Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Justice after a History of Violence? What to do when the Body of Christ Wages War with Itself

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If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be—a Christian.
― Mark Twain, Notebook

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.
― Pope John Paul II

By Allyson Carr

Recently, we shared the interim results of the Justice and Faith research project with a group of “stakeholders”—people who are part of the Christian Reformed Church community and know it well, people who will be able to take the research results and use them in the work they do. For the first half of the meeting, the research team painstakingly went over the data we had collected and the analysis we had done. We showed the four definitions of justice that the data appeared to uncover, explained the various ways that people thought about the relation of justice and faith, and went over in some detail what had been identified as barriers and enablers to doing justice, with a few recommendations for potential next steps. Then we opened the floor to questions.

The very first question put to us wasn’t about our careful data collection, nor was it directly related to any of our recommendations for next steps. Instead the speaker basically said, “this is great, but what do people think about all the violence the church itself has done? All of the harm we have caused from positions of power? Has anyone addressed the question of how we can talk about justice at all given our history of complicity in injustice?”

I admit to being momentarily struck dumb.

You see, I have been vexed by similar questions, yet I have learned that even to ask them is to invite one of two opposed, yet equally antagonistic, responses: a defensive response that says that the contemporary Church cannot be held accountable either for the sins of a remote past or for the overzealous actions of a few people today, or a more critical response that says an institution that has been instrumental in the torture and oppression of so many people for so many years is incapable of doing justice. Both of these positions are, I believe, non-starters, and neither takes into account a good deal of history and present-day action. And yet both raise objections that are worth considering in order to address the question our stakeholder raised.

In answer to the first response, I simply point out that, in fact, you can hold a group responsible, to some extent, for the actions its forbears committed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, for example, is based on that premise. This does not mean that someone (like me) who had no hand in founding, running, or promoting residential schools should have to take personal responsibility for the terrible destruction those schools inflicted on generations. But it does mean that I have a moral and indeed spiritual obligation to acknowledge the real and atrocious harm that was done by the same larger tradition that also raised me, to acknowledge that the harmful effects of that legacy continue today, and, to the best of my ability, move to correct the injustice that became part of the fabric of the tradition that clothed me.

In short, I, personally, can be held responsible for naming and opposing wrongs stemming from my tradition, because my silence on these matters would only further empower such injustice. (Raising one’s voice in situations like these should involve more listening than speaking, but sympathetic listening differs from culpable silence). In fact, the CRC itself has already begun to model this very approach. In 2012, the church issued a Statement of Reconciliation, part of which reads: “Our church does not have a direct history of running Residential Schools in Canada. However, as members of the body of Christ in Canada we confess that the sins of assimilation and paternalism in Indian Residential Schools, and in wider government policy, are ours as the Christian Reformed Church. We are deeply sorry and pledge to walk the journey of reconciliation and healing with you.”

The phrase “members of the Body of Christ” brings us to the second response, the one that says that the Christian tradition can no longer be trusted to stand for justice. The issue of residential schools is just one example that illustrates the importance of the question—how can an organization with a significantly violent history (whatever its teachings have said to the contrary) credibly make calls to end violence, or eliminate poverty, or stop oppression? While interpreting Biblical texts is a notoriously fraught endeavor, I think it is relatively uncontroversial to say that the Bible teaches that the “body of Christ”—traditionally understood as the Church—is a unity. Different parts, one body. I would even wager that this “one body” stretches not only across geographical space, but also time. The body of Christ today is linked, in some ways, with the body of Christ during Bonhoeffer’s time, and Queen Elizabeth the First’s time; Augustine’s time, and Paul’s time. It is made up of Mother Theresas and members of the Spanish Inquisition; Harriet Beecher Stowes who worked to end slavery and Joan of Arcs who (however amazing in other ways) would have undertaken to physically eradicate those with different religious beliefs. Within the body of Christ there are heroes and villains and also frightened or conflicted people who just aren’t sure how to act. Some of the members have been all three of those things at once. Many members of the body of Christ have just wanted to live their life and tend their hearth, and leave questions of justice to other people. In other words, the body of Christ is made up of people, pure and simple.

But... if Christ’s body is one body, then it includes people like you and me. It includes people like the stakeholder who asked the question that inspired this post. It includes countless individuals and groups who have worked for justice, who have worked for peace, who have put their lives and livelihoods on the line to fight oppression, harbor refugees, and care for society’s most vulnerable—sometimes in direct opposition to the ruling policies of their Christian brothers and sisters. And they have done so because they believed that is what Christ wants them to do. In working on this research project, not only have I been reminded of the Church’s complicity in and responsibility for a history of injustice, I have also been reminded of all the ways that same body, with different parts and in different ways, has worked to be the hands and feet of the Christ who said that whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.

For those who name themselves part of the body of Christ, the choice of what one does to “the least of these”—and really, that includes most of us in different ways at different times—remains continuously present. That’s how to respond to our stakeholder’s question: own up to all the harm, and good, that this body has done, and show Christ’s body working for justice today. Respond to the question by embodying justice. That’s one thing that the majority of the people we surveyed agree on: being a Christian means you are called to do justice. It’s a hazard—or joy, and sometimes both at once—of being a follower of Christ. After all, Jesus could be said to be many things, but apathetic was never one of them.

Thank you to our stakeholders for asking us questions like these. And thank you to all those over the years who have given the body of Christ a concrete history of love and working for justice that it can both embody and draw upon.

Photo: Stained glass window, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. "You Do it To Me."