Committee considers social justice theology proposals

By Mike Patterson
Posted Jul 6, 2018

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] How does social justice fit into the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church? This is the question a proposed resolution presented during the 79th General Convention would seek to understand.

Resolution A056 asks that the General Convention direct the presiding officers of the Episcopal Church to appoint a Task Force on the Theology of Social Justice Advocacy as Christian Justice. If approved and implemented, the task force, over the next triennium, would consider scripture, approved liturgical resources, other theological texts and previous actions of General Convention to summarize ways the church understands social justice as an essential mission and ministry.

The resolution also calls for the task force to study how the church currently fosters the theological understanding of social justice and asks it to recommend ways to foster conversations on social justice across the church.

The convention’s Ministry Committee on July 6 heard three speakers in favor of the resolution.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

The Rev. Kenneth Brannon, Idaho deputy and member of the Ministry Committee, questioned the need for a establishing a task force when churches are already involved in addressing social justice issues. “Social justice is front and center to what we do in the Episcopal Church,” he said.

Responding to his question, the Rev. Tracie Middleton, Fort Worth deputy and a board member of the Association of Episcopal Deacons, said that a theology of social justice could eventually lead to more resources on how congregations might tackle social justice issues. “There is an urgent demand for how we do it,” she said.

In an interview after the hearing, Middleton said clergy might be aware of only a few of the social justice issues that parishioners are passionate about. The ability to have a resource network across the country to share ideas and knowledge would be beneficial by bringing priests and deacons up to speed on the myriad social justice issues their parishioners care most about.

The resolution asks that the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to consider budgeting $15,000 to implement the resolution.

The resolution was proposed by the House of Deputies’ Committee on the State of the Church. In its Blue Book Report, the committee concluded that while the church is “doing many different types of work, social justice work is not robust across the church.”

Most especially, the committee discovered that the understanding of “social justice” varies broadly and that activities across the church tend to fall more “into the realm of alleviation of suffering and the work of charity than the work of justice.”

The task force said this distinction caused “anxiety” for some who completed a survey, “both in terms of trying to define charity work as ‘justice’ and from some who do not believe the church should be doing justice work.” Some survey respondents replied that the church should “remove itself from politics and get on the work of social justice.”

“We heard concerns that social justice is ‘only about politics,’” the task force reported.

The task force also heard about “a sense of being disconnected from the words of the wider church and General Convention on the theology of social justice.” It said, “Some felt that social justice preaching should not advocate a particular view on reform or that the emphasis should be on ‘outreach ministry’ but not social justice.”

Respondents to a survey conducted for the committee were eager for resources, suggestions and people to reach for help, and “almost all who responded acknowledged a need for this work and many a desire to do it. They wanted to connect with others doing this work but did not know how to find them.”

To clarify misunderstandings, the committee defined social justice work as “acts to address and heal the root cause of the injustice which prompted our need for charity in the first place.”

“In our churchwide discussions,” the task force report stated, “we talk about justice in terms of promoting social change and responding to long-term needs in combination with work to alleviate the suffering before us.”

– Mike Patterson is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. He is a member of ENS General Convention reporting team and can be reached at rmp231@gmail.com.


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Comments (18)

  1. PJ Cabbiness says:

    Are we a church or a leftist political action organization? The lines are becoming blurred.

    1. Billy Beets says:

      I agree with you PJ. I have been reading throughout this site. Anti Israel, Changing the BCP (discussed two options) It was very apparent the reporting committees bias. Continued to say “for the time being” meaning we might not get the BCP changed this time but it will happen. Changing the Lords Prayer on and on. Maybe, I am cynical but the “big brother” approach of we know whats best for you even though you don’t ” bless your heart” mentality is very concerning. As an ethnic minority who is a conservative “gasp” I have heard this too often from some in the “majority” who think they know what is best for me and my race. “SOP” of some of my liberal brother and sisters. Peace be with all of us Episcopalians!

  2. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    The House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church was bold and truthful in stating “social justice work is not robust across the Church.” That may be the greatest understatement in the Blue Book. Social justice work is not on the agenda of most Episcopal churches. Clergy know they will hear cries of “Keep politics out of the Church” if they advocate working to change unjust practices. Even in progressive parishes the number of members who turn out for this vital work is small relative to the size of the congregation.

    To remedy this situation should be a number one priority of the Episcopal Church. Bishops need to give bold leadership, clergy need to be trained, challenged, and encouraged; and the laity must be recognized and applauded for their efforts. If we truly are part of the Jesus Movement, we must show neighbor love by exposing unjust practices and working to remove them. A budget of $15,000 for creating a network to share ideas and knowledge will not solve the problem, but it may help spread awareness of what needs to be done and the creative, disciplined work for justice being done in some places.

    1. Frank Harrision says:

      What of those Episcopalians who, for sound reasons, do not accept the Jesus Movement or want to be a part of it? Does the inclusiveness of The Church embrace them without ranker? From what I read and hear, I doubt that very much.

