Service, Faith, Justice: More Questions Than Answers

Sean Sanford

During my upbringing, my parents placed great value on service. In countless ways, big and small, they modeled a commitment to others, particularly those in need. Micah 6:8Though they both worked full-time jobs and had three kids, they made service a regular part of their lives. They still do. Among the many ways they expressed their conviction that Christian faith is implicitly concerned with service and justice was the not uncommon experience of working in a local soup kitchen. Long before I was able to understand politics or economics, it was obvious that hunger and poverty were signs that something was deeply wrong with our society. Years previous to exploring works of ethics or Catholic Social Thought, the fact that Christian faith demands we act on behalf of those who are malnourished and poor was perfectly clear. I heard it in schools, at home, in Church, and importantly, at Mass. Charity, love, and compassion were, for my family and our community, the very attributes of Jesus Christ. As disciples, we were to foster them in ourselves.

As I grew older I discovered the concept of justice. I was quickly enamored with the idea of social change: building a world where creation was affirmed and the many affronts to human dignity were confronted. What’s more, it tied so clearly to my own Catholic faith. The pursuit of service and justice has informed not only my personal spirituality, but, for the past fifteen years, my professional life. I discovered a personal relationship with God by learning to see the face of Christ in those who suffered. I first grasped the concept of grace in soup kitchens and shelters. I came to understand Church through a community that gathered to live the Gospel. Human sanctity became accessible through the witness of Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Thea Bowman, and Ceasar Chavez.

I never romanticized poverty or at least I tried not to – having a parent who grew up poor will dispel that temptation – but I can admit that my passion for service and justice led to an eagerness that glossed over many complexities. That passion, together with the typical zeal of a young adult, is a potent combination. Yet over the past decade, through a combination of study, reflection and work, the complexity of what constitutes justice, not to mention faith, has come to weigh heavily. Years of advocacy on topics ranging from hunger and homelessness, to fair trade, peace, immigration reform, abortion, and the death penalty, among others, have led me to realize that the pursuit of justice is both a matter of life or death and also insufferably complicated. The nature of justice is difficult to define; Greek philosophers, Hebrew Scriptures writers, contemporary theologians, social workers and political theorists, not to mention scores of Catholic thinkers, have spilled oceans of ink answering the question, “what is justice?” And though valuable contributions have been made, the subject remains the topic of debate.

More than once I have seen disappointment on the faces of those who thought I should have answers. The mission of the Center for FaithJustice – to work with individuals and communities, to live as people of faith, serve those in need, and seek a more just world – certainly lends itself to such a hope. One such young person informed me that if I had the nerve to serve as the “leader” of CFJ, I had better have some answers. I agreed! In recent years I’ve made it a custom to speak with others whose vocation revolves around the interconnectedness of faith and justice. Perhaps not surprisingly, most struggle with the same dilemma; in practical terms, what does it mean to be the Body of Christ, to be “workers in the vineyard,” to actually do justice? Are the answers to be found in theology, politics, or economics? Is the solution better education, affordable housing, higher paying jobs or environment stewardship? Are injustices rooted in personal immorality or social irresponsibility? Each bears some truth yet is essentially partial.  This is the fundamental problem of seeking a faith that does justice. We are called to do something, but we must be humble enough to recognize that whatever we do is profoundly limited. We respond to suffering with the knowledge, skills and tools we have learned because not responding is not an option. For those whose identity is rooted in the life of Christ, we know we must act, even while we pray for the grace to do so in the face of uncertainty. The mistake comes when we insist that our recourse to truth is total or our solution is the only solution. One needs look no further than the ideological rigidity that has made our political leadership impotent to know that such absolutism is doomed to failure.

I believe the partiality of our personal response, while perhaps tough on the ego, is a form of liberation. Recognizing that we are social beings, and that solutions will come only from collective action may be idealistic, but it is also the means for true change. This is not about getting off the hook – far from it – rather, it forces us to examine our relationships, participation in community, and sense of solidarity. Justice can only be achieved in these dynamic relationships. In the context of “faithjustice,” it is precisely the active, mutual love of the Trinity that serves as an example for us. As in the life of God, there is no true human life not embedded in relationships.

This will, of course, mean different things to different people. It has led me to re-evaluate my participation in community, in Church, and my relationships with friends, family and co-workers. I am attempting to listen more closely, love more deeply, and to turn much of my energies to local issues, even while continuing to advocate on national and international issues.

Faith and justice remain, for me, complex and at times frustrating ideas. Yet they are the binary that contours my life and to which I am committed. I may never know the definitive answer to the question, “what is justice?” but the call remains. It is only with the help of others and through the grace of God that I, or any of us can, continue on the journey.

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1 Response to Service, Faith, Justice: More Questions Than Answers

  1. Laura says:

    For me, it comes down to blooming where I’m planted. I don’t feel called to lead the fight against international poverty, but I do feel a strong call to serve the community I live in. Maybe it’s narrow minded, maybe it’s drive by my fear of being overwhelmed by the world’s needs. I don’t know.

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