Response: February 2017 Issue

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

United Methodist Women’s work for racial justice must be unceasing.

Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters

Janis Rosheuvel and Andris Salter

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. —Amos 5:21-24

I love the image of justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. I think of the powerful waterways, rivers and streams I have encountered. I remember a trip to Niagara Falls with friends, standing in the mist of that thunderous wonder where over six million cubic feet of water falls over the crest line every minute on average. I recall also a trip with my father to our homeland, Guyana, where we stood atop Kaieteur Falls, one of the world’s highest single drop waterfall, and marveled at its majesty. Whenever I am in front of a vast body of water I am shaken by its fierceness. I am made instantly humble and afraid of water’s awesome potential.

If systemic racism and white supremacy are to end, we must commit ourselves as people of God to make sure that justice rolls down like waters, powerfully and unceasingly. When I think of the work at hand to end systemic racism, I am struck by the enormity of the task. Antiracism work has been ongoing for centuries, and yet there is so much more to do. With unprecedented rates of incarceration of black and brown people, a deepening racial wealth divide, stark racialized maternal health disparities, the continuing theft and pollution of indigenous peoples’ lands and more, we see the costs of systemic racism everywhere we turn. Indeed, what is at stake in our work to end racism is nothing short of our very ability to exist and thrive according to God’s will for all of us.

Move beyond “checklist racial justice”

To be sure, fighting for justice is hard work, and doing it unceasingly takes grit and grace. We may want there to be surefire ways to certify that the work we do will result in a racially just world. Maybe, one theory goes, we just need to teach tolerance and have more inclusive history lessons in school. Or, as another theory posits, we simply need to spend more time together with people across racial lines to heal past wounds. These are not bad steps, but to see them as the answer leaves our work for racial justice incomplete. This is because these steps do not address the ways racism is fundamentally embedded into every institution in our society in order to systemically shift power and resources to white people and away from people of color.

The hard truth is that there is no list of things we can check off to guarantee racial justice. We must humbly and continually recommit ourselves to the lifelong struggle against racism and to changing our institutions so that they benefit all people equitably. It is hard to contend with the fact that we will likely never reach a point where our societies are racially just. But that is not the aim of antiracist work. As antiracist mobilizers, we must instead always be ready to respond to the evolving nature of racism. So, for instance, what must we do when our church has sound written policies on ending systemic racism but we see racial inequities and cultural bias and domination on matters such as recruitment, training, appointment, evaluation and pay of clergy? As racism evolves so too must our work to resist it evolve. This can be mundane and messy and will certainly disrupt the status quo of our institutions. And it should. This is the work God’s calls us to do. As Amos notes, God does not want to listen to the “melody of our harps” but God wants us to put our noses to the grindstone and fight to end injustice.

Share power equitably

A key way to work unceasingly for racial justice is to attack racism systemically. Systemic racism is racial bias across institutions and society. It is the cumulative and compounded effects of an array of factors that systemically privileges white people and disadvantages people of color. Systemic racism inherently relies on abuses of power. Community organizers mobilizing people to fight for justice often define power as “the ability to make things happen.” Power is also about how we use and distribute resources. If we understand racism as a system of inequities that are maintained by gross abuses of power, then we must also understand racial justice as the proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes and actions that produce equitable power, access, treatment, opportunities and outcomes for all.

To share power equitably, we must first understand where we hold power in the institutions that order our lives. Where do you hold power within your family? At your job? In United Methodist Women? On your local school board? Think of any place where you contribute to decisions about how money is spent and who is in leadership. This is where you can do the work of power sharing. Ask yourself: Who is missing from the places where I hold power and influence? How can I work with others to ensure that more people of color are at decision-making tables?

You can also share power by not tokenizing the roles, responsibilities and decision making of people of color. You can amplify the work and words of people of color, and in the fight to end racism, you can trust and fight to implement the solutions proposed by those most harmed by racial injustice. The United Methodist Charter for Racial Justice in an Interdependent Global Community echoes Amos’ call by also demanding that our struggle for racial justice “must be based on new attitudes, new understandings and new relationships, and must be reflected in the laws, policies, structures and practices of both church and state.” We must create and sustain new ways of sharing power that as the charter says, affirm, “the rights and the self-determination of every person and group of persons.”

Take risks and keep taking them

Unceasingly doing racial justice also means that we must take risks to embody our commitment to ending systemic racism. When I think of the call of the Hebrew prophets in the Bible, like Amos, I am inspired by their demanding vision for a just world. Living according to God’s will, Amos reminds us, is not about shallowly feting God with “burnt offerings and grain offerings” but about standing up to injustice, not when it is easy and little is at stake but when taking risks is hard and will cost us. Amos also shows us that God rejects our “solemn assemblies” if they are not accompanied by diligent and constant work for justice.

The group Showing Up for Racial Justice, a partner of United Methodist Women, is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multiracial majority for justice with passion and accountability. SURJ holds risk-taking for racial justice as a key value of their organizing: “We know that we will have to take risks. Every day, people of color take risks in living their lives with full dignity. … We challenge ourselves and other white people to take risks as well, to stand up against a racist system, actions and structures every day. We know that in that process we will make mistakes. Our goal is to learn from those mistakes and keep showing up again and again for what is right and for racial justice.” And there are always opportunities to show up, speak out and take action.

Just 10 days after the 2016 presidential election in the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that there had been “national outbreak of hate” with nearly 900 hate incidents being submitted to the #ReportHate page on the SPLC website and given through media accounts. The group Human Rights Watch has also teamed up with SPLC by creating text-based systems that allows people to call out hate by reporting these incidents via cell phone text message.

United Methodist Women also continue to speak out. General Conference 2016 passed a resolution written by United Methodist Women called Speaking Out for Compassion: Transforming the Context of Hate in the United States that, in part, encourages “United Methodists to end complicity with hate by speaking out when jokes, disparagements and stereotypes are based on identity or status difference.” The resolution also calls us to “engage in efforts to enable communities to unearth the truth about past and present hate-violence, to bring perpetrators (including state actors) to trial, justice, and to heal wounds and seek reconciliation based on justice and more equitable power relationships.”

We cannot say that our mandates are not clear and precise. Our job as faith-full people is to resist systemic racism in all forms by, among other things: (a) moving beyond “checklist racial justice,” (b) sharing power justly and (c) taking risks over and over again. This must be ongoing work over our entire lives. So let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Let it be so through us, O Lord. Let it be so through us.

Janis Rosheuvel is executive for racial justice for United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 2/7/2017 12:00:00 AM

February 2017 cover of response

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