Public and pulpit rhetoric about justice may be inspiring or polarizing, depending on where one stands.
MSNBC talk-show host Al Sharpton’s rhetoric around the death of Michael Brown motivates some with the claim that “America is on trial” and the conspiratorial view of police who “shoot and kill our young people.”
It leaves others with a sense that he promotes a half-baked polarizing cultural narrative.
Fox News talk-show host Bill O’Reilly’s rhetoric about the death of American journalist James Foley fired up some viewers when he said about ISIS, “Every American should know this. We have to kill them all.”
It leaves others with a sense of his wild, unrealistic and shortsighted worldview.
Contrast Sharpton with EthicsDaily.com columnist Terrell Carter, an African-American Baptist minister and former police officer in St. Louis.
Carter offered an irenic and insightful piece related to Ferguson. He gave a limited list of doable suggestions.
Contrast O’Reilly with what Pope Francis actually said about ISIS. Francis said, “I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop;’ I don’t say bomb, make war—stop him.”
Francis acknowledged the need for military action, but constrained action based on just war rules to halt ISIS from genocide.
He did not justify unlimited military strikes to kill an entire identifiable and unidentifiable group of people with assurance that things would improve in a civil war.
On one hand, we hear calls for “macro-justice.” That is, massive, sweeping actions for social change to correct wrongs.
Most of the time, such far-reaching comments rev up those with the same views and turn off those with different perspectives.
No common ground is found. No reasonable action is taken. It’s all about tomorrow land.
On the other hand, when we hear calls for “micro-justice,” we seldom see that they receive the kind of unifying attention needed to actually get something done.
We all want a just future. We probably get to that future quicker with practical, limited initiatives.
We live with this tension between macro-visions of justice and micro-initiatives for justice.
Take the Protestant denominational heads and leaders of Christian organizations who demanded comprehensive federal immigration reform from Congress.
In part, they failed to move Congress with the broad demands because they had not done their groundwork in their local congregations—as if congressional representatives didn’t know their rhetoric failed to match the reality in churches for whom they claimed to speak.
Rather than hyped rhetoric and overstated denominational resolutions, a more productive path would have been sustained, sensible congregational education and hands-on ministries that helped the undocumented and helped congregants know more about their plight.
Frankly, we need more micro-justice initiatives for social change and less macro-justice rhetoric.
Take, for example, the Faith in Action Initiatives at Baylor-Scott & White Health that shipped thousands of gloves, masks, shields and body bags to the Liberian Ministry of Health to address the Ebola crisis.
Or take Baylor-Scott & White Health sending a trailer of supplies to the Texas border to meet the humanitarian needs of the undocumented Central American children streaming into the U.S.
Neither of these initiatives has received much attention. But they certainly met or will meet immediate needs. They will not change the whole world. They will help some in the world.
Before dismissing the call for right-sizing our commitment to doing justice, remember what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote for another to say in his eulogy.
“Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important now,” he wrote, citing Matthew 25 about feeding the hungry and visiting those in prison.
“And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity,” wrote King, asking to be remembered as a drum major of justice, peace and righteousness.
Then, he concluded, “That is all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a well song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”
King was citing at that point the gospel hymn, “If I Can Help Somebody,” which, according to Professor James Abbington, was a song that King loved.
Given that word and King’s own words, one sees the enormous value he placed in micro-justice initiatives.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.