The Real Meaning of Justice

As part of a larger discussion in my classroom yesterday, I asked my students how they define justice. Then, I asked them how they could better demonstrate justice.

The results were fascinating to me. Some students very quickly said justice means “fairness.” More students, however, said things like “being nice,” “treating people equally,” and “enforcing the laws.”

The context of the conversation was an examination of the following passage of scripture, a passage that shows the real meaning of justice. We are to change our hearts and ways to imitate God who is compassionate and fair: God who doesn’t necessarily treat everyone equally–but fairly–by giving special attention to those who are most vulnerable in society.

Now, therefore, Israel, what does the LORD, your God, ask of you but to fear the LORD, your God, to follow in all his ways, to love and serve the LORD, your God, with your whole heart and with your whole being,

 To keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD that I am commanding you todayfor your own well-being?

Look, the heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it.

Yet only on your ancestors did the LORD set his heart to love them. He chose you, their descendants, from all the peoples, as it is today.

Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your hearts, and be stiff-necked no longer.

For the LORD, your God, is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who has no favorites, accepts no bribes,

who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing.

So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.

The LORD, your God, shall you fear, and him shall you serve; to him hold fast and by his name shall you swear.

Deuteronomy 10: 12-20

The way we are called to love and serve God is by loving and serving the most vulnerable in our society. For my students and me, that is people who are different than us.

My students are studying the Old Testament and they are 9th graders. Most of them are white and privileged, and enjoy lives of safety and comfort.

Justice may have been difficult for many of my students to define because they don’t have to think about it very often. Most of them are able to go through their days without having to worry about whether they will be stopped by the police when they walk down the sidewalk. They do not worry about being wrongly harassed by police. They don’t have to fear coming home to find that their parents have been deported.

Like my students, I also enjoy being able to trust that the police will protect me and keep me and my dearest loved ones safe. I don’t fear racial discrimination, brutality, or false accusations for crimes.

It’s Thanksgiving week, and we have much to be grateful for. We also have a lot to do.

It is a time of tension in this nation.  The protests and violence concerning the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the debate about immigration reform show that a lot of intense emotion is stirring all over the land. (By the way, I am a supporter of President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration reform, along with the Catholic Bishops).

During this time of chaos and conflict, what type of justice do we need to demonstrate?

The Scripture and our tradition make it clear. As people of faith, we are called to protect the most vulnerable. We must enter into intense social analysis in order to see what’s really going on in the systemic problems that cry out for the need for changes: we need immigration reform and less militarization in our police forces. We need more compassion.

We must rally non-violently. We must hold prayer vigils. We must offer loving presence to the hurting, the suffering, the vulnerable and oppressed. We must listen to their voices and not be quick to judge.

We must engage in simple acts of generosity and kindness, like God, and lovingly give the vulnerable food and clothing.

This is the real spirit of Thanksgiving: attitudes of gratitude that become actions for justice and kindness, recognizing we are blessed and making social changes so more people can experience the blessings. The type of Thanksgiving that our nation needs now is a celebration of generosity and compassion that honors the real meaning of justice.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Me (on the far left), protesting the immigration raid in Postville, Iowa with other Sisters in my FSPA community, summer of 2008.
Me (on the far right), protesting the immigration raid in Postville, Iowa with other Sisters in my FSPA community in the summer of 2008.

My journey into my family of grandmas

What will I be when I grow up? It’s a familiar question. As a happy and energetic farm girl in Iowa, I frequently imagined what my life would look like as an adult.

While I helped my mother with chores or ran around exploring the woods and the farm buildings, I dreamed about how I might run a household if I ever were a mother some day. I looked forward to when I would be able to do adult things and make my own choices. I saw myself acting a lot like my own mother and grandmother: gardening, cooking and baking in a big farmhouse and offering care to a lot of happy and playful children.

I also dreamed about being a teacher, a writer or maybe a missionary in another country. I did have a vague idea that I might like to be a Catholic sister, based largely on my love of films like “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act,” but my childhood dreaming never included the picture of me actually being a nun.

Photo credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105417/
Photo credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105417/

 

What remained a constant in my childhood thoughts about being an adult, however, was an experience of relating to a large, loving family. This makes sense. I never knew any Catholic sisters as a child, but…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.] 

