Thursday, May 22, 2008

Got Justice?

Justice In the Burbs: Being the Hands of Jesus Wherever You Live
by Will and Lisa Samson

I picked this up off a table at Barnes and Noble because it looked interesting, given that both my nuclear family and church family are located in the suburbs. It's not a bad read. It includes lots of good tips for being intentional about our choices, living simply, and discerning our call to serve the world. It's fairly basic, though. It seems like it would have been an ideal book for me to read in my early 20s, when I was just becoming aware of the call to people of faith to participate in creating the world that God envisions. I frankly do not remember hearing much about justice in the church where I grew up, but I am perfectly willing to acknowledge the possibility (maybe even probability) that I was just not paying attention. This book makes the theological case for justice and social action and points people toward organizations that they can become involved with to become more engaged in society. They also outline some of the potential pitfalls of justice work - relationships changing, not getting the response you desire from the recipients of your work, etc.

Maybe I am just too immersed in my own context. Our congregation has been concerned about social issues since its founding in 1961, and this engagement is a part of our heritage that our people are very committed to. Even acknowledging that our community may be somewhat unique in this way, it seemed like the Samsons were stating the obvious much of the time. Even though most of what they said is stuff I agree with wholeheartedly, I found myself asking "Are people really this clueless?" If they are, this book is a good place to start when wanting to embark on the uphill journey of creating an equitable and sustainable world.

The Samsons are interesting people - they both have worked in churches before, Will is currently a Ph.D student in sociology, and Lisa is a novelist. They have three children, ages 10 to 17. Justice in the Burbs is punctuated by vignettes about a middle-class family awakening to the need around them and becoming more involved in urban ministries and the lives of the clients that they meet. The fictional story line enlivens the rather didactic tone of the rest of the book, but it is not terribly well written. The characters seem pretty contrived and predictable. I thought if the husband called his wife "babe" one more time I would puke.

I also had trouble with the assumption that all suburbanites are blind to issues of social concern and have to be awakened (although I liked the conclusion of the book that acknowledges that the suburbs are where some people are genuinely called to live, and that the important thing is to get involved wherever you are). There also was an "either/or" tone to the book regarding being active in a church congregation and participating in justice work. I think congregations, when we get it right, can be a major part of awakening people to our call to justice as people of faith. We can also affirm people's gifts and help them find ways to use those talents for the common good. If we affirm that the person who has the skills to be a successful lobbyist on behalf of the poor is likely not going to have time to be a youth advisor or session member (and vice versa), but nevertheless bless and encourage that person in his or her ministry, then I see that person's work as an extension of our congregation's ministry. So the implication that the church and the society have to be in competition for the talents and energy of our people was troubling to me.

Still, as I say the book has some good information and is no doubt a helpful resource for people searching for the theological affirmation to extend themselves to people outside their own immediate sphere and comfort zone. This book will energize them, and it reminds all of us that to do so is to participate in God's activity in our world.

Reverent Reader


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