Sunday, July 20, 2014

On General Assembly: Justice as a Faith Practice

(This is part 3 of my posts on General Assembly.  You can read part one here and part two here if you want/need to catch up).

One of my favorite spoken word poets, Staceyann Chin, writes in her poem "Feminist or Womanist:"

"God is that place between belief and what you name it.
I believe holy is what you do
when there is nothing between your actions and the truth."

This has been one of my favorite lines for a long time.  While I currently fall staunchly in the "not so sure how I feel about god" category, this sentiment rings so true.  Whatever I believe about big-or-little-G-god, I feel there is something very human and earthly about holiness.  God is, perhaps, that thing that happens when love is realized.  When hope is put into action.  Whatever it is, I believe it is created here, among us, between us, and because of us.  Holy is that place where things align.  When what is right is put into action.  When truest intentions are felt and realized.  When love is felt directly from the heart.  When that which is good is set in motion, moving squarely towards the thing that is right -- the thing that uplifts, empowers, embraces and holds others.  Holy is what you do. 

I attended a number of amazing workshops while at GA.  However, the one that really left me wowed -- left me with an entirely new way of thinking I had never before encountered (I LOVE when that happens!!!) -- was the one entitled "Theologies for Multicultural Justice Making."  Like...oh my goodness.  How amazing is that, right?  I geek out talking about multicultural/diversity issues, and I get super passionate talking about justice work, AND I get to include religion in that!?!  Holy cow.  That's like nerdy nirvana for me.
In this workshop, they asked us big questions: How do you balance truth, humility, and unknowing in your justice work?  How will we be together in our work for justice when things get messy?  How will we forgive one another when we fall out of relationship?  How do we work towards building power with love at the center?  How do we honor the stories of people oppressed by systems, and also honor the stories of the people benefitting from them?  How do we empower one another to speak truth and make change?

The panel provided personal definitions that resonated in my heart.  Humility is being open to listening and allowing the truth to be revealed to us.  God is people moving from a place of despair to a place of hope.  They spoke about the importance of helping people discover their own power.  They spoke about the importance of bearing witness.

And this -- this process of knowing, and loving, and being with, and witnessing -- this is the most deeply spiritual practice I know.  I dislike the idea of "serving" others as being a tenet of a faith practice.  I know most (all?) religions have some sort of practice of helping or serving others, but the idea of being a church or faith community setting out into the world to go help those less just strikes me as artificial.  Like you're doing it to earn Karma Points or the next Good Person Badge to sew on your Person of Faith vest.  It seems inextricably tied with charity and turning the people you are helping into the "other."  I'm not going to poo-poo the giving of financial gifts -- this is absolutely necessary and should be done through religious organizations or whatever other way you see fit.  But it needs to be more than that.  It needs to be more than money.  More than "helping."  More than service.  After all, why stop there?  Why stop at "helping?"  Why stop at "serving?"  Why not shoot for justice?

If I believe in a little-g-god, I believe in a Big-J-Justice.  Working towards Justice is something that binds us in community, and community is that which binds us to something that is larger than ourselves.  How can that not be a spiritual practice?  How can that not be holy?  When we "help" or "serve," we are maintaining an illusion of separateness.  We maintain a sense that we, as "helpers," are somehow better than those we are helping.  We are the knight in shining armor that comes in to save The Other from their plight. 

But there is only one way of working towards Justice.  We work towards Justice by joining with.  By looking the people or being or issue or the problem itself straight in the eye and not looking away when we see the injustice staring back at us.  We are not afraid of acknowledging the ways in which we have wittingly or unwittingly benefitted from or collaborated with systems that kept that injustice in place.  Or if we are the ones facing the injustice, we name the injustice, or name the fear of naming the injustice.  And then we allow ourselves to dream that there may be a better way.  Maybe, we ask to enter the fight as an ally.  We gather strength, and courage, and numbers in our naming and facing of the problem, and we find ways of lifting up one another in the struggle. 

And that's the way we fight, isn't it?  That's the way we walk towards Justice: we lift one another up in the struggle.  We allow ourselves to be lifted.  We sit together in the heartbreak.  We listen to one another's anger and rage, and we listen for the hope and healing.  We stick with one another as we mess up.  And we try to figure out how to walk forward together.

In a talk at GA on Reproductive Justice, one of the presenters said, "Reproductive Justice is about learning to live in the messy in-between without clear answers."  And isn't that true of all Justice work?  Isn't it about how we learn to live in that messy in-between in which there are no black-and-white answers?  In which there are so many right-and-wrongs that it fades into only shades of gray?

In the same talk, the presenter was asked the question, "What is the role of faith communities in Reproductive Justice work?"

The response was one that made a big lightbulb go off in my mind.  I'm paraphrasing here, because I'm good at taking notes, but don't have a transcript...but it was something like this:

Church is a safe place.  It is a place where we have the privilege to lift up voices and send them out into the world.  It is a place where we do spiritual work, and we focus on people as being whole beings.   The work towards Reproductive Justice comes naturally out of that framework.

And of course, with my interest in Reproductive Justice, this makes perfect sense.  But it also makes sense for any Justice work.  We work for Justice as people of faith because we are part of a community in which we can move towards wholeness.  We can lift up voices and send them out into the world.  And if they come back tired and broken, we can lift them up again.  And if they come back with love and energy to share, they lift up others.  Where else is that done?  Nowhere, that I can see -- and I work in a helping profession. 

So how do we get to that place?  How do we walk towards Big-J-Justice?  We make this work our spiritual practice.  We love the hell out of this world by living our values.  It is living such that there is nothing between our actions and the truth.  It is witnessing the struggle.  It is listening to the quiet.  It is being loud.  It is lifting one another up.  It is allowing ourselves to be lifted.

I know it's hard to believe, but I really do have a favorite poem above all my other favorite poems (it's like a tiered system of favorites, okay?  Don't judge).  Andrea Gibson's "Say Yes" is one I have listened to more times than I can count, and it still makes me cry.  It's that good.  In it, she writes:

"this is for doubt becoming faith
for falling from grace and climbing back up
for trading our silver platters for something that matters
like the gold that shines from our hands when we hold each other."

So let's let that gold shine from our hands and hold each other, y'all.  Let's do that deeply spiritual work for Justice.  Let us be a people of faith who make holiness by aligning our actions and the truth.  Let's sit, and stand, and walk in that messy in-between together.

Will you join me?

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