Natalie Dunn Magnusson holds a degree in Youth and Family Ministry from Abilene Christian University and an MA in Spiritual Formation and Leadership from Spring Arbor University. She is Director of Spiritual Formation for the Masters program in Missional Leadership at Rochester College, Adjunct Instructor at Spring Arbor University, and serves on the board of the Women in Ministry Network.This was first presented at the 2013 Christian Scholars Conference session, ”The Fierce Urgency of Now: Strategies for Social Change Within the Churches of Christ.”
Social issues are highly spiritual issues, as Walter Wink, William Stringfellow, and others have reminded us. Our love of God is deeply interwoven with our love of people, and so how we engage these social issues reveals much about our lives with God. I imagine that many of us gathered in this room are already in tune with God’s call for justice and are passionate about seeing social change come to fruition, but I believe we need to be just as concerned about what happens along the way, not just the end result of justice. So, as I’ve been thinking about the title of this session, The Fierce Urgency of Now, I want to caution us about how “fierce urgency” might instill in us a reckless and possibly aggressive posture as we stimulate social change. We must avoid becoming oppressive in our endeavors to eradicate oppression. I, along with many other women in the Churches of Christ, long to be included in the public life of the church sooner rather than later. I am on board with fierce urgency, but I also believe we need to take time to be mindful of a few things: first, God is the source of justice, second, there are some intentional practices that will ground our actions for justice, and third, our work for justice is for the sake of God in this world.
Our empowerment for justice must be rooted in and flow from lives that are lived with God. We cannot engage these issues on our own. We’re up against deeply rooted structures and systems that have been in effect since long before we ever existed. The labor of justice, the setting of things as they should be, is really God’s work, and we are wise to remember our position in this. I think about how in Acts we see the Holy Spirit so clearly and actively involved in the inclusion of the Gentiles. It was God who initiated that kind of justice and saw it to completion, and thankfully there were some individuals attentive and willing to respond to the movement and nudging of God. In a similar fashion, we need to step back and allow God’s Spirit to have a primary role in this unfolding story of gender inclusion and other social changes that are taking place in our churches. This is not our story. This is God’s story. Our posture has to be, first and foremost, confessional and dependent on the power of God. In suggesting this stance, however, I’m not implying that we have to sit back and wait for a white sheet to fall from the sky. Rather, I’m advocating for a rhythm of praxis and reflection, or action and contemplation, where we are in the habit of regularly stopping and prayerfully considering what has occurred and how God is calling us to participate next.
So as a part of the rhythm of action and contemplation, I believe there are five practices we can engage. These will help us to discern what God is already up to in our world and will guard us from becoming that which we detest. We practice these disciplines not because we believe that it is by our efforts alone that change happens, but because we trust that when we open up space, God’s Spirit will come in and do the transformative work in us and through us. Many of these practices are passive and not actively making justice happen. They do, however, serve the imperative role of grounding our actions towards justice. The quiet rhythms of our lives must be supportive of the active rhythms of our lives.
1. One of the most foundational practices is silence. It helps us to listen more than to speak both in our prayers and in our engagement with others. Silence creates the conditions for justice to unfold, as well as, prevents us from running over people with our speech, which could easily become another form of violence.
2. The second discipline I recommend is that we practice lectio divina with people who hold beliefs contrary to ours. This is not the same as studying and dissecting scripture; rather it’s a way of listening to and noticing what God is up to in the text, in the lives of other people, and in the world. Dwelling with individuals who offer a diversity of perspectives will open us up to their voices and will assist us at other points as we seek to have challenging discourses concerning social issues (as we seek to create “positive peace,” McCarty). And hopefully, in turn, it will open them up to our viewpoints and understandings. We do not necessarily need to dwell in the traditional gender texts or hot button texts together. We simply should practice being in a variety places in scripture with people other than our likeminded friends.
3. Another habit is the regular rhythm of Sabbath, where we stop our anxious busyness and recognize that we are not God. Sabbath is an intentional relinquishment of power, and a valuable routine in a world where the temptation for power is fierce and palpable. Sometimes overlooked, the command of Sabbath in the Old Testament had direct social implications, for they were to give their slaves, aliens, and animals rest, so that they too might be refreshed. And this causes me to wonder what we might have to discover today about the direct social implications of Sabbath rest.
4. The fourth discipline is the prayer of the examen that is often practiced each evening. It’s a prayer that prompts us to notice our consolations and desolations from the day. The examen helps us to see patterns of where we are both giving and receiving life and death in our world and is useful in detecting how we are being formed as we engage God’s work of justice.
5. And fifth I suggest the practice of restraint. We live in a world of instant gratification and immediate response. So, rather than always caving to the impulse of responding immediately, I believe it is beneficial to set up parameters for ourselves that create time and space before we offer something in return. And in this interim, it is helpful to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I wanting to respond in order to assert power over the other?” or, “Do I notice that I am being anxious and fearful about something and wanting to respond out of that feeling?” or, “What are the greater implications of a particular kind of response?” The only caution with this practice is that we cannot allow so much time to elapse before we respond that it becomes one more form of power over the other and induces anxiety in them.
I want to close by emphasizing two things. First, these practices are not primarily about our formation as individuals or about our own personal agendas for social justice, as grand as they may be. The church exists for the sake of God in this world. Our individual decisions have communal implications. They impact people and their understandings of God in ways that cannot possibly be known. Our daily decisions afford us the opportunity to give life, as well as, take away life from other people. This is a high and holy calling. We are participants in God’s work of making all things new in this world. So how we go about social justice, not just the end result, bears witness to a God who is reconciling the world to God’s self. We are ministers of reconciliation. In spurring social change, we are taking risks, people are getting hurt, and reconciliation will be an integral part of this work. How we handle this reconciliation before a watching world is just as significant as achieving justice in the end.
Lastly, I want to reiterate that while these rhythms might seem to slow us down and work against a life actively in pursuit of social change, they actually help the work of justice not be just one more impetuous action driven by fear and power. Our moves of justice must be grounded in our identity in God and in God’s ultimate vision for justice in our world, and that takes time.