Acts of Justice with Youth
Acts of Justice are part of the DNA of methodism. In July of 2016 Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Youth was published after about a year of writing. The book lays out the basics of the ideas of Covenant Discipleship (smaller accountability groups within a church) and how the concepts could be applied to youth ministry. We need to encourage young people to live out their discipleship through what John Wesley would have called “The Means of Grace.” These can be neatly organized into four categories. Acts of Worship and Devotion show our love for God. Acts of Compassion and Justice show our love for neighbor. By doing a mixture of these actions every day, or every week, or every month, we give ourselves the chance to live out The Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39)
I was reviewing parts of this book for another project, and the section on the Acts of Justice leapt out, asking to be shared in light of current protests, movements, conversations, and actions regarding race in the United States. So, unabridged, I am happy to share this section of Everyday Disciples and I invite you to read, reflect, pray, and act. Invite your youth to seek justice together!
“Acts of justice are actions that address the causes of a neighbor’s suffering. These acts of discipleship include asking questions about systems and climates that contribute to poverty. An act of compassion would be buying lunch for a hungry family. An act of justice would be investigating why that family was hungry and addressing the institutional or cultural issues causing that family to struggle with hunger. Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 10:18; Isaiah 58:1-12; 61:1-2; and Jeremiah 5:28 help us understand that justice means acting on behalf of all so that everyone in a society can live and fully participate in their society.” – Everyday Disciples, p26.
The following is an excerpt from “Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship with Youth” by Chris Wilterdink
Acts of JUSTICE
Acts of justice are public actions that reflect Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. — ACTS 2:42-44, CEB
Methodists have a long history of seeking justice. Early Methodists advocated better working conditions for poorer groups of blue-collar laborers. Many of them took stands and action on slave trade, smuggling, and cruel treatment of prisoners. In fact, The United Methodist Church included a set of Social Principles (http://umc-gbcs.org/social-principles) and a Social Creed (http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-social-creed) in the Book of Discipline that outline many groups in need of our voice as Christians. We see actions today in the UMC that continue to shine light on issues such as human trafficking, economic equality, prison reform, and even people’s ability to get healthy food. Justice works hand in hand with compassion by addressing the systemic and structural forces that create inequality.
A well-known illustration that compares justice and compassion starts with a person standing by a river. The person suddenly notices a child floating down the river, keeping its head above water but struggling to swim to safety. The person of course shows compassion and jumps in the river to help pull the child to safety. As that child is drawn to safety, another is noticed in the river, and another, and another. People construct a small village to help these children, showing compassion. To seek justice is to walk farther upstream, undertaking the journey to discover what is causing these children to be in the river in the first place.
This image of the river, the children, the village, and the journey isn’t perfect, but it does help us visualize how seeking justice considers systems that affect large numbers of people. It also helps us see that compassion is important; we do need to respond to the symptoms of systems that create inequality or unfairness. Yet, without seeking justice, the situation will not change, and the village will pull kids from the river forever.
At a shopping mall, the custodial job is among the lowest-skilled positions and also the lowest paid. Being a mall custodian entails cleaning up after other people’s messes, pushing a heavy cart of trash and cleaning supplies around for many hours, and standing on one’s feet for extended periods. At one particular mall, the custodians were allowed a fifteen-minute break from work for every four hours on the job. It was their only opportunity to drink water. Rules from the management at the mall stated that the custodians could not use the water fountains in the mall (they were for shoppers) and they also could not carry water bottles during their cleaning rounds. A youth group who met for a Bible study in the food court of the mall got to know one of the custodians, because they saw him so regularly. They found out about the water issue and decided together that it was an issue of justice—that someone doing physical labor should be able to have water and stay hydrated as they needed, not just during breaks. The youth spoke with the management at the mall and the rules were changed to allow custodians to carry water bottles.
Learn to do good. Seek justice; help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. —ISAIAH 1:17, CEB
Share these ideas with the youth in your congregation:
- Pay attention to your gut feelings when something doesn’t seem fair. If another person is being treated in a way that seems or feels unfair, ask questions about what is causing the unfairness.
- Practice empathy. Picture yourself living someone else’s life, working their job, or being them in school and ask yourself, “What would make their life better?”
