huge shoes to fill. It is people like William Wilberforce, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day that have shown us what is possible and we have present-day leaders like Rev. John Perkins who have laid a roadmap we can follow.
Maybe if American churches begin to follow these examples of faith—maybe then, one day, we will all be able to triumphantly say “WE are highly favored and blessed.”