  3. Jane Scott says:

    Social justice may use politics to legally rectify an injustice but any comparison ends there. Studying, identifying and working to overcome social injustice seem synonymous to me to carry out “and love thy neighbor as thyself”, the second of the two commandments upon which Christ said “hang all the law and the prophets.”
    As a lay person I would surely appreciate knowing where those working in this area have felt productive and I would like to know how I can help. It seems reasonable and responsive at the national and diocesan level to study, research, write about, and inform us parishioners first about social injustice and then simultaneously illustrate what’s working using both religious and secular methods to ensure fairness in our neighborhoods, schools, courts, stretching at every step to include our nation.

    1. Frank Harrision says:

      You may think that this is a silly question. Nonetheless, people in the Red Cross and other secular organizations seek social justice. What is the difference, if any, between an Episcopalian doing this and, say, on the other hand, a member of a secular atheistic, or at least non-religions, organization?

  4. Arthur Lee says:

    Was it Dom Helder Camarra who said,
    “When I found ways to help feed the poor, they called me a saint.
    When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a Communist.”

    1. Karen Burr McKee says:

      That exactly pinpoints the problem.

  5. Debra Aring says:

    As a denomination, we are really good at charity, but I know very few Episcopalians, lay and ordained, who are doing social justice work. I think it’s a balancing act that is almost impossible to navigate. We are called to alleviate the suffering of our sisters and brothers, but developing effective social justice efforts is playing the long game. We want quick, easy, feel good work, so feeding to homeless is mistaken for social justice. I would welcome this networking effort as a means of connecting resources across the church and helping educate the church on what social justice truly is.

  6. M. J. Wise says:

    I’m fine with a focus on social justice so much as it coincides with individual justice. When social justice violates an individual’s right to justice, that’s a problem. Social justice seems designed to stratify us into competing groups and some groups will just have to lose so some larger social justice goals can be met. That’s certainly not what Jesus preached. Jesus proclaimed salvation for each and every individual, not salvation for certain groups.

    1. Frank Harrision says:

      How true.

  7. Nancy Brown says:

    One of the important aspects of social justice is its role in spiritual formation. I think social justice needs to be framed within a context of spiritual formation as does compassion and love which I see are the constant goals toward which spiritual formation aspires.

  8. Jerry Williams says:

    Unfortunately, the term “social justice” is identified with radical progressive politics, whatever its origins. Political alignment with one party, even with its jargon, immediately divides people. Jesus gave us the universal blueprint and terminology to address our challenges. What would be the reaction if the church adopted “Make the Episcopal Church Great Again! “? The term social justice has come to denote a sense of class warfare. Who makes the decision as to what political programs are good or not ? Where does that decision come from ? Are these decisions to call for political action most often aligned with one party or another ? Is there ever a call to action to support another party ? How soon after a political call to action by one party does this church echo that call ? It might seem right within the bubble of your peers, but the answer is in the “other” that you may be alienating.

  9. Michael Fitzpatrick says:

    I’m in favor of more active social justice work by the Church, locally and nationally, but it needs to be Bible driven first. The only way we can honestly answer the charge that we’re an arm of the Democratic Party is if we recognize that the Christian vision is far more radical than anything American liberals have ever dreamed of. Imagine a Church that ignores national politics altogether, and instead envisions a social justice campaign built on the bulwark of scripture and the rich Anglican legacy of social justice concern. We could turn the world upside down (in other words, see more and more of the Kingdom of Heaven come to earth).

    1. Jerry Williams says:

      Like it or not, you are locked in as an arm of the Democrat Party. If the gender of Jesus and his Father is somehow offensive, there will be no hesitation to suppress and demean ideas from the “other” and those who introduce them. The church has been subsumed. Track the calls for political action. Is there any difference from the party talking points in content and timing ? If you are Democrat, it is a great idea, and very well done. If the church is leading, fine. If the church is a tool, somebody sold us out. Claiming your political goals have “God on our side” leaves one open to be manipulated by politicos and cheapens the faith that should be guiding us independent of the politicians. Control the language, control the people. “Social Justice”, you are well on your way. Remove the terms associated with traditional faith, he, him, father, son. Smooth.

      1. Steve Price says:

        The gospel message of Jesus very much includes the concept of social justice.Who defines it? Easiest question yet.Jesus already has.If you’re supporting a political party that’s out of touch with his message,change parties instead of blaming the Church for following His teachings

  10. I read through all the information and comments. I agree it needs to be Jesus Christ based. He was a supporter of social justice and he was political. I do not believe that being political is campaigning for one political party or another but I do believe that being political means that we have a voice to change laws that continue to oppress others and there are many. For instance, why do we need a “Bureau of Indian Affairs”; we don’t have a bureau to control other groups? Furthermore, charity is another way to control people; we need to be training and teaching them to be self-sufficient and productive as their ability allows. Thank you

  11. Bill Louis says:

    The term “social justice” is an ambiguous term and can mean different things to different people so its difficult to determine where the church is coming from. If it means we should be helping the less fortunate in our community then I totally agree with that. No one should be hungry, cold or without shelter. We should be helping people to “get on their feet” and in a position to support themselves and not remain wards of the welfare state indefinitely.
    When the church speaks of “social justice” does it really mean socialism, “what’s your’s is mine” mentality. “You work I take.”. If that’s the case then the church simply a shill for the left.

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