Linking Faith and Justice: Working with Systems and Structures as a Spiritual Discipline


Faith and Justice

by Elizabeth Liebert, SNJM

Elizabeth Liebert, SNJM, is Professor of Spiritual Life and Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is also on the Christian Spirituality Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union.

Reprinted from Christian Spirituality Bulletin: Journal of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1997, 19-21.

On October 8, 1996, in Stewart Chapel of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), Carol Robb and Elizabeth Liebert were formally installed as Professor of Christian Social Ethics and Professor of Spiritual Life respectively. At SFTS, such an event occurs within a formal worship service, and the installation address takes the position ordinarily filled by the sermon. For this occasion, the worship space had been transformed: the pulpit was swathed with a hand embroidered quilt, the cross was draped with another quilt, its small, variegated patches looking remarkably like a stole, and the sanctuary space was adorned with still other patchwork quilts, also handmade. Green plants, ferns and citrus trees, softened the edges of the concrete chancel steps. Two rocking chairs of venerable age took the place of the usual chancel furniture. The traditional academic procession, with all the pomp and color of full academic regalia, began the event.

In my remarks today, I want to address an issue that I believe is of great importance to this institution as well as to the wider church and world‑the question of whether we can conceive of and create a spirituality for the public sphere, a spirituality of institutional and structural change. In addressing this question, I would like to put forward a modest proposal for beginning to work with systems and structures as a spiritual discipline. But first, to set the context for this proposal, some personal comments and reflections are in order.

It is hard to believe that I have been at San Francisco Theological Seminary for nine years. Eleven colleagues have joined the faculty since then, and every year a new group of students arrives with questions, struggles, and triumphs. Your questions, and those of the church which sent you here, drive our questions. And, thanks in large part to my colleagues in the Program in Christian Spirituality, there has been remarkable growth in the Program in those same years. When I arrived, courses, conferences, spiritual direction, and the annual "Companions on the Inner Way" were all in place through the work of Professor Roy Fairchild (Emeritus Professor‑ of Spiritual Life and Psychology)--really a remarkable undertaking when you stop to think about it: a spirituality program at a Presbyterian seminary!

But in 1987, the internal structure of the Program was relatively modest. It consisted of a mailing list of about 900 persons who had attended one or other conference in the preceding five years, a six‑to‑ten hour a week student assistant who worked on conferences, and my own labor. There was no budget, no spiritual direction at the Lloyd Center for Pastoral Counseling Services, no spirituality concentration within the Master of Divinity curriculum, and no graduate Certificates in Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation. So, to all of you, students, staff, administration, and faculty, my heartfelt gratitude for your colleagueship, support, and challenge, and for making these nine years so rewarding.

Since women's spaces have been the occasion of countless stories, I would like to tell one too. At one point during my on‑campus interview ten years ago, I was seated at the head of the massive table in the Montgomery Hall Board Room while the faculty asked me what­ever questions they wished. In due course, Marvin Chaney (Nathaniel Gray Professor of Hebrew Exegesis and Old Testament) posed this situation: "I have observed that when there is a spirituality program going on here, the participants arrive in BMW's, Volvo's and Saab's. When there is a conference on justice and peacemaking, the participants arrive in beat‑up Volkswagens. Would you care to comment?" My reply went something like this: "The connection between spirituality and justice is clear and intrinsic. If persons (of either group) do not live out this connection, then their spirituality is not as mature as it needs to become. You cannot divorce spirituality and justice."

Acting in the public sphere in ways prompted by one's Christian values is, I believe, a central aspect of Reformed spirituality; indeed it is one of its gifts to the wider church. But what may seem new to many modern North American Reformed persons are the intrinsic connection between action on behalf of justice and spirituality. A student, no newcomer to Presbyterian faith and life, said recently: "We Presbyterians know all about social justice concerns. We are professionals when it comes to organizing and acting. What we don't know how to do is pray. I didn't come here to do more organizing and acting. I came here to learn how to pray."

The World Council of Churches Consultation on Ecclesiology and Ethics, in a document authored by our colleague Lewis Mudge (Robert Leighton Stuart Professor of Systematic Theology), puts the problem this way:

“We have not made clear at the level of congregational life what a moral strategy for life in the household of God would look like. Many persons of faith simply do not recognize the sort of moral engagement we have in mind as a vocation for them­selves. Conversely, many of the most effective Christians in the world's struggles have difficulty relating their moral and politi­cal convictions to the faith they are being taught in Church.”1

Simply put, spirituality and justice may not be separated. But how do we begin to make this link at the level of individual faithful folk?

