by Alan Delery
Ever since my early years of college, I have actively pursued justice. I felt like that was my calling in life. I majored in criminal justice and shortly after was introduced to the idea of restorative justice through an organization called Prison Fellowship. I went on to work in a group home for youth coming out of a secure custody facility and then became a juvenile probation officer. My desire was to be a part of a justice system that provided the best possible care and support for everyone involved in crime including the victim, the person who was adjudicated as delinquent and the community they lived in.
Through the years, since my initial career in the juvenile justice system, I have been involved in initiatives that had a goal of building safe and caring communities. I’ve had various positions in both the justice and education system and have seen the overrepresentation of black youth in the correctional system as well as in the disciplinary side of the education system.
Having studied sociology with a concentration in corrections, I am interested in the causes of this overrepresentation of young blacks in juvenile justice which often leads to the adult correctional systems and limited career options as adults. Louisiana, in particular, has been known as the incarceration capital of the world with one of the highest rates of incarceration. Steps have been taken to reduce this issue, but we have a long way to go to solving the problem of incarceration and income inequality in our American society. High incarceration has not made our cities safer.
My goal in understanding the why of our current social problem is not to place blame, but to simply gain insight into how we got here in order to systematically find a way out. Some Christians shy away from the phrase social justice believing that it is unbiblical and divisive. While this post will not examine what systems put people in specific positions of need, in the first place, I believe that Christians are called into the world systems and produce change by teaching others God’s way of doing things.
We have a lot of problems in our society and God has shown us what is good; and what He requires of us. “To do what is right, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” Micah 6:8
As a Christian, I try to have a Biblical understanding of the problems that our society faces. The short answer is that sin is the cause of our problems. Sin is an attitude or action that separates us from God and our neighbor. The New Testament offers the Good News as a way out of sin. It also demonstrates a type of restorative justice which follows the Biblical principle of forgiveness and accountability. Restorative justice asks, what happened; who was affected and how; and what needs to happen to make things right?
The Bible also uses these questions as a problem solving process. This process applies to individual wrongdoing and accountability, as well as, harm caused to a group of people. Storytelling is a part of the restorative process, but If people are not given the opportunity to make their complaint by telling their story, chances are they will not be made right. In addition to people telling their story, someone has to listen with empathy and compassion.
Act 6:1-6 is a perfect example of social justice.
As the church began to grow, “hard feelings developed among the Greek speaking believers –’Hellenists’- toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines.” MSG
If you read the whole story for yourself, you would read that the leaders of the church listened to the complaint of the Hellenist and came up with a solution to the problem that “everyone liked.”
Had they dismissed the Hellenists’ concerns or denied that a problem was happening, the Book of Acts would have a different story. The complaints would likely have increased and there would have been division in the Church. Stephen, who would go on to become the first Christian martyr, may not have been given the responsibility to meet their needs or eventually preach one of the greatest evangelistic messages recorded in the Bible. (Acts 7:1-53) The ripple effect of their refusal to listen to the Hellenist would have gone beyond what I could record in this post.
This story reflects the power of unity when challenged with a social problem. Whether it’s meeting people’s safety needs or addressing poverty, health equity, fair housing or other human needs, people want to be treated fairly and will complain when they are not. The gospel needs to be preached and the Church also has to have an ear to hear the needs of those they are reaching out to. When the Church doesn’t listen, it loses its relevance in the eyes of society.
My prayer is that the Church of America would walk in Unity as we listen to one another. Christ is the Head of the Church and the Spirit can show us how to walk in justice and unity with our brothers and sisters. We can recognize that there are differences among people and still care for and love one another. Throughout history we learn that societies are transformed when the church acts like the body of Christ with charity for their neighbors.
May we have ears to hear our neighbor’s needs.