Doing Justice to Our Closes Neighbor: Why Politics Matter

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

As a Millennial, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m disillusioned with politics. I’m tired of “bitter battles in Congress” and “partisan speeches”. But when I read Hilary Sherratt’s “The Difficulty with Disillusioned,” she raised an important question for me: if I care about justice, can I really afford to be disengaged? 

Dr. Cornel West said a couple of years ago, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” My political science professors in college always said that politics is supposed to be about justice; if Dr. West is correct, then politics is also about love. “Doing justice in a democracy demands participating in politics,” wrote Gideon Strauss this past fall in Comment Magazine.

Politics is not just about what happens at the White House or what’s being said on CNN and Fox News. Politics affects my brothers and sisters in the human family; it affects my neighbors, my friends, my family members, and even my enemies - who Jesus commands me to love. So when politics hurts my brothers and sisters, it hurts me too. Why should politics be the battleground for a club of millionaires who put self-preservation above the common good? We can do better, friends. If we want to follow Christ’s command, we have to be involved in politics and become a political community that’s shaped by love for our neighbors.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Zachary Hoover, executive director of community organization LA Voice, which is part of the PICO National Network of interfaith community organizations. PICO stands for People Improving Communities through Organizing and was founded in 1972 by a Jesuit priest, Father John Baumann, who wanted to give congregations tools to address issues like housing, education, public safety, immigration reform, transportation, and health care in their communities. PICO helpfully defines community organizing as “a systematic approach to addressing the root causes of social problems.” Such an approach recognizes that if citizens want to change their communities, they have to change the institutions and systems that shape their communities. One of the most powerful institutions that shapes the life of a community is its government; so PICO organizations engage their government through community organizing and political activism.

LA Voice believes that politics matter, and that ordinary people, no matter who they are, can make a difference in their communities. Hoover told the story of a trip LA Voice took to Bakersfield, CA, to talk to voters about immigration reform. A young boy came along with his grandmother, and they spent eight hours knocking on doors in the heat. When he tried to tell his story, he started crying, so his grandmother had to tell it for him: “I was at church on Sunday with my grandson, and he heard Father Scott say, ‘We’re going to go to Bakersfield to talk to voters so that all the people who are undocumented, the immigrants in our community, can stay, can be Americans like they deserve to be.’ My grandson tugged on my sleeve, saying, ‘I wanna go, grandma.’ He is a citizen, but his parents are undocumented.”

As Hoover said, “That’s what community organizing is about: it’s about this kid, who wants his parents to be safe. That space, that invitation to human flourishing, was made in the context of this organizing work.”  

I can’t remain disengaged after hearing stories of children losing their parents in a broken immigration system- or stories of children being targeted by sex traffickers in a broken foster care system. Politics is supposed to be about the most vulnerable members of society being protected, not forgotten, by the law. Politics is supposed to be about human dignity, the common goodjustice, and love. It’s unavoidable: if Millennials care about those things, we have to care about politics. And maybe that’s exciting. Once we care, our generation can act to change the political status quo. I know that if a fourth grader can take the initiative to be politically engaged, so can a twenty-something like me. So what can we do?

First, Zachary Hoover suggests, being politically engaged means getting to know your neighbors. Find out the story of the woman typing next to you at your favorite coffee shop. Ask the cashier at the grocery store if he’s from your neighborhood and if he likes living there. Sit down at a bus station and start a conversation with the elderly lady waiting on the bench next to you. Ride the bus, for that matter, and chat with the driver. If we don’t know our neighbors’ stories, how will we know which laws and policies will serve them?

“If you really have a relationship with someone, you know what motivates them, what moves them, who they love, what’s important to them, why they get out of bed in the morning, why they spend their money the way they do, why they want to live in the same community that you do,” Hoover told me. “If you don’t know those things, then we can’t negotiate. What are you about? What am I about? How can we live together?”

Second, as Gideon Strauss suggests, join a party: “Joining a political party is the means by which a raw passion for justice gets tempered into a real instrument for long-term political faithfulness… [It’s] going to be a dirty business… But such is the stuff of proximate justice (as Steven Garber called it).” And as Hilary Sherratt said, “Plan to vote, to rally, to write letters, to run for office. It is our political community.”

Third, find out who - maybe a community organization like LA Voice - is addressing public justice issues in your community. Go to community meetings, go to city council meetings. Introduce yourself to the people who are speaking up in your community and tell them you want to be involved. Maybe you’ll discover you really do care about politics after all. 

Politics is about incarnational love. It’s about loving the people who live next door. Maybe it’s not only up to politicians to make politics about love; maybe it’s up to me and you to be engaged citizens, immigrants, even engaged long-term visitors. As Jonathan Chaplin said, “Just governance cannot be left only to governments.”

I’m inspired by the story of the young boy who took his citizenship seriously because he knew it mattered for his family’s safety. Maybe some of us can afford to be disengaged because our parents aren’t about to be deported; but if we want to live in a country where justice and love can thrive, we can’t afford to be apathetic about the laws and policies that are hurting our neighbors. 

-Tala Strauss is a recent graduate of Gordon College, where she studied political science and philosophy. Currently, she is a Fellow with the Christian Alliance for Orphans. She lives in Los Angeles and on social media. @talastrauss