Ending Oppression and Discrimination
Over and over in scripture we are called to “be not afraid”—God seems to know that a frequent human response to something different or out of the ordinary is fear. The world is full of difference, on the surface. When fear drives people to focus on differences instead of remembering that we are all created in God’s own image, people can begin to oppress and dis- criminate against their brothers and sisters. Fear is just one factor that can lead to oppression. Oppression happens when one person or group holds power over other people or groups and uses that power to limit or exert control. Discrimination can also be a response-based fear, but adds judgment to the picture to assign a value to a person’s characteristics. Those perceived values, whether positive or negative, then affect how people treat one another.
As previously stated, Methodists have a long history of addressing oppression and discrimination. They even were present in the earliest parts of the Methodist movement. John Wesley saw his own church discriminating against field laborers. He found himself part of a church of elites, afraid to be in community with the margins of society. Today’s world continues to be full of difference and full of fear. Imbalances of power also create the opportunity for people to oppress one another. People discriminate against each other, thinking that somehow something is less valuable about another person compared to themselves. Human trafficking, child labor, the sex trade, modern slavery, racism, brutality—the faces of oppression and discrimination continue to be strong forces that demand a thoughtful Christian response.
He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
—MICAH 6:8, CEB
Oppression and discrimination become more powerful when mob mentality or groupthink becomes part of the equation. Encouraging societies or cultures to mature beyond oppressive or discriminatory behaviors is a long-view proposal, and as with any work of mercy, it starts with persons wanting to see a difference and starting with themselves.
Share these ideas with the youth in your congregation:
- Look around your community for people who are different from you. Make a list of the differences and similarities you have with your neighbors, classmates, and church friends.
- Find out what laws are in place in your community to prevent oppression and discrimination. Discover what and who are protected by law, and what or who aren’t.
Addressing the Needs of Those Who Are Poor
In Matthew 25:25-40, Jesus plainly calls us to show grace and meet the needs of people who are poor. Paul reinforces the idea of meeting the needs of others in his letter to the Romans. Having the ability to address the needs of poor people springs from being in relationship with them, as noted earlier. Many communities become segregated by income. Homes of similar values are built together in neighborhoods, and often people who have the same income range buy those houses. Like Jesus, John Wesley would call us out if we were not in relationship with people who are poor.
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. —ROMANS 12:9-13, CEB
Depending on the kind of poverty being experienced, the needs of poor people can change significantly between communities and contexts. That’s why it is important for disciples to be out, actively engaged in the community and discovering the needs of people in their area who are poor. We can ask ourselves and other members of our church, how many poor people do we know? It’s not a question of who do we know who serves the poor or where are the poor people in our community. The questions are: Who do we know in poverty? What are their names? Their stories? Their dreams and needs? Knowing leads to making a difference. When a statistic or label becomes a person with a name, it shifts our desire and ability to give generously.
Every Christmas in one congregation I know, along with the beautifully lit and ornamented church Christmas tree that sits outside the sanctuary, is a smaller tree covered in gift tags. A church member who is connected with a local thrift shop and storefront ministry has interviewed families in need to ask what they would like for Christmas. Some of the tags ask for toys, some of the tags ask for clothes. Others ask for books, art supplies, kitchen utensils. The tags are bunched together by family groups so that if a church member is going to purchase Christmas presents for a family in need, the member makes the commitment to purchase gifts for a whole family. Taking a family’s worth of tags raises the member’s awareness about the different needs even individuals within a family can have. A teenager’s needs are different from a grade-schooler’s, and both are different from their mother’s. Often church members will look over the tree trying to find tags that mimic what their own families would ask for during the holiday season. When the gifts are purchased and brought back to the church, families leave knowing that they have met a need for a season—and are then invited to connect with different ministry opportunities throughout the year to continue meeting needs of people who are poor. One of the most popular options is connecting with another parent to support him or her in creating and managing a household budget.
As an act of justice, addressing the needs of people who are poor is larger than helping one family at a time. It is upstream discovery work. What is causing families like this to struggle financially? What is it about a group that increases the chances of them being poor in friends or poor in spirit?
Share these ideas with the youth in your congregation:
- Find ways to connect with people in your community who are poor. Define poverty broadly to include finances, friendships, or faith.
- Determine safe ways for youth to learn the names and stories of poor people in their communities.
- Consider what it is to be poor financially and also how to support people in ways that don’t involve money.