 

Franciscan Bookshelf: “Following Francis”

By day, K.P.–a good friend of Sister Julia’s–reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

Like most of the books on my Franciscan Bookshelf, I don’t know exactly how I came across “Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone,” Susan Pitchford’s readable but rigorous introduction to the practice of lay Franciscan spirituality, but it is now one of my most dog-eared, deeply-cherished books about faith. Perhaps this is somewhat owing to the way Pitchford’s story resonates with me, particularly: an academic sociologist who describes herself as “scratch[ing] and claw[ing]” her way back to Christianity, Pitchford wrestles throughout the book with how to reconcile her secular vocation with the countercultural demands of her faith, in chapters that detail the aspects of her Rule, including “Prayer,” “Penitence,” “Love,” and “Simplicity.” Now fully immersed in the Anglican Third Order, Pitchford weaves her own (often endearingly clumsy) introduction to the Franciscan way into powerful narratives about the value of simplicity and prayer, the need for radical love, and the pursuit of meaningful work using the life of St. Francis as a guide. Pitchford’s introduction to the “Way” is—by turns—difficult, beautiful, accessible, and nourishing.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356

On the topic of “Self-Denial,” Pitchford is particularly insightful. Building on Kathleen Norris’s insight in “The Cloister Walk” that “the saints are those who have been willing to go through life without anesthesia,” Pitchford examines the many ways in which we have become accustomed to “anesthetizing” ourselves in modern Western culture: drugs, alcohol, greasy food, cigarettes, to be sure, but also music, movies, shopping, television. By rightly recognizing that the practice of self-denial is often counter-intuitive—if not seemingly irrelevant—to lay religious, Pitchford gently encourages those interested in such a discipline to meaningfully cultivate time and attention for the entertainments which bring us profound pleasure rather than transforming them into background noise. (As she puts it, “I figure if the music is good, it deserves my full attention; if not, it deserves to be turned off.”) Far from lamenting the deprivations of a good life, Pitchford humbly suggests a different version of it: a life filled with the kind of joy and peace that only gratified silence and cultivated attention can bring. And, of course, the occasional, profoundly-felt chocolate bar.

“Following Francis” also speaks to the challenges lay religious face in coordinating the disciplines of their spiritual life with the demands of their secular one. In chapters on “Humility,” “Study,” and “Work,” Pitchford addresses the intersection of meekness and practicing obedience in the context of meaningful employment. The modern workplace is often both competitive and self-aggrandizing, which can feel at odds to those called to lifestyles of solitude, humility, and voluntary simplicity. And yet, Pitchford reminds us, the reconciling of the two can produce powerful opportunities to witness and minister. She (rather comically) describes her search for meaningful ministry as an experience of discouraged unemployment, where everything she understands to be a “legitimate calling” is ultimately closed off to her. Yet she neglects to recognize that, all along, she has continued to write, teach, research, and touch lives. As she describes her realization, “Prayer, teaching, and writing: could this be a life that would be genuinely pleasing to God?” I think those of us called to a more contemplative life can agree that it sometimes feels … indulgent? Irrelevant? I myself have struggled deeply with my vocation as a professor: shouldn’t I be out feeding the homeless? Couldn’t I dedicate my hours to something more meaningful than reading and writing? Yet God has responded, again and again—through spiritual directors, through prayer, through books like Pitchford’s—by reminding me that a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, and to fostering truth and knowledge in other, more resistant minds, is a vocation in and of itself. Not a better or worse vocation, but simply the shape of my specific and particular call at this moment in my life. And thus I find helpful and comforting Pitchford’s emphasis on the need for self-reflection in order to understand secular vocations in discerning terms, to recognize the limits of our knowing:

… I think humans have a natural apophatic tendency—an intuitive sense of the limits of knowledge—and serious study can bring it to the surface. Apophatic theology claims that God is so far beyond human experience and understanding that all positive assertions about God’s essence are inevitably misleading, distorting, and potentially idolatrous. Instead of making statements about what God is (the thrust of “cataphatic” theology), apophatic theology emphasizes all that God is not: God is not limited (“infinite”), not subject to death and decay (“immortal”), beyond all description (“ineffable”). Because God so transcends our capacity to know him, apophatic theology stresses unknowing: we can do nothing but bow in silent awe before the mystery we cannot begin to comprehend. I confess I’m more at home in the cataphatic tradition, with heavy doses of analogy (“God is like a king,” “Christ is like a bridegroom”). Yet there’s that undeniable tendency for each little summit I reach to open up new vistas of my ignorance. This makes sense, because it’s only when we push ourselves to the limits of our knowledge that we get a feel for what those limits are.

I feel grateful every day to do meaningful work that pushes me, again and again, to the limits of my knowledge. May Pitchford’s work speak to you as it has to me: a grounded narrative of the transformations that the Franciscan way can bring to your life, work, and prayer.

 

On Earth, Heaven

Screen shot 2014-11-05 at 1.48.57 PM
Photo credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oh-9PdQL6A

Gospel living is messy.

It takes a lot of work, prayer, devotion and love to be God’s instrument and to build God’s reign of peace and justice.

This 2-minute video offers a colorful meditation on this Truth.

Let us pray that God’s will is done in each of us, on earth while we awake to the nearness of heaven. Amen!