What is “doing justice” all about? Should Christians be more engaged in advocacy? Mosaic is pleased to present part two of a conversation on urban poverty, compassion and justice with Dr. Rick Tobias, Community Advocate with Yonge Street Mission in Toronto.
mosaic: Your entire career you’ve worked on the frontlines of poverty in Canada in various compassionate ministries. But now you’re saying that compassion is not enough – we need to move beyond it to justice and advocacy. Why the shift?
Rick: I believe in the church’s compassionate ministries. I have spent my whole life involved in compassionate service. However, compassion in and of itself does not bring to light the underlying causes and forces that severely limit the options available to the poor and marginalized. When we begin to ask what constrains the options available to the poor, we begin to touch on issues of injustice and justice.
As a teenager, working in Saint John’s Crescent Valley, I heard stories of inner city children who would fall asleep in class each morning because they came to school hungry – only to become hyper, bouncing off the walls, after they “lunched” on penny candy and pop, the only lunch available for many. By the time I was 16, I realized the deck was stacked against people trapped in chronic poverty. I didn’t understand all the dynamics, but the inequality was clear. Reasonable nutrition, education and health care are but a few of the “universal benefits” belonging to all Canadians that somehow don’t quite make it to the poorest of the poor. In 1989, all political parties in Canada voted to end child poverty by the year 2000. We didn’t come close to achieving that goal and the impact of that failure can, and often does, scar children for their whole life. Child poverty is, biblically, a justice issue.
Then there is the grave injustice faced by First Nations people who have been dispossessed – they not only lost their stakehold in the land, but they lost their land. In the Old Testament, God mandated his people to practise a “jubilee” whereby every 50 years those who lost their land get it back because it is their stakehold in society. Those who have land, or own their own homes, have more power and influence in their society. In Canada, we have a whole nation of people who lost their land. We took it and have never declared a jubilee. In Nova Scotia, there is the Black community who’ve been dispossessed in a whole different way: we took them from their land. I don’t think we yet fully understand the multi-generational impact of these injustices – not to mention the continuing impact of residential schools, forced assimilation, racism, police profiling, to name but a few. The “dispossessed” is but one term the Bible uses to describe a people who have been denied justice.
There are no easy answers and it’s hard to honestly engage in meaningful dialogue … Justice is much harder than compassion.
mosaic: And more dangerous.
Rick: Yes, more dangerous! It irritates people and raises issues. Over the years, I’ve sat with numerous corporate leaders; there’s always been a struggle … what do I call them to? What is the journey I invite them to take? In the early days, I just wanted them to give some money so we could run our programs – I wanted a compassionate response. Later, as relationships grew, there were conversations about ethics and what might be different. There were economic conversations about fair wages and shared values and issues that quickly went over my head. It’s a scary thing to risk funding and relationships, but the conversations need to continue and evolve.
Maybe we begin by using our pulpits and pastoral relationships to raise questions like, “How much is enough?” Maybe we move beyond a minimum wage discussion and ask questions about a living wage. Dare we ask about the work conditions and hourly wages of the nannies who tend our children? Or what is our ethical response when candy manufacturers tell us they “cannot” guarantee that our chocolate is not child labour free? Does our church have a reasoned position on Canada’s dispossessed peoples? Can we live with the fact there may need to be a lot more “Truth Telling” before we get to the “Reconciliation”? Do we have the courage to face issues of injustice head on? Maybe one of the dangers is that we have to face ourselves.
mosaic: A look in the mirror – that does take courage! Can you speak more about that?
Rick: We have all been victims of injustice at some point in life, usually a personal injustice – someone has cheated us or we have been bullied, excluded, or a victim of crime or corporate fraud. Some of us have experienced a more institutional or systemic injustice – we were caught up in the Sixties Scoop or became a victim of abuse at the hands of clergy, teachers, coaches, orphanage workers, youth leaders, etc. Perhaps we have all been the wounded sheep Ezekiel talks about when he calls down wrath on the shepherds who fail to protect and heal the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-4) Perhaps our experience has made us overly focused on our rights or we’ve become impatient and uncaring towards others. Or perhaps our attitude is, “I survived, why can’t they?”
