Thursday, October 24, 2013

First we form habits, and then they form us.

Recently I've been thinking a lot about how we respond to injustice. I'm not thinking only about giant systematic injustice; you know, those things that feel impossible. I am also considering the things that are unjust on a smaller scale too, the things we see in our everyday lives. 

I'm thinking about it in broad terms and I'm thinking about it in very specific terms. I'm thinking about it in terms of my own responsibility. 

I've been noticing that sometimes when you take a stand against unethical or immoral behavior, it is fairly common to have a handful of Christians telling you that you are wrong to talk about it. You should have stayed quiet, why didn't you follow Matthew 18 and lots of other things along those lines. (Typically private confrontation was tried and failed, but those that hate public discord or confrontation cannot necessarily be bothered with those facts.) 

More than two decades ago the church I grew up in went through a giant scandal when I was a teenager. Multiple victims surfaced to say that they had been sexually abused by the 20-year pastor of our congregation. It was a horrible shock and not surprisingly it destroyed many relationships when the news broke. Some people tried to find ways to try to keep it quiet and in so doing they said to the victims, "Our church reputation matters more to us than you." Other people worked very hard to get to the truth, to expose everything, no matter how embarrassing and horrifying it was. (the second group - those are my people)

In the spirit of transparency, that entire saga at my former church very much shaped me and my responses to injustice, whether the perpetrator professes to be a Christian or not. I always feel fierce anger at dishonesty and cover-ups of bad behavior and injustice.

I had planned to write a lot of my own thoughts about the topic, but I recognize that I'm angry at some specific things right now and it comes across in my communication. That to say, I should write less.  All of these thoughts led me to pose this question on Facebook last week, the responses are thought provoking and interesting.

"Agree or disagree? "Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose the ability to defend ourselves and those we love." Do you think there is truth to this?" 
  • Some of the REPLIES - Names removed from each reply...
  • Mm. I agree with the first part, but I'm not sure if we LOSE the ability to defend ourselves. I feel like anyone, even someone who is completely passive, can come back from it and fight injustices in the world. We might completely lose the desire to fight injustice though.
  • I'm not sure the context around the quote. Is it meant to imply that we must always resist or oppose or fight back? Is that what 'action' we are supposed to take? If so, I would disagree due to my scriptural views.

    Jesus said we should respond by turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies, etc. So to me when people act unjustly towards me, what might appear as "inaction" is really an appeal to God's sovereignty and handing things over to Him. Not responding is a way of giving room to allow God to respond. 

    That quote is awful absolute, and seems to be situated firmly on one end of the spectrum. But could inaction be a way of training ourselves to submit to God, training ourselves to give him room to speak/act/move? Who is to say that never ever takes place? God told Moses to stand and be still, to give him a chance to fight for his people. Moses lost the ability to defend himself, but gained the ability to know God as his deliverer. 

    Either way, whether this is coming from a Christian view or not, you have to allow room for God and his action, his plan in your equation of justice.
  • I think it's harder and harder in the age if social networking and constant information because we hear about far more injustices, loss, pain, etc than we could ever affect, correct, or invest in. Or maybe this is what I tell myself to feel better?
  • Not sure what you mean by "lose the ability to defend ourselves". Do you mean we become so numb to it (injustice) that we accept it (without a fight) when acted out on us (fatalism)?
  • Tara Livesay To clarify ... I come at this from a Christian worldview but that doesn't mean that other Christians need to agree with me. I am basically wondering if continually stepping away from confronting injustice in the world (avoiding conflict for whatever reason) has caused us to be passive people? I agree Jesus says turn the other cheek but there are also places where we are commanded to fight for those that are powerless and at times that means standing up to injustice. Yes, I mean we become numb to it and that we are sort of used to shrugging at what we see as injustices and thinking "not my problem." We accept it as normal and not something we need to confront. It is a super general question, I know ... but I am happy to read many takes on this and use it as totally informal research. 
  • I do agree!
  • Confronting evil is always good.
  • Tara I agree with the general sentiment of the quote, and would readily agree that our increasing ability to detach ourselves from the realities of injustice and insulate ourselves is making us more passive people.

    I am just, in general, hesitant to get on board with any absolute stance "always", "never", "every", etc. Ecclesiastes 7:18 says, "It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes."

    I agree we need to be more assertive and less passive towards injustice. I absolutely disagree that relenting from action can only ever be detrimental to the soul. Scripture shows us examples of how inaction is sometimes beneficial, sometimes not, and how taking action is sometimes beneficial and sometimes not.
  • No. I've learned, with age i guess, that sometimes to go into Neutral, first, before i act, gives me a better perspective. a better place to decide to act from.
  • I think there is a tendency, when feeling scarcity or fear, for many people to batten down the hatches and narrow the scope of what injustice is. With nurtured empathy and great courage are people able to see and act against injustice that does not touch their own lives directly.

  • "Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby *eventually* lose the ability to defend ourselves and those we love." I agree with this statement but don't think its because people think its "not my problem"but are afraid of what to do or how to handle a situation. in the end I think fear holds us back.
  • We were talking about this the other night at small group. So much corruption going on in our small little world and how do we confront it. I think it takes a great deal of discernment and timing AND boldness when God tells us to do something. I am afraid that most of us are AFRAID of what can happen to us when we get involved. For example, there is a guy with a really shady orphanage in our hood. We want to report him and get those kids out of that situation, but doing so can bring a ton of danger to our family and ministry. How we go about it is not a joke. We need God's help. Also, here in Haiti we see so much injustice that it's overwhelming. How do we remain compassionate and tender to those who need our strength and not become numb/apathetic (like them)? I don't know if I have all the answers to this. Have you read the book "Good News about Injustice"? It really helped me work through so much of these thoughts. 
  • Yes I do think there is truth to that. It's just difficult in today's society to speak up because you almost have to be in fear of your life. Sometimes the safe thing seems to be to mind your own business....
  • I think more often than not we are called to fight evil with love which is very hard to do. Jesus often dealt with people with love and kindness and that is how he brought them to repentance. He did not judge them but taught them. Here is a list of bible verses about dealing with evil. I have seen and felt great hurts from people and have caused some unknowingly by dealing with matters the wrong way. I have learned a lot by asking God to change my heart...that change came through feeling great judgment and persecution from loved ones. I then knew what it was like to be judged. I think if we truly trust God, we have to trust what He says about how to handle these matters.
  • I just read Anne Frank's diary and it seems that she didn't ever get numb to the injustices she experienced and witnessed.
  • I would disagree with both parts. While it is easy to get jaded and not do anything the position that all injustices you see you must say something about would leave you no time to live. Id say the pick your fights model is the way to go. We are born with a sense of right and wrong even those on death row have a code they follow so IMO we never "lose" the ability it is just like a muscle we must exercise our righteous indignation once in a while to make it more effective.
  • I see the truth in that. For me, I found that I was quite complacent to justice until I was humbled and broken to find God real. Then I found that He led me to what is good and what He requires of came work for justice, to love mercy and show it, and to do it all humbly. I suppose I am no longer so complacent because I pursue justice and that builds upon each experience, but I must first acknowledge that God first gave/gives me the desire to so act ... I wasn't able to care on my own.
  • I do think that when we see an injustice and don't act... and do that over and over, we become numb to it's effects.
  • I'd agree if we understand that sometimes (often) prayer is the form that action takes. When we cannot or should not act otherwise, we are still called to act on behalf of the oppressed in this way...
  • Agree. It's like the numbing effect.
  • ...I agree with the poster above that in maturity I've learned to pause and think before I act. Sometimes I am tired or grumpy and how I might choose to handle something if I act immediately isn't the way God wants me to act.. Often what I perceive as injustice may have more sides to the story too.  I'm thankful God has taught me to be more discerning and to pray and think before I cause trouble I regret.
  • I find myself getting defensive reading this quote, which I know means is my own problem not the quote. I think it's true to a point but the number of injustices seen that I can't act on makes me queasy and want to give up. Sometimes my motto towards injustice just has to be Ti kal pa ti kal so that I'll keep moving forward.
  • If it leads to overall apathy and consumerism, yes! If it leads to action, having first things first (ie. taking care of your own locus of control first, your own primary relationships,etc...) then I would trust it. I know Martin Luther King Jr was SUCH an extraordinary leader to the detriment of his family. Could he have not done both?
    October 15 at 12:10pm via mobile · Like
  • Totally agree. Each time we do not speak out or act, it becomes easier to accept injustice and look away. Ultimately I think if this is the approach you take you become numb or accepting to these things (although I also think that it may be possible that if you have a certain kind of personality, it may lead to great guilt, unhappiness and depression for not living your life according to your moral "code". Interestingly, this happened to my 11 year old son last year in school. He is an old soul with a huge love for people and great empathy. He also has a very clear sense of right and wrong and stands up even when it isn't easy. He was put in a horrible situation last year by an incompetent teacher. He spoke up about something that was very wrong in his classroom and was told by a counselor that he should just be quiet and ignore the wrongdoing. He couldn't do it- although it would have been an easier and less painful path. He actually started having tension headaches and horrible stomach aches and was in tears at night, talking about the fact that he was ashamed and HAD to speak out, that those are the people who change the world with their courage, and that he had to do the right thing rather than the easy thing (and what the teacher was telling him to do) Sorry, maybe this gave two different answers to your question....
  • Here's the part that I struggle with: isn't NOT acting sometimes better than acting in an ineffective, possibly hurtful way? I no longer believe the idea of "it's better than nothing." Sometimes doing nothing is better. For instance, handing cash to a kid on the streets of PAP because I'm frustrated at the injustice of his situation may actually cause MORE injustice for him. I don't think by doing nothing in that situation, I'm causing myself to become more numb to the injustices in the world. And I believe that there is just SO MUCH injustice in this world that we cannot humanly act every time we witness injustice. Do I believe that we can get in a habit of passivity? Yes. But I do not necessarily believe that every failure to act leads us to numbness.
  • Disagree. I think of all the injustices around. I can't act on them all. In this day and age one needs to be a bit numb to it lest you become overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Does it hurt my character? Doubtful. Does it make me less willing to fight for my own? Absolutely not. If anything it makes me more reactive. You really have to understand the situation before you can respond properly. The quote feels more like a guilt trip than anything else.
  • I think there are billions of battles out there--battles of injustice worth fighting for...and our work is the work of discerning which ones are ours to fight and then what that fight ultimately looks like: waiting and prayer can be effective ways to fight. But I think each one needs to be discerned individually so there can't be a blanket "rule". This kind of discernment takes much more willingness to listen and trust God than most of us make time for....
  • Just because you don't act on an injustice does not mean that you are insensitive to it or don't care about it. I agree with Sarah that we have to pick our battles as the Holy Spirit leads us. There were many injustices in Jesus day that he did not try to right because this was not His mission.
  • I am a firm believer in living what you believe. I find that I'm called to live my politics and religion, not talk about it. There are many who think liking a status or picture is activism. I don't feel it's nearly enough for me. I think acting or donating money or time should be something you pray about, be called to do and understand the ripple effects of your actions. Are you donating something and putting someone out of work, etc? I think many things are not what they seem at a hurried rushed face value (like when people quickly donated to Red Cross in disasters w/o holding them accountable comes to mind). Injustice can be seen in the same light. Many can jump on a band wagon w/o doing their own research or from many angles. Maybe it's not injustice or wrong. You need to better understand the situation before you pull out your gun and shoot.
  • YESSSSSS!!!! When we fail to act, we betray ourselves/our own conscience. This is the premise for one of my favorite books, "Leadership & Self-Deception." SOOOOO GOOD!!!

  • If everyone fights for justice where God has placed us, we don't need to worry about going somewhere else to fight for it. God has His people everywhere.
  • For what it's worth, a missionary to south Africa said, "a need doesn't constitute a call" and it impacted me. seems you have a lot of input here, so i'll leave it at that.
  • Integrity is built and maintained daily
  • True forever

Privately, I got a response from our friend Josh, a Pastor we know in Texas. I am quoting a few portions of his response below. (I took some portions out, which makes it jump around a bit.)
"One of my overused mantras is that without transformation there is not salvation. CS Lewis offers a beautiful image of eschatological judgment in book 7 of the Narnia series. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially says that everyone came before Aslan, there was no choice about that. And they were all filled with fear. Either that fear turned to adoration and they went to his (Aslan’s) right or that fear turned to hatred and they went to his left. What I really like about this allusion to Matthew 25, is Lewis’s theological suggestion. In the scene it strikes me that individuals are judged not based on what they believe or say, but on who they are. And who they are is who they have become through a million choices made over the course of their life. A more explicit way to make this point is in when in the Great Divorce, Lewis says in the end there will be two kinds of people. Those who say to God "Thy will be done", and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."
"Those million choices we make that form our character range from how I love my wife and children to what I choose to think about someone when I’m angry at them to how much and what kind of food I consume. Repetition of these choices carve out a disposition within me that eventually defines me."  
"All choices are important but we’d be silly if we didn’t acknowledge that large motif in the biblical narrative especially the new testament is God’s concern for the marginalized."
"At our church we have been taking that slow journey with Luke from Galilee to Jerusalem. The church has historically assigned one of the four images in revelation and Ezekiel to the each of the gospels. Luke is given the image of the ox, both for his pace and because Jesus seems to have this yoke around his neck carrying the concerns of the poor. Or as missiologist David Bosch says, “Luke is a gospel for the poor and the rich."
"... That parable of the rich man and Lazarus was a common type of parable in Jesus’ day. In most versions of this parable where there’s a great reversal of the poor and the rich, the rich person in hell is permitted to go back and warn his friends and family. But in Jesus’ surprise ending the rich man isn’t. Here’s what Jesus says in v 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
"In no small stroke of irony Jesus would in fact come back from the dead. Here’s my take, the one miracle even the God of resurrection can’t do, is to overcome the apathetic heart. I think this is probably a good reading of blaspheme of the holy spirit."
"So … to your question, yes the continued decisions of apathetic response is not only dangerous, but potentially damning...In short our choices are exercises in practicing eternity."

In hindsight I did not