The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Monday, February 15

What About God's Justice?

Social justice is the topic for this month's issue of Лице в Лице, our street magazine.

Klimentina, our Director, invited me to write a guest column.  I was honored, but...I didn't know what to say.  For almost two weeks I procrastinated with the deadline looming ever closer.  Then late one night, I Mind Mapped this article. 
I have a habit of talking in my sleep.  Once as a young man, I woke up an entire household of friends yelling, “What about God's Justice?”   

It was a startling awakening for them and me too.  Ever since, it's become a question for my life. 

I started my career in 1972 after graduating from seminary.  Instead of church work, I soon began organizing social service and social change projects.  I remember going to work and seeing dozens of families waiting for some form of emergency help.  We paid for rent and utilities and gave out many bags of food thinking it was the least we could do. 

Once we discovered a homeless man sleeping in a crawl space under our front door.   A couple of old blankets and a half burnt candle on top of a cardboard box were home for him. That sight led to the creation of our community's first homeless shelter.  Nightly, we began giving warm meals and beds to people who had next to nothing thinking again it was the least we could do.  

I went on to promote social justice in Washington, DC.  I organized a national network of partner organizations to end childhood hunger.  Our research showed that 15 million children in America were at risk of hunger.  It was too much. 

Through my work, I became acutely aware of injustice, prejudice and the plight of marginalized people.  

Once I remember writing:
 "Poverty is a terrible thief.  More than depriving a neighbor of food or shelter or warmth, it steals away hope.  While other thieves may take things from the past, poverty steals a person's self-respect and future.”

Since coming to Macedonia, I’ve had conversations about social justice with my new friends.  I discovered that we share many of the same yearnings. 

Sometimes we look nostalgically to the past of what was or might have been.   For me it's remembering President John F Kennedy who among many things started the Peace Corps.  Maybe for Macedonians, it's Tito or another leader from another time.  Whatever the details, we remember the good old days.  Those were years filled with hope and promise or so we think. 

Unfortunately too often, we see the past through rose colored glasses.  We gloss over blemishes and ignore problems.  We make our leaders heroic and forget that they are imperfect humans, just like us. 

This year both Macedonia and America will have elections.  It seems that no matter from what political party, candidates make lots of promises. It can sound almost Utopian and we’re tempted to believe everything wholeheartedly. 

But I think we know better.  While some changes can move towards justice, others do not.  It seems that just when we rejoice over a new day dawning, another change comes along and moves us in the opposite direction.  
As Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Theologian and Ethicist famously said,

“Nothing worth doing is complete in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.  Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.  

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. 
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of friend or foe as from our own; therefore we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”  (Irony of American History, page 63)

So what are we to do? 

Meeting with two of our Vendors.  They're our sales force for our street magazine and receive fifty percent of the cover price. More importantly, they've become friends.  
I’ve learned to live in the tension between the ideals of justice and political reality that falls short.  While some may despair, I think it’s good to still have ideals and to work for social justice.  

But we need to be vigilant about Utopian agendas that promise too much.  I think Niebuhr is right when he reminds us that we live in a world of partial justice. What we do will have flaws, but we do the best we know how to do at the time. 

Like a Macedonian friend reminds me, “We don’t know…what we don’t know.”   So it's a good idea to remain open to new possibilities and humble enough to realize that we too are blind in many areas.  What we manage to do for others is not perfect, but we can hope that it's making a difference. 

So I say, be more positive and do not dwell on negativity.  
An old proverb asks a question.  Is a glass of water half-empty or half-full?  

It's always half-full when people care with act of kindness especially to the marginalized of every background, race and religion.  It’s filling up when neighbors welcome strangers from Syria and beyond.  

It's almost brimming over when leaders forsake self-interest and strike out for social justice in laws and policies.  The glass becomes full whenever people join together for the common good. 

I think this outlook counters modern pessimism and the paralysis of negativity.  It does not deny that life is hard and unfair at times because it certainly is.  But it does urge us to live a life where our actions, in whatever partial and halting way, can and do make a difference.     

I found these words from Robert F Kennedy, an American leader, who like his brother was assassinated. They still speak to our time.   

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped….

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” (Address in South Africa, June 1966)

What about God's justice?  It's a question each of us answer as we live lives that can make a difference or not.