Grasping Justice and the Spirit


Zeek Magazine, one of the newer, hip intellectual Jewish forums (Guilt & Pleasure, Jewcy, Heeb, PresenTense, Habitus, etc.) offers a good though troubled piece, Why Social Justice Needs Religion, by Jo Ellen Green Kaiser and a provocative if unfinished rejoinder from Zeek’s editor in chief Jay Michaelson.

The topics of Green Kaiser’s piece is typical in progressive Jewish circles: direct service, spiritual transformation, and advocacy. She employs the prophet Jonah’s lesson of compassion for the sinners in Nineveh.

Only at the very end of that tale…can God begin to teach Jonah that each of us is connected not just to the earth that provides us with food and drink and shelter, but to other creatures, beasts and people, even those we revile, mock, and fear. It is this being with, this spiritual ecology, that is the essence of justice.

Update: As usual, Hannah Farber at JSpot has helpful comments on Green Kaiser’s piece, especially the tendency to regard modern Capitalism as the source of human selfishness and emphasizes Green Kaiser’s attention to congregation- based organizing.

Green Kaiser then draws a neat line between what a Jew is supposed to do when this spiritual connection motivates the imperative for justice:

No doubt because it began as a tribal religion, long before the modern market emerged, and in a context in which interrelationship was an obvious fact of life, Judaism requires of us to be both together and apart, in community and individual. Jacob gains his new name, Israel, during an individual trial, yet he only becomes the father of his people when he makes peace with his brother Esau and returns to the land of his ancestors. Moses may have a vision of God in the burning bush, but he is then required to act on behalf of all the people; he may not turn away.

This is also how Jews pursue justice. Justice does not just mean feeding the person who comes to my door—it means working to achieve an economic system in which no one will be left hungry. Justice does not mean only visiting a neighbor who is sick–it means creating a national health care plan that will ensure all the sick have proper care. Such political engagement is the most authentic expression of being with.

Without religion, or one of its contemporary replacements, social justice work can become narcissistic on the one hand, or alienating on the other. Either I’m in it to feel good (and I’ll leave when it doesn’t), or I’m in it to ignore my own needs and serve someone else’s (and I’ll leave when I burn out). Viewed from a communal, religious perspective, these categories are wrong to begin with; “I” do not exist without “you.” I am changed by you. I am in the same boat as you.

Green Kaiser notes how the “market mentality” can pervade direct service and even advocacy.  In the end, she celebrates the congregation-based organizing as a way to share stories (often “what angers or affects us”) and form “We.”  Michaelson responds that recent mobilizing issues with a human face — fires, floods, tsunamis — pale in comparison to the suffering from preventable diseases and unhealthy drinking water. The “narratives” that we need to order the world trap and limit us.

[T]his reliance on narrative misleads us today, in a world of enormous structures, hidden villains, and forces which are not conveyed adequately in tales. If we look for “the human element,” or the human connection, in our concerns about social and environmental justice, we will be looking in the wrong place. And if we really believe that our individual choices, as opposed to our collective political will, make a serious difference, we are deluding ourselves.

Michaelson’s piece at points hints at a Buddhist monism (there is no separation between self/other and creation/creator) by showing that the visible is the less real and the the real is hard to identify. But in the end Capitalism is the main culprit in these”deep structures.” This is satisfying as it stands and I hope his writing explores this more.  There are many young people who develop awareness of “deep structural violence” regarding ecology, class, globalization, and race.  Yet I’m probably not the only one who finds the “most trained” in multicultural social justice to excel at challenging organizations for their exclusions and own inherent oppression, constantly frustrated by those who don’t “get it.”  

Michaelman’s words did remind me of the greatest challenge for idealists in DC — the conflating of the surface manifestation of the problem, such as protesting against an evil person or more direct service, on the one hand, and fighting a structural cause on the other. Time and again I hear of souls split between seeing the impact of their work on a small scale and being disconnected from the face of the issue while achieving greater impact in some bureaucracy.

We need the spiritual discipline of reasonable speech to effectively see address manifestations and deep structures when most appropriate.

One Response to “Grasping Justice and the Spirit”

  1. jspot » Blog Archive » Blog Roundup: Religion and Social Justice, Religion and Voting, Religion and the Dark Side of Hannukah Says:

    […] Dinsmore has some insights about Jo Ellen Green Kaiser’s piece on religion and social […]

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