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Work for justice calls for courage to change paths


For 16 years I have been proud to be a Catholic working for justice. I have marched, prayed, fasted, sung, chanted and rallied for many causes — from calling for an end to the Gulf War to supporting AIDS funding. My passion for justice just won’t let go of me.

Lately, however, I find myself more enervated than encouraged, more frustrated than gratified, more dismayed than proud. In my view, turf wars, personality conflicts, power plays, shrill polemics and the demonization of the other side have derailed gains for justice activists who work from a stance of faith. It’s time, I suggest, to pour new wine into new activist wineskins.

The following are practical suggestions to help Catholics who work for justice to do so in new ways.

1. We must reconsider the ways we meet.

There are two key obstacles that defeat activists when they meet and deliberate. We too often structure meetings around bylaws and making motions, which leads to a clunky and tedious process. It makes people uncomfortable and has little to do with discerning the will of God.

In addition, “meeting” means different things to different people. Some expect tasks will be assigned for things to be accomplished. Others seek opportunities to vent their frustrations at a system and culture that doesn’t understand them. An unhealthy tension exists between the two camps, and our causes will not be advanced until we address it.

When I lived in New Orleans, our anti-death penalty group incorporated pot luck suppers into our meetings. Building community made our work much more joyful. We need meetings that emphasize relationships before tasks.

2. We don’t always have to protest.

Whenever I travel to national meetings, visits to elected representatives or marches on the capitol are scheduled, and if you don’t participate it’s implied that you’re letting the cause and your fellow activists down. This is the disposition of a grim do-gooder. We occasionally need to get away, to enjoy each other and rest, as on the Sabbath. The key, if activists want to endure, is knowing when to put our work down.

3. We must lose the orthodoxy.

There’s a tendency among some activists to dismiss those who disagree as the Other Side. For the orthodox, everything is subject to scrutiny: how you cut your hair, the clothes you wear, where you live, the car you drive. As I read the gospels, I don’t see any mention of liberal or conservative. We must rid ourselves of the bane of political correctness and realize that you can be buttoned-down and radical.

4. We must try to understand the fears and frustrations of those not with us.

The problems in our society exhaust the patience of most citizens, and the problems in our church unsettle most believers. Everything from dwindling paychecks to how to care for aging parents to crime and violence has isolated Americans and made them uneasy. When they turn to the church for solace, however, they often encounter the all-too-human shortcomings and failings of their pastors and leaders, such as sexual and financial scandals and failure to be fair. Those of us who hope our church and society can be restored to justice and unity must be mindful of our brothers and sisters who find those prospects incredulous.

5. We can’t have it now.

In rally after rally, we may insist that we want justice now, but in truth problems of race and class are timeless and complex beyond anyone’s full comprehension. While justice shouldn’t be delayed, as believers we must challenge a culture that demands instant solutions. We must remain humble about the things only God can accomplish but confident that if we all do our part, as Dr. King said, the moral arc of the universe will bend toward justice. When that will happen, however, is beyond our control. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Ours is the trying. The rest is not our business.”

6. We shouldn’t sell ourselves short.

Because we sense our views are in the minority, there’s a tendency in our circles to apologize for them. Although we don’t want to defend ourselves against a drunken churl who wants to fry ’em all, a colleague in the anti-death penalty movement believes we should wear our T-shirts and display our bumper stickers proudly. We don’t know when someone will confront us, resulting in a good conversation and new understanding. Each such encounter has the potential to educate and evangelize. As it says in Acts, we must “speak the word of God with boldness.”

7. We must put ourselves in the equation.

We need to be more concerned with the planks in our eyes than with the dust in our neighbor’s eyes. If we believe the system is racist, then we must consider how we have been silent when confronted with racism. If we believe our culture is violent, then we must reflect on our capacity for violence. If we think structures oppress many to benefit the few, then we must consider the ways we oppress others by complying with the status quo. Without humble and contrite self-criticism, our vision becomes meaningless.

Fidelity requires we confound society’s expectations. We can’t get caught up in the things that drive the world: ambition, reputation, power, success, efficiency and the bottom line. If we’re faithful, we should anticipate failure and persecution and affliction and many moments at the foot of the cross.

In these moments, we will need hope and courage. We must hold on to the hope that knows the cross isn’t the end of things, that the society we have passionately and painfully struggled to create will be realized. We must also have the courage to change our paths, to make all things new.

Chris Byrd writes from Birmingham, Ala.

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999