Letting Justice Roll in Today’s Church and Society

Micah encouraged the church to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Criminal justice, environmental justice, economic justice, and restorative justice are only a few areas of concern to today’s church. This article summarizes the church’s position in these areas. It further describes the efforts of the United Church of Christ and other groups to launch conversations about major concerns, monitor policy development, and provide information to support the cause of justice.

Criminal Justice

Criminal justice has been scrutinized since Michelle Alexander published her groundbreaking study, The New Jim Crow. In her eye-opening account, she says, “Only after years of working on criminal justice reform did our focus finally shift, and then the rigid caste system slowly came into view. Eventually, it became obvious. Now it seems odd that I could not see it before” (Alexander, 2020, p. 15). Her book launched a critical conversation about “the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States” (p. 19). The public dialogue continues about the need to reform harsh federal sentencing laws and the subsequent growth of the federal prison population. According to Barbara Baylor from the United Church of Christ, Many liberal-leaning churches and organizations have declared that America’s justice system does not function well. Not only that but also criminal justice reform has become a bipartisan issue. The United Church of Christ continues its prophetic witness against criminal injustice throughout its history.

Criminal injustice is especially harmful to youths. The UCC reports that about 70,000 children and youth are in juvenile residential detention on any given day in the U.S., and an additional 10,000 spend their incarceration in adult jails and prisons” (UCC, n.d., Justice and Local Church). The Justice and Local Church Ministries of the UCC are concerned that too many children are moving directly from public schools into juvenile detention. The pattern is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The contributing factors include low reading skills in middle school, dropping out as the low readers enter high school, zero tolerance discipline policies, and other variables. Combatting criminal injustice among youths involves addressing a complex of issues.

Environmental Justice

Environmental justice confronts discriminatory policies that intentionally and disproportionately burden low-income and communities of color with environmental hazards (Yale, 2020). Activism in this area includes growing community gardens, pushing for policy change, and standing up for clean water, food, and clean air. One advocate for environmental justice is Green America, which promotes efforts “to decrease global warming and its effects on human health” (Green America, 2021).

Mirzai and Crittendon (2021) have compiled a listing of “5 Ways to Engage in Environmental Justice.” Their suggestions include educating yourself, supporting good policies, voting, resisting the status quo, and charging your money and time where your heart is. Other justice efforts involve promoting access to fresh food, health, and well-being, using renewable energy, and creating lower-cost that feature clean air, energy efficiency, and “climate resilience” (Green America, 2021).

The United Church of Christ also fights against environmental justice. Their advocacy entails an “issue-based” action strategy for confronting critical issues. For example, their actions have focused on protesting the establishment of a toxic waste dump in a predominantly Black community in North Carolina. In addition, they stand behind various grassroots groups in North Carolina, Vieques, Puerto Rico, and along the Mexico-US border (UCC, n.d., Environmental justice).

Poverty and Economic Justice

One organization aggressively addressing poverty and economic injustice is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, founded in 1968. The organization works aggressively to “shift the moral narrative, impact policies and elections at every level of government, and build lasting power for poor and impacted people” (Poor People’s Campaign, n.d.). Their website describes a mission of confronting  “the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism” (Poor People’s Campaign).

The United Church of Christ is another organization concerned with child poverty and inequality. Their website notes that because children cannot support themselves, they must count on their families, communities, state, and nation to ensure their well-being. Taxes provide a way to ensure “quality education, safe and vibrant communities, healthy families, and broadly-shared prosperity, especially when families are unable to provide economic security for children” (UCC, Child Poverty, n.d.). However, the tax burden is heavy for states and localities that balance their finances by slashing programs, including many that provide essential services for children and youths. They encourage the public to remain watchful to ensure that federal and state government policies do not balance the budget by eliminating or reducing services.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice comes in many forms. It is not a program but a process that attempts to address the impact of crime and the trauma it creates. The process prioritizes the victim’s need for someone to hear them. It also pays attention to immediate and tangible needs, such as physical safety, medical treatment, and emotional support. This kind of justice can only flourish in an environment where people value interconnectedness and their worth. The work aims to lay the foundation for an integrated, peaceful, healthy community through active caring that “leaves no one behind.” Restorative justice entails “restoring equitable human relations within communities through efforts for mediation and accompaniment” (Jacques, 2000, 44).

Restorative justice significantly changes the way we view and deal with crime. For incarcerated individuals, the goal is to return them to a productive life in the community. It leads us away from punishment for broken laws and directs us towards repairing the harm done to the victim of crime. With the support of the community, restorative justice encourages the offending party to make amends to the one harmed. It restores the community to its essential role as a participant in resolving crime issues. Thus, all parties, including the offender, have an opportunity to address the broken relationships and the hostility resulting from the criminal act. In Biblical terms, it is the working out of God’s justice in our lives, a solution that includes building shalom, the right relationships between individuals, the community, and God.

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