A Reflection on Justice Work as Spiritual Practice

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Justice Work as Spiritual Practice: Remarks on the Connection between Spiritual Life, Restorative Justice, and Hope

Presented by The Rev. Canon Jennifer King Daugherty at the Restorative Justice Retreat, Saturday, September 9, 2023

As we begin our retreat today, let’s explore the context of our justice work – the water we swim in. The suffering and injustice active in the world is on full display. Climate change, weather refugees, and the impact on all of creation is real and visible. Racial injustice and white supremacy has been entrenched for centuries, and still emits a powerful toxin in conscious and unconscious ways. Increasing poverty, lack of universal health care, and no safety net is accelerating homelessness and hunger here in Seattle and around the world. There is growing economic inequality, which furthers the disconnection between people with different economic and social circumstances.

Threaded through all of this are the elements of our culture that unsettle our spiritual grounding. Divisiveness between people based on competing narratives of the truth. Sometimes we can’t even agree on the facts of what we see on video recordings. And most impactful, our culture grabs our attention and motivates us toward action through fear and drama. Whatever makes us most vulnerable and unsafe gets the most airtime.

So we need to ask ourselves, “What motivates us toward justice work?” People all around the world come to this work from many locations: secular, religious, public sector, private individuals, governments, not-for-profit organizations. Sometimes people are motivated by experiences of injustice they have witnessed or borne firsthand; they want freedom for themselves and others. Sometimes it is compassion, a desire to serve others. Sometimes it is guilt over the unearned privileges we enjoy. Sometimes it is anger. Often it is a drive to “change the world.”

Steve mentioned that justice work is gospel work. The clearest expression of that, for me, are Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 25:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Justice work is incarnational and embodied, it affects our emotions, physicality, and is bound up with our spiritual lives. It brings us face to face with our own limitations of knowledge and control and our inability to predict or manage the future. It can highlight our vulnerabilities and brush up against a deep existential dread. It can stir up our tendency to catastrophize about the future, which can paralyze us.

Justice work makes us ask the question, “Why am I hopeful about this?” The secular world might find hope in the willingness of people, communities, and nations to work hard and put the needs of others before themselves. We might name our trust and confidence in science and the potential for intellectual creativity to solve problems that currently seem insolvable. Or our trust in the good intentions of others.

All of these reasons for hope are real and important. But I want to suggest that justice work that flows solely from a sense of citizenship and generosity is unsustainable. Progress is slow and the problems are huge and growing. This can cause frustration and disappointment in oneself and others, and lead to despair, cynicism, and burnout. The truth is that our individual wells of energy to push the rock uphill are not bottomless. Especially because we rarely see progress that we can claim is directly tied to our actions.

Hope based on the ability to imagine a better future is a meager hope. Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

Our mistake is that we tie Hope to outcomes. Not right. Hope is a primordial force that boils up from the center of the earth in our own being, and gives us the capacity to be truly present and strong, whatever the circumstances. [1]

Justice work is spiritual practice for precisely this reason. James Finley writes that,

Contemplative practice is any act, habitually entered into with your whole heart, as a way of awakening, deepening, and sustaining an experience of the inherent holiness of the present moment . . . The critical factor is not so much what the practice is in its externals as the extent to which the practice incarnates an utterly sincere stance of awakening and surrendering to the Godly nature of the present moment. [2]

What does it look like, then, if justice work is spiritual practice? First, we commit to cultivate the soul’s connection to the holy, so that we open space for that primordial force to dwell and boil up in love, compassion, gratitude, and courage. Second, we focus on the present and on relationships – to ourselves, to others, and to all of creation. We immerse ourselves in what is embodied and real now and let go of the desire to predict and control the future.

Third, we prioritize the offering rather than the outcome. So often, when we want to know what actions we should take, we imagine what the future impact is and discount it back to today. Then we compare results and pick the one that has the highest “value.” But that is not about responding to the present reality; it is engaging in an intellectual exercise. Instead, we need to ask, “What do I see today? What is needed today? How can I love today?” We follow that lead and set aside the need to know what the outcome is.

If justice work is spiritual work, there are some real implications for our ministry together. Foundationally, our deepest motivation for the work is a response to being loved by God and wanting to follow Jesus’ commandment to love others as we are loved. We also follow Jesus by remembering the many times he promised, “Do not fear, I am with you.” Fear is not of God. So when our culture insists on fear and drama, we must resist it and respond with truth and love.

In addition, the heart of a ministry goal can’t be about changing others’ behavior. We need to remind ourselves of that often. J The heart of our ministry must be awakening to and surrendering to God’s movement in the world today and aligning our energy with that. We are not accountable for “changing the world,” but we are accountable for our faithfulness in practice. This faithful, spiritual, practice of justice allows for our own transformation through God’s mercy and grace.

The First Letter of Peter to early Christian communities tells them to “always be ready to account for the hope that is in you” (3:15). This is an absolutely essential part of our justice work if we are to do it from a stance of faith. We must know how and why we hope. Our hope is not based on our passion, skills, resources, poltical power, or ability to problem solve. It is based entirely on who God is, in the present, and Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “Hope that is seen is not hope. . . .  If we hope, we wait with patience. . . . The spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding with sighs too deep for words” (8:24-27). We can trust the divine Spirit as our source of primordial hope.

Gathering all these thoughts together, this is what it might look like for justice work to be spiritual practice. We acknowledge the enormous reality of the problems of this world. We acknowledge our own limitations and fears. And we do the work anyway, centering on the needs and opportunities in the present moment. We don’t evaluate the worth of what we do today by measuring its future value. Its worth is how it aligns with God’s kingdom and its power to transform us. What if our ministry is about naming, exploring, and modeling just this?

In Reflections on the Unknowable, Father Thomas Keating writes:

“To hope for something better in the future is not the theological virtue of hope. Theological hope is based on God alone, who is both infinitely merciful and infinitely powerful right now. Here is a formula to deepen and further the theological virtue of hope with its unbounded confidence in God. Let whatever is happening happen and go on happening. Welcome whatever it is. Let go into the present moment by surrendering to its content…. The divine energies are rushing past us at every nanosecond of time. Why not reach out and catch them by continuing acts of self-surrender and trust in God?” [3]


[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (New York, NY: Cowley, 2001.
[2] James Finley, The Contemplative Heart (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2000).
[3] Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable, (New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2014).

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