Part of the difficulty lies in the languages of public life and of spirituality. They seem to denote mutually exclusive concepts, ideas, and actions. Expressing one‑-either one-‑too often feels like negating the other. Unfortunately, the traditional language of spirituality does not any longer help make the connection between spirituality and service, between contemplation and action, between prayer and justice. The language of spirituality is largely "heart" language, personal language, connoting intimate relationship. And in our culture, intimate language is private language. The language of institutions, on the other hand, is structural language, which is public and frequently political. Public language is not perceived to be spiritual in our culture. Thus, public actions can so easily seem unspiritual. Or, a corollary: spirituality is (and, many would add, should remain) private.

But if contemporary North‑American‑Christians cannot re‑connect contemplation and action, prayer and justice‑making, spirituality and service, we will squander, I fear, a kairos moment for the church. The great French Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar, among others, has pointed out the inadequacy of changing personal attitudes without touching the underlying structures, which maintain the status quo. He reminds us that personal holiness is not sufficient of itself to bring about a change, and that great holiness has existed in the very midst of situations that cried out for change.2

But simply asserting that spirituality and the struggle for justice are as intrin­sically related as breathing in and breathing out does not, by itself, forge that connection experientially and unassailably within contemporary Christians. Nor does repeating the truisms that "contemplatives take the easy road because they don't get their hands dirty," and "social activists burn out because they have neglected contemplation." We need not only perspectives but also processes in which prayer and action so bleed into each other that their separation becomes unthinkable.

It is this connection that we have been working on in the Program in Christian Spirituality. Our collective impetus for this work came to us through the mediation of John Mostyn, a 1996 graduate of the Advanced Pastoral Studies program. In 1992‑93, Jack was a colleague at Mercy Center in Burlingame. In that role, the Program in Christian Spirituality staff asked Jack to work with us as we planned the Graduate Certificate in the Art of Spiritual Direction. That year was an odyssey of experiencing the action of God in the systems and structures of the seminary, the church, our staff, the curriculum, budget, publicity, advertising, and record‑keeping­--all the nitty‑gritty of life and planning in an institution of higher education. If we could experience this work as spiritual, then why could not folks in the local church experience their social justice ministries as spiritual, why not policy makers their public policy work, why not professionals their work on behalf of their clients? Could we begin to develop a vision for and a language of the spirituality of systems and structures?

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The heart of our experience-‑and I cannot stress enough that it must be experienced first hand‑-is what is known variously as the Pastoral Circle, the Experience cycle, the see‑judge‑act method which found such fertile ground in the Latin American liberation theologies. It has four "moments," which, for the sake of clarity, I shall describe as discrete steps: insertion, social analysis, theo­logical reflection, and pastoral action.

Insertion: in this "moment" we locate our search for the hand of God, for God's address to us in a concrete situation, in the lived experience of real persons, ourselves and others. We notice, we describe, and we get the feel of the situation in the concrete. What is it like for us? And what is it like for the person at the bottom of the power heap? Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting our experience is "a long loving look at the real."3 Believe me, this kind of presence to experience is not simple; it is a discipline of continually opening ourselves to the re­ality of our lives, and it is ultimately God's gift to us, not our own creation. Ironically, part of the discipline is in refraining from too quickly announcing what God is up to in the situation‑-that is, holding the theological reflection for a later moment. Perhaps God wishes to do a new thing!

Social Analysis: What meaning do we find in our deeply apprehended experience? This question leads us to the second "moment," involving the transition from the anecdotal to the analytical.4 Here we employ social analysis to probe the interrelationships of the per­sons and dynamics that together com­prise this experience, noting causes, consequences, linkages, and roles. Social analysis helps us put a larger frame around our first‑level experience. It demands hard, clear analytical thinking, and sometimes does not come at all easily, as the students in the spirituality concentration can attest. But it does help us to uncover the structures that maintain the status quo.

Theological Reflection: The third "moment," theological reflection, is an effort to understand the deeply analyzed experience from the perspective of faith. It brings to bear the resources of Scripture, the living testimony of the saints who have preceded us, and it takes into consideration the prophetic statements of our denominations. We are asking: What is the Word of God to us in this situation?

The language of theological reflection suggests that the primary operation is, once again, thinking: find the Scriptural address to this situation, tease out the underlying theological issue, bring to bear the best thinking of the church. The trouble is, as sophisticated as that thinking may be-‑and I hope it is-‑it can be done without ever moving us interiorly. It can be done without any conversion of heart. We can do our theological reflection all the while keeping ourselves at an intellectual distance.

The key here may have to do once again with language, since different lan­guages suggest different experiences. If we pray the moment of theological reflection, the outcome may be far more radical than if we simply think or discuss it. I had this distinction graphically demonstrated in a seminar on discernment three or so years ago. Among the many historical and contemporary models of discernment which were presented, I offered the pastoral circle as a method for discerning structures. I noted that I had shifted the language in the moment of theological reflection, including language of discernment, and speaking of seeking God's call. To the process of intellectual dialogue, I added prayer and communal faith sharing, creating a qualitatively different experience than that evoked by traditional theological reflection. At that point a Jesuit in the class literally burst out: "Oh! I get it! We Jesuits have been using this method the last 20 years until we are sick of it and nothing has changed any more than with any other method. But you are asking us to open ourselves at a far different level than simply analyzing. That revolutionizes the process!" As Holland and Henriot put it: "Celebration and prayer make the pastoral circle genuinely human and spirit‑-filled and give the struggle for linking faith and justice new meaning, new life."5

Pastoral Action: The final "moment" of the process is called, in the method's shorthand, pastoral action. Here is the point of decision and the initiation of focused action: In light of the situation and God's address to us, what should our response be? How do we begin? How do we sustain our action? When we respond out of our discernment, we reach a genuinely new situation, and the process begins again.

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This, in brief, is the heart of one method for experiencing the intrinsic "coinherence" between spirituality and justice. It is deceptive in its simplicity. But to put it into operation as a group demands vulnerability, trust, and openness to one another and to God. It requires a willingness to subordinate one's own preferences to the call of God for the group and a willingness to take the process in faith that God will address the group through its communal seeking. It is risky business. But its outcome is a sense of God working within and calling us to action in systems and structures. It gives us, therefore, a way to develop a vision for the action of God in structures. It gives us a way to begin to develop shared language around spirituality. It gives us a new way of seeing the Spirit of God at work in systems and structures. It gives us a way to rejoin private and public spirituality.

A group which uses such a method regularly finds itself being drawn together as a faith community on a qualitatively new level. The hierarchies between group members begin to col­lapse, because all must stand together searching for the call of God. Shyness at using religious or spiritual language dissipates as the group builds a common language of the group's discernment. The group is gradually melded into a spiritual community which is also a work community.

The Lectionary readings for today pointed us toward Hosea. In our passage, Hos. 5:13‑6:3, Israel is being threatened on all sides. They turn to their biggest and most powerful neighbor, Assyria, for protection, but in vain. It is Yahweh who pursues relentlessly, like a lion until Israel begins to realize what is happening: "Let us return to Yahweh ...(6:1) "The social situation in this passage concerns kings and armies, the quintessential systems of political might and military machine. And Yahweh harasses the structures of Yahweh's own people until they begin to realize that if they press on to know the Lord, the Lord will appear like the spring rains that water the earth. As water softens the earth, so Yahweh can soften what appear to be impenetrable structures.

If we can learn how to see systems and structures in this organic (i.e. "spiritual") way, then they too become theaters for our collaboration with God's work in the world. The good news is that there is no venue where that cannot happen. Let us press on to know the Lord, who will come to us like spring rains watering the earth.

1 World Council of Churches, "Costly Obedience: Toward an Ecumenical Communion of Moral Witnessing,"(Geneva): forthcoming.

2 Y. Congar, Vraie at fausse reforme dans 1’ église, (Paris: Cerf, 1950); cited in John R. Quinn, "The Claims of the Primacy and the Costly Call to Unity" lecture on the occasion of the centennial of Campion Hall, Oxford, June 29, 1996, p. 6, typescript.

3 This phrase comes from Walter Burghardt, "Contemplation: A Long, Loving Look at the Real," Church (Winter 1989).

4 Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice, Revised edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 10.

5 Holland and Henriot, Social Analysis, x.

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