The Postures of Proximate Justice, Part 2

This is part two of a  series on proximate justice. To read part one, click here

The world is filled with underfunded teachers, confused policy makers, and struggling entrepreneurs who sought to change the world, but came to realize that the world is brutal and not easily changed. Most of us, eventually, have to come to terms with the reality that we are not heroes, but hints of hope. Once people come to the realization that the best we can hope for is proximate justice -- some good, some justice, some reconciliation -- they tend to respond with several different postures toward the world. Some of these postures are beautiful, showing that one has taken on the yoke of Christ. Other postures are deformed, because they are not braced by the Gospel. Earlier this month I introduced these five postures, and today I will describe them in detail. Which of these characterize your posture toward the wounds of the world?

1. The Folded Arms of Cynicism - These people accurately see the brokenness of the world. They know that utopian visions are for fools. Their mantra is: “the reason that will never work is...” They are usually intelligent, articulate, and masters of deconstruction. They are disappointed in their own failures, and exponentially disappointed in failures of others, leaving them jaded and bitter. They are not people of action, and they rarely engage the brokenness of the world beyond their words and thoughts. They have the strength for deconstruction, but are too exhausted to engage in the work of building. They like to think of themselves as “realists”, but that’s inaccurate, because these so-called realists functionally deny the resurrection of Christ, and his very real power to affect the world, through their posture toward a wounded world.

2. The Shrug of Apathy - Other people respond to the brokenness of the world with a shrug. Their mantra is: “Oh, well. You can’t get involved with everything.” These people can watch the world news with popcorn in their hand, interested in issues, but not deeply concerned with people. They rightly understand their inability to get involved with every cause and have made peace with their finitude. However, the Shrug of Apathy is a dehumanizing posture in at least two ways.

First, in order to cultivate apathy, one must stop seeing people as people, and only see “issues”. When this happens, people without food become the issue of “hunger”, people with disease become the topic of “healthcare”, etc. It’s dehumanizing to turn an image-bearer into a topic of interest. Second, to be apathetic toward suffering is to dehumanize yourself by eliminating the truly human emotions that should be felt when encountering the brokenness of the world. To intentionally numb your heart from feeling the world’s pain is the first step in the cowardly process of becoming less human. This double dehumanization dishonors the God who created us in his own image.

3. The Turn of the Simplistic - Some respond to the wounds of the world by simply turning away from pain, or by convincing themselves that things aren’t that bad. They close their eyes, plug their ears, and avoid being confronted by the brokenness of the world.  Sometimes they avoid seeing the real brokenness of the world by distracting themselves with busy schedules or abundant entertainment. They make the world their world noisy in order to drown out the groans of creation. Sometimes they will engage important issues, but they keep them at a safe distance with simplistic ideologies and media that confirms their bias. They are unwilling to mourn, wrestle deeply, and hold things in tension. The motto of the simplistic is: “If they would just...” Whether it’s the free market, evangelism, government regulation, education, systemic injustice or personal responsibility; the simplistic avoid the complexity of the world by identifying one thing as a silver bullet to fix everything.

4. The Busy Hands of Activism - These people must be commended for actually doing something, even if their confident visions of “changing the world” are somewhat naive and overstated. They believe innovation, hashtags, campaigns, funding, policies, strategies, techniques and awareness are just simple ingredients that will make everything better when arranged in the most creative and inspiring way. They engage themselves in good work, but at shallow levels. They evaluate the merit of their work by their level or passion and the volume of their activity, rather than how their work actually helps others. They have not learned to slow down, weep, lament, understand the complexity, and even confess how they’ve contributed to the pain. Their pursuit of justice and the common good might be somewhat helpful, but they often rush to action without sufficient reflection and relationship. Their work is often perceived as condescending, especially among the most vulnerable, because their palpable optimism is naive and makes light of the tragic presence of sin and suffering in the world.

5. The Groan of Glory - There’s a response to the world’s suffering that is shaped by the Gospel, takes into consideration both the brokenness and the beauty of the world, our finitude, and the power of the resurrection. I call this The Groan of Glory, the ability to groan with creation about the deep pain of the world, but also to respond to the call of God to pursue shalom in his world while looking forward to the return of Christ. Romans 8:18-30 paints a picture of creation and humanity groaning together, and waiting for a future day of glory when the bounded world will be set free. This creates a humble and hopeful posture that includes active hands, active minds, and active hearts.

People with this posture, like everybody, have to settle for the pursuit of proximate justice in just a few areas, and realize they can’t engage in everything. However, they deeply care about brokenness wherever they find it, and their concerns don’t merely turn into worry or anxiety, but rather, they become the kindling for prayer. They weep and lament when they watch the news, or hear of another cancer diagnoses, or read about systemic injustice. They give their heart to others in empathy, and to God in prayer, even if that’s all they have to give. Knowing they cannot change everything, they seek to do something with their limited ability and time in the world. They work while they wait, with longing, for the one who will make all things new.

In his book Visions of Vocation, Dr. Steven Garber writes, "We know in our deepest places how hard it is to keep our eyes open to the complexity of the broken world around us, to keep feeling the pains of a world that is not the way it is supposed to be and, knowing the difficulty, choosing to engage it rather than being numbed by it."

As we are confronted by the cold reality of a broken world, let’s pay attention to our posture and let it be shaped by both the cross and resurrection. Let us heed the words of Paul, who admonished the church in Corinth, as they tried to figure out how to live in between the resurrection of Christ and the renewal of all things: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV)”

-Jim Mullins is pastor of teaching, communities, and cultural engagement at Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona. He is also the co-founder of Peace Catalyst International and International Guild of Visual Peacemakers. He and his wife, Jenny, live with their daughter, Elliana, in Tempe, AZ.