The Postures of Proximate Justice

This is part one of a two part series on proximate justice. Check back next week for the second installment. 

Somewhere there’s a little girl who is taking a last glance at her mother as she’s ushered away by a social worker. A lobbyist is leveraging eloquent words, and even more eloquent dollars, to defend a carcinogen, abdicating his responsibility to protect his neighbor while protecting the bottom line. Men and women are exchanging text messages to coordinate a meeting at a hotel that will exchange decades with their families for a few hours of pleasure. 

Right now, men are walking the streets of Baltimore, knowing that those with brown skin, and those with blue uniforms, are not safe. Struggling teachers are writing their resignation letters as struggling students resign their dreams of college. ISIS is advancing, people are being abducted, cancer is being diagnosed, streams are being polluted, and while the world bleeds out, politicians are rummaging through her wallet.

How should we, as limited people, engage a world with seemingly limitless pain? Unspeakable brokenness has punctured the lungs of the world, and with every horrific headline, we hear the world gasp for relief. The impact of the Fall has caused injuries that affect every organ of the earth--every domain of society, every home, and every individual. The world is hemorrhaging because of sin.

How should we respond to a world with so many wounds? Which injuries should we seek to mend with our limited hands and limited ability? We want to be the Good Samaritan who helps the wounded stranger, but we’ve come along upon a road where everyone is wounded, including ourselves.  We are finite people who lack the time, talent, money and influence to substantially address all of the world’s wounds.

Our limitedness forces us to make choices. To choose to be a nurse is to refrain from being a teacher. To choose to give $100 to alleviate poverty is to refuse $100 to end sex trafficking. One of the great challenges of discerning our calling, is the challenge of figuring out where we ought to focus our lives, to find the place where our skills and abilities intersect with the world's needs.

Even when we have a strong sense of vocation, and deliberately give our lives to a few specific things, we still usually fall short of“changing the world.”  Even the best teachers will not be able to reach all students, the best policies will have unforeseen negative effects, and the best doctors will lose patients on the surgery table.

How should we, as limited people, engage a world with seemingly limitless pain?

 Learning to Live Proximately

As I’ve wrestled with these questions, I’ve been helped by the writing of Steven Garber who talks about our need to make peace with the “proximate,” the idea that we work toward some change, some justice, some restoration even though we can’t make everything right.

Jesus can, and will, wipe away every tear from our eyes and restore all that’s broken when he returns. However, in the meantime, we are called to put our hands to the plow, working hard for justice and the common good. We are not ultimate solutions, but first responders who bind wounds and comfort the injured as a sign of the help and healing that are to come with the return of Christ.

Garber describes it this way,

"Whatever our vocation, it always means making peace with the proximate, with something rather than nothing – in marriage and in family, at work and at worship, at home and in the public square, in our cities and around the world. That is not a coldhearted calculus; rather it is a choice to live by hope, even when hope is hard."

Eventually, everyone has to set aside utopian idealism, and live in the real world, the world of proximate justice that points to a future restoration.

Over the years, I have noticed that people tend to respond in different ways to the reality that we do not, ultimately, change the world, but live as signs that point to the one who will. We tend to take different postures toward the proximate; some of them are healthy while others are distorted. Generally, people take one of these five postures:

1)    The Folded Arms of Cynicism

2)    The Shrug of Apathy

3)    The Turn of the Simplistic

4)    The Busy Hands of Activism

5)    The Groan of Glory

In next week’s post, I will explain what each of these postures looks like. While they all have a hint of truth, I will argue that The Groan of Glory is the most faithful posture, because it’s the posture that works hard in this life while groaning with creation for a more glorious future. It’s the posture of a faithful few who move forward, working hard, and makes peace with the proximate until Jesus returns.

-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.