"Justice is what love looks like in public"
Public Policy and Witness Antiracism Team UpdateCommentary Inclusivity Social Justice
It is not surprising to hear about the church bearing witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ by feeding the hungry, housing the houseless, visiting those in prison and providing disaster relief.
It is more complex, and perhaps surprising for some to hear about the church’s involvement with public policy makers (i.e. politicians) who possess the power to decide, in the words of the late American political scientist Dr. Harold Laswell, “Who gets what, when, how.” Is this an act of love for the church to be so politically engaged?
The difference reminds me of the anecdote for understanding mercy and justice. It is good and merciful to pull drowning people out of the river, and it is good and just to put a stop to whatever is causing people to be in the river to begin with.
The call to love is a calling to both mercy and justice. As Dr. Cornell West reminds us, “Justice is what love looks like in public."
The work of the Public Policy and Witness Antiracism Team is to equip the church to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ by taking an honest, non-defensive, deeper look at the impact of polices that produce and sustain racial inequity between racial groups.
We want to build awareness that people can be individually kind-hearted and welcoming toward people of color, and allow racism to continue simply by ignoring the policies that produce and sustain racial inequity.
It is important to recognize that the United Methodist Church’s involvement in politics is not new. According to the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, “Our involvement in political systems is rooted in the Gospel imperative to love our neighbors, to do justice, and to care for the vulnerable. As United Methodists, we acknowledge that love requires responsible political action and engagement aimed at the betterment of society and the promotion of the common good. We acknowledge that such political engagement demands humility and mindfulness of our own complicity in perpetuating injustice. It also necessitates compassion, prayer, and a willingness to discern God’s guidance.”
This stance of the United Methodist Church is of course rooted in the prophetic biblical tradition of speaking truth to power. Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Esther and Jesus all raised their voices to people with policy making power out of love for God and their neighbor. And, by the way, when they did that, it was uncomfortable both for them and the people with power. The lesson here is that discomfort can be holy and transformational. God is in the midst of the work.
That being said, discomfort is often disproportionately experienced by people in groups that have been historically excluded from positions of power where policies get made. Laws aimed at acknowledging the discomfort of excluded people groups in order to heal this ongoing legacy are too few.
During the 2022 legislative session, Florida lawmakers passed a law (similar to others around the country) titled, “On Individual Freedom.” This law has language to legally shield employees and public school students from “discrimination based on race, color, sex or national origin.” This sounds like a great thing until upon closer reading, you realize whose discomfort this is protecting and whose it is overlooking.
The new law which goes into effect on July 1, 2022 makes it illegal for employers to require training for employees that would suggest:
- An individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.
- An individual’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.
To put this in perspective, in 2012 when Florida Bishop Whitaker and the Cabinet required three days of inclusivity training for all Conference clergy, I went with a defensive stance because I knew that the work would require me to pay attention to not only the history of white supremacy (which I did not create), but also to the legacy of white supremacy (which I am benefitting from). As I went to this training, I had feelings of “guilt, anguish and other forms of psychological distress” because of my belonging to not just one, but several historically included, statistically advantaged, some might say “privileged” groups. I am a white, currently able-bodied, formally educated, upper-middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, U.S. born, English speaking man. I knew then that people with these group identities had harmed people outside these group identities. I didn’t want to be a target for simply belonging to groups over which I had no control.
So, you might think I’d be excited about this new law “On Individual Freedom” since it grants legal power to stop uncomfortable conversations for me about the statistical significance of group identities for inclusion and exclusion. I’m not excited.
Do I need more power to silence and marginalize already silenced and marginalized voices? Is that what our lawmakers thought was best for communities across our state?
Better yet, does God give me the freedom and power that I have for preserving my comfort at the expense of others? No. In my baptism, I accept the freedom and power God gives me to resist evil injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. In this case, my resistance looks like abiding in the discomfort of learning about the political, economic, social, and psychological significance of group identities for inclusion and exclusion. Once I learn about these important realities without defensive attack, shame or blame for myself or others, then the table is set for a deeper healing work: collaboratively co-creating fair and just access to resources and addressing the impact of and transforming these power differentials.
This is the healing work of antiracism as an act of discipleship.
This is why the Public Policy and Witness Antiracism team held two webinars this February with about 50 people attending to learn about the harmful impact of this legislation and equip the church to advocate against it.
Several people told us that they had never written or called their legislator before now. Still others reached out to their lawmakers with options to amend this policy with language that might protect employers and educators who want anti-oppression training for their employees and students.
The resulting passage of this legislation without amendment was discouraging, and it also brought to mind these important words for anyone who dares to say yes to God’s call to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.”
“The moral arch of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice.” - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My colleague and co-chair for the Public Policy and Witness team, Rev. Juana Jordan, summarized this well. “While this new legislation does create legal barriers for employers and school teachers who want to provide the healing work that our communities need, it will not stop the church, you and me, from doing exactly what Jesus has always done: get proximate with people so he could widen the tent. As a church and denomination that speaks about widening the tent and providing a place for all, this work is tantamount for making evident and visible the kingdom of God.”
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