Conversely, we have all been oppressors who have hurt others. Maybe we cheated in our business practices, overcharged for our products and services. Maybe our retirement fund is a little fatter because of unethical products – like those that use slave or near-slave labour? If one’s full-time salary is not enough to live on, is that not slave labour? Maybe we harbour racist or sexist attitudes that we fear will surface if we get too close to the issues. Ezekiel suggests that it is not simply the rich and powerful that commit injustice; the “people” are also guilty. (Ezekiel 22:25-29)
As Ray Bakke (a leader in urban ministry) says, “Until our heart is liberated by Jesus, we will all be oppressors.” The Bible uses at least 40 different Hebrew and Greek words to describe the various forms of injustice we inflict on each other. Injustice is, in and of itself, a major body of biblical literature that we have skillfully avoided. Knowing our own shortcomings, maybe it is easier to shy away from social justice and lose ourselves in “personal spirituality.” Yet despite our own scars and sins we are called to stand against injustice and to stand for justice.
mosaic: For a church that wants to move from compassion to justice, what is something practical they can do? How can they begin?
Rick: First and foremost, as people of faith, we pray. Perhaps the core of our prayer is that God will soften our hearts towards individuals and groups who have been victimized by injustice. Perhaps we pray that God anoints us with the grace to see the beauty and worth of all people. Dare we pray all life will be precious to us?
Secondly, we study, starting with the Scriptures. How much personal time or pulpit time is given to issues of justice or even compassion? Quite bluntly, I think that given the enormous amount of Scripture – something like 2,000 references dedicated to the issue of poverty – churches should tithe their pulpit time and other teaching times. If you have 100 sermons a year, let 10 of them touch on issues of poverty, compassion and justice.
Thirdly, we need to have actual involvement. Getting personally close to people who suffer injustice helps us to better understand the issues. We can all find a way to volunteer and serve. And out of our actions should come some questions for reflection: Who are the poor and oppressed in our community? What are the injustices they face? What is God calling us to?
And finally, speak! Recently, Cheryl Bear (CBM’s Indigenous Relations Specialist) posted a quote shared by Melissa McEwan (founder of a political and cultural blog): “There are times when you must speak, not because you are going to change the other person, but because if you don’t speak they have changed you.”
We stand in the great prophetic preaching tradition of the evangelical Church. How can we be silent?
mosaic: What about churches that find it hard to consider advocacy or maybe feel that it is too political, that Christians shouldn’t be involved?
Rick: The gospel doesn’t force us to engage; it invites us. So we have the right to disengage or remain disengaged. However, we can’t ignore one of the largest bodies of biblical teaching and still claim to be living a biblical faith. Again, almost 2,000 verses of Scripture call us to action. In calling us to justice and to advocacy, the Bible focuses on four groups beyond all others – aliens, widows, orphans and the poor – who are deemed most susceptible to injustice and therefore are to be the prime recipients of our justice-related activities. This is not to suggest that other justice issues are of no consequence. We stand against injustice wherever and whenever it raises its evil head. Still there is a biblical understanding that these four groups are particularly prone to be excluded, preyed upon and deemed less than worthy.
I wasn’t at Yonge Street Mission long when I learned that not all widows lost their husband to death and not all orphans lost their parents to death. Women become widowed when their men disappear or when they are forced to flee domestic violence. Children become orphaned when parental neglect or abuse leaves them to fend for themselves. Often the children we call “runaways” are, in truth, orphans.
But it is interesting that the alien, stranger or foreigner are most often named first in God’s call to compassionate intervention. The Israelite did not get to say, “We care for our own first!” Biblical hospitality demanded that the sojourner in the land was first when care was to be extended – an interesting concept in an age when many contend to exclude the refugee!
mosaic: The prophets in the Old Testament were always challenging their society, their people, with God’s desire to see justice done. What is your challenge to the Christian community today?
Rick: I think my number one challenge would be to “plead the cause.” King Josiah would be my example. In Jeremiah 22, we see that King Josiah lived a just life – he was personally just in all of his dealings. But we also see that he did justice. He intervened on behalf of the poor and oppressed. However, he not only acted, but out of his actions he spoke. He pled the cause; he became an advocate – for all of the oppressed and needy. He was active in addressing systemic injustices in his society. The message is clear. “He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me? declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 22:16)
Perhaps our failure to speak gives birth to the question, “Do they know the Lord?”
The Winter 2019 issue of Mosaic featured the first part of the conversation with Rick Tobias. Visit cbmin.org/mosaic to read the full interview.