It was the smallest thing—not the biggest, or newest, or most progressive thing—that helped me put my faith into action and start participating more in God’s reconciling work.
I teach college freshman at a Christian university. For most freshmen, this is a time of transition into new territory—both physical and theological. Some have just realized the theology they were taught by their church or family was full of prejudice. Some are just deciding to select “none” for the first time. Some are lonely for the first time and are not sure how to fill their loneliness. But many, actually most, regardless of their faith, have hearts that throb for justice.
The beauty I see in these dreamers is that they have achieved a delicate balance: dissatisfaction with the way things are and hope for what might be. Their hearts and their heads are attuned to the pain and injustice of the world. They can point out racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia. And they talk a mean social justice game.
But it was their idealism and naiveté, I confess, that brought about a critique that I held as their professor.
My critique of them, of course, is that they can talk from dawn ‘til dusk about social justice, but never really work it out through their bodies. Of course, there are always a few exceptions, but for the most part none have participated physically in bringing about justice.
When I thought about myself, and how I teach and live, I realized that I was part of the problem. Most of my students have been learning from ideologues just like me. Associating with or giving money to organizations that sponsor social justice is different from actually doing justice work. The first keeps things in the realm of the theoretical and the ideal, while the second gets the body involved in the complicated world of injustice.
Without doing justice work, I was just another idealistic professor, hanging my hopes on the future generation, doing nothing to change or disrupt the present injustices in the world. So I decided that if I wanted to teach about God’s reconciliation in the world—and encourage my students to participate in it—I would need to actually do the work myself.
From Critique to Action
The thing I did would have to be small, of course, because I am ridiculously busy. I have three young boys (ages 5, 3, and 1). I have a full-time teaching position. My husband works. I have every excuse I need to not do anything extra, but despite this (and with the conviction that busyness is not a very good excuse), I took my kids to a Saturday morning workshop that taught parents how to talk to their kids about race.
My kids did not want to be in the children’s portion without me, so I ended up staying with them. I missed the parent workshop, but instead witnessed how children innately knew how to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.” Kids are fine-tuned to notice injustice and they are not afraid to yell, “That’s not fair!” to the people who hold the power (I hear it in my home all the time).
We started with an activity that celebrated the different shades of skin in the room. Then we went to a room with handheld mirrors, noticed what our faces looked like, and tried to draw them. We made posters that said things like, “Include All People” and “Black is Beautiful.” Finally, we learned “I’m On My Way to Freedom Land,” a protest-march song from the 1960s, that we sang as we marched into the room where the parents were waiting for us at the end of the workshop.
I was changed that day. I understood in a new way a claim James Cone makes: liberation must come before reconciliation. Freedom, fairness, and justice come first, the declaration that reconciliation has happened comes second. It’s something God declares through God’s people who have been hurting and suffering from injustice—and, as I saw in this Saturday workshop, it’s something that a childlike faith understands innately.
Reconciliation is a harmonious chord that is struck after those who are hurting are freed from unfairness within their life—when the outcasts are welcomed, when those without homes are offered shelter, when those who have been oppressed experience freedom. Liberation first, then reconciliation. Reconciliation is something we live into when we help set the world right according to God’s plan that involves freedom for all creation.
God’s Work and Ours
The smallest thing I could do in the midst of my busy life was to attend a ‘one-off’ workshop. Not surprisingly, God has taken my smallest effort and changed me. My body got involved in doing the work of liberation. This has changed the way I teach, the way I parent, and the way I interact with my neighbor. When I see something unfair I try to find a way to say, “That’s not fair,” and then do something to try to make it right. (I also now volunteer with the amazing Seattle-based organization, Kids and Race, but more on that another time). I’m not perfect, and I miss a lot, but it’s a place to start.
God’s reconciliation in the world works through us as we participate in radical acts of love and justice towards God’s people. Jesus came to liberate us—to free us—and we become more like him when we work for the freedom of all people.
Understanding injustice is a great starting place, but living out that new understanding is the next step. In America, our work for justice and liberation has a particular history. We are not dealing with the same justice issues that our neighbors in South Korea, Germany, Ireland, or South Africa are dealing with. The ways in which those with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community, women, or people who are black or brown, or with Japanese or Native American heritage have experienced oppression are unique to our country (even if they have parallels elsewhere). With this unique history, our burden is to understand our identity as a nation with a heritage marked by systemic injustice for certain groups of people. For some of us, this might include seeing how we have experienced injustice ourselves because of the groups to which we belong or because of our particular heritage. In our country, we have been divided from each other in unfair ways, and this makes reconciliation harder.
With childlike faith, however, we can notice things that are unfair, learn one another’s stories and histories, and start doing the smallest thing to love God’s people who are hurting or oppressed. Then—and only then—with hearts filled with love and joy, we might begin to hear God’s harmonious song of reconciliation sung unto the world.
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Katherine M. Douglass (Katie) is an Assistant Professor of Ministry at Seattle Pacific University and an ordained minister in the PC(USA). Katie served, with her husband John, at the American Protestant Church: An International Congregation, in Bonn, Germany before returning to doctoral studies.
Since 2013, Dr. Douglass has directed The Confirmation Project, a $1.1 million grant from the Lily Endowment Inc., that researches confirmation and equivalent practices that form disciples of Jesus Christ in five denominations through a national survey of youth, parents, and ministry leaders, as well as congregational visits. In addition to this research on Christian rites of passage, Dr. Douglass teaches courses on spirituality, the arts and Christian formation, Biblical literacy, and culturally responsive pedagogies.