Systemic (In)Justice

February 6, 2014

Last week I gave an online presentation to a group of sociologists at Boston College about Colombia and the work of the Diocese. We had a great conversation about Colombia’s history and its current challenges. We talked about positive change such as a growing economy, the reduction in paramilitary violence thanks to the peace talks, and the fact that Bogota is considered the Silicon Valley of South America. We also talked about ongoing problems such as the fact that violence against women (specifically the throwing of acid in the face to disfigure) is up 25% in the past 5 years, the ongoing human rights challenges related to land reform, the humanitarian crisis of displaced persons (5.2 million), one of the highest rates of income inequality in the Americas, and the fact that Colombia has joined the list of the top 25 countries for persecution of Christians (primarily due to Christians taking a stand in support of human rights).

In my presentation, I shared the ongoing work of the Diocese and the work I do in support of Diocesan priorities. We talked about the diocesan focus on youth leadership programs, addressing the needs of the displaced in our communities, addressing the needs of the elderly, and support and empowerment programs for single mothers. We talked about the micro-loan program in Cali, the women’s program in Soacha, and the elder housing program in San Rafael. I shared some of the projects currently being developed for low-income housing for single-parent families in Cartagena, church construction projects (where the church will double as a community center), and the farming project in Facatativa.

Inevitably, in a conversation with sociologists the discussion will move from social programs to systemic justice. It’s one thing to offer food for the poor. It’s another to provide them with training and skills, and to work toward addressing the social structures and political systems that have contributed to their poverty. It’s one thing to build low-income housing. It’s another to address the political and social challenges behind the fact that single-parent households find themselves poor and homeless. It’s addressing those structures and systems that contribute to social problems that most of us mean when we talk about systemic justice. Yes, there is an immediate need to feed and house someone. But there is another longer term need to ensure that the systems that create situations of hunger and homelessness be addressed. In Boston, I cooked in a soup kitchen for 13 years. I served on boards that addressed the needs of the homeless and the hungry. I also participated in programs and made donations to political organizations that were working to address the underlying issues that created the need for soup kitchens and shelters.

As we talked about these issues in the context of Colombia, we discussed addressing systemic issues. As a missioner working in another country, I struggle with two specific challenges in the context of systemic injustice. While I’m not one to be afraid to speak out, there is a very real danger in speaking out. The fact that Colombia is on the top 25 list of countries for Christian persecution is precisely because those who have spoken out against systemic injustices and sided with the poor have been silenced in some way. (That’s not to imply, by the way, that the problem is with the government, because I don’t believe that’s the case.) The problem is that there are always individuals who benefit from broken systems and structures, and understandably, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and dislike it when someone rocks the boat.

But beyond any practical concern, as a missioner I question whether or not it’s my place to address systemic issues. A quick review of the history of mission demonstrates the ways in which previous missionaries went into countries and “thought” they were addressing systemic issues and promoting what they considered needed change. While well-meaning, their ideas created systems of dependency, supported the efforts and misadventures of colonial powers, and established “their” version of right and wrong based on their predominantly Western perspective. I won’t go into great detail to explain what I mean by the following statement, but many scholars/people familiar with colonialism and the church’s history of mission would say that a great deal of the international problems we’re experiencing today have their roots in colonial history … and the church shares that blame.

You might also ask, “Who am I to think I know what’s best for others in another country?” You might ask what kind of credibility I have as a missioner, given the legacy of those who came before me. Some would say that any attempt on the part of someone like me to name and address systemic issues is simply a form of “neo-colonialism,” a repeat of a Westerner thinking he knows better than his hosts what’s best for them.

Beyond the previous points, there is yet another issue. Who am I to tell someone else about their problems when my own country is a mess? What kind of credibility can I possibly have when CEOs in the US have massively disproportionate salaries from their employees contributing to an income inequality that rivals those we consider “developing countries,” there is widespread technological displacement in the labor market, there are rapidly escalating poverty rates, the college-educated middle class finds itself surviving on food stamps, and our federal government is completely ineffective and dysfunctional. I seem to recall a scriptural lesson where Christ states, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” … How apt!

So, then the question becomes, “Since it’s not really appropriate to engage in work toward systemic change, is there anything I can do other than treat the symptoms?” I think the answer is a definite, “yes.” In fact, I’d like to think that’s actually central to my work, and also to the work of most missioners today. Missioners are typically engaged in what we call “empowerment” and “accompaniment.” Though those words get tossed around a great deal and are often misunderstood, at their core they point to our desire to enable others to stand up for themselves and to address systemic injustices in their own social context. For example, instead of fighting for women’s rights, we empower and support women to stand up for their own rights. Instead of addressing the underlying problems behind displacement, we support the displaced by providing the tools and encouragement to stand up for their rights. This is accompaniment … this is empowerment … this is mission.

6 Responses to “Systemic (In)Justice”

  1. Sabeth Fitzgibbons Says:

    Preach it, brother!

    The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons, Priest in Charge

    St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

    1070 Dutch Rd, Fairview, PA 16415

    814.474.5490 (o)

    http://www.ststephens-fairview.org

    “Do not build towers without a foundation, for our Lord does not care so much for the importance of our works as for the love with which they are done.” St. Teresa

    “In Heaven indeed we shall first see and then love; but here on Earth we must first love; and love will open our eyes as well as our hearts, and we shall see and perceive and understand.” Jeremy Taylor

  2. Dianne Smith Says:

    Thank you so much for this, Ted! Perfect timing, as we’re trying to rally enough folks to make a mission trip to El Maizal to visit the Wilsons at the end of May/early June. Boy, have you been in my grateful thoughts for all the preparation you and Mark and the Diocese shared with us in 2007!

    Hugs, Dianne

  3. Maria Says:

    Ted, how apt that this comes just 10 days before we arrive in Bogota! I will be printing a sharing with my fellow “missioners” .
    Love,Maria

  4. Mary Brown Says:

    Hi Ted! I think this blog is amazing and one that speaks to America more than Columbia. Just today I was thinking about how upset I get when I hear injustice reported on the radio such as the voting rights act being watered down, but I have no idea how to help. Thanks for all you do and please stay safe!

    Mary Brown Program Coordinator Boston College Supported Employment Program Campus School Campion Hall 617 552-8439 ________________________________

  5. Jenn Wheeler Says:

    Hi Ted,

    Wasn’t it Churchill who said something to the effect of, “Never, never, never give up”…? I recently read an article in Christianity Today about statistical research done by a sociologist named Robert Woodberry on the link between Protestantism and democracy.

    Brief quote from the article:

    “The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary Protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in the areas where they worked. Independence from state control made a big difference. ‘One of the main stereotypes about missions is that they were closely connected to colonialism,’ says Woodberry. ‘But Protestant missionaries not funded by the state were regularly very critical of colonialism.’ ”

    Article can be read here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html?start=1

    Blessings,
    Jenn

  6. jimboston Says:

    To follow up on Jenn, missionaries have empowered local cultures in many ways. In particular, through literacy, printing presses, and the preservation of cultures by honoring their languages, and in many cases enabling them to be written for the first time. Christian missionaries have also inspired people of other religions, especially in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East, to follow the example of the missionaries in creating schools, hospitals, and services for the poor.

    Thank you for the work you do of companionship, empowerment, and hope.
    Jim Boston,


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