EDITOR’S NOTE: “Justice looks like …” is a special series in the Voices column. Readers will have the opportunity to consider justice from numerous viewpoints. The series is based on each writer’s understanding of Scripture and relationship with Jesus Christ. Writers present their own views independent of any institution, unless otherwise noted in their bios.
You are encouraged to listen to each writer without prejudgment. Then, engage in conversation with others around you about what justice looks like to you.
If I jumped, I knew I’d be out of my depth. With toes hanging off the edge of the diving board, my swimming instructor was calling out from down below: “Just jump! You’ll be fine. If you jump, I’ll buy you a candy bar.”
Feeling the tension within me, I hesitated. I knew there was risk. I wasn’t a strong swimmer, but I was learning. I wanted to trust my swimming instructor. She believed in me, and she was there to support me. Her voice still rings in my ear: “Come on! Jump in. You’ll be alright.”
I didn’t jump that day.
All my life, I’ve felt like I’ve been swimming out of my depth. I get my wits about me the moment after the moment has passed.
In school, it was the last day of class when I finally understood the first day of class. In relationships, I cherish people after they’re gone. In work, I find the key to unlocking a passage of Scripture as I close my sermon on that Scripture. In matters of justice, well … you can probably guess.
Justice rightly is on everyone’s minds these days. Cries for justice unsettle any semblance of peace the privileged have. While we want to believe we live in a just world, we don’t. And the often quoted words of Martin Luther King Jr. remind us of the truth of the matter: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
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Comparing two thinkers on justice
I’ve been thinking on the how question: How do we go about bringing justice for all?
In James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he offers an illuminating comparison between Reinhold Niebuhr and Dr. King. His main focus is on the fact Niebuhr, despite a career’s worth of opportunity, did not speak directly of the obvious connection between the cross upon which Jesus unjustly died and the commonplace lynching tree upon which thousands of Black men and women died. But King did.
King courageously spoke truth to power, knowing it likely would cost him his life. The comparison is meant to issue a call to speak up, because we only have the one life to get it right.
How each of these men contributed to the betterment of society is also of interest to me. Niebuhr was a pragmatist, believing in an incremental approach to improvement. King was a bit more of an idealist, believing in a prophetic vision of equality founded in God.
It’s worth asking: While both made significant contributions to this world, who moved the needle more?
Where I find myself
As I think about what justice means to me and my place in the fight for it, I think of Niebuhr and King. I tend to carry the idealism of King within me and the incrementalism of Niebuhr in my engagement. Honestly, I don’t know that is best.
I wonder if my hesitancy to engage the fight for justice fully is because I feel like I am, once again, swimming out of my depth. I’m learning, but I am far from knowing it all. I’m sorting it out, but I don’t have it all sorted out yet. I’m stepping into the fight, but I’m keeping one foot out the door.
But here is what I am realizing: Lives are at stake.
I hear the voice call out to me: “Come on! Jump in!”
This is not the voice of my swim instructor, telling me I will be alright. This is the voice of those who are drowning, and they call to me to jump in. Not to save them, but to fight with them.
I know I’m swimming out of my depth. But, is that a good reason not to jump in?
Michael Mills is the pastor of Agape Baptist Church in Fort Worth. The views expressed are those solely of the author.
Click here to read the full “Justice looks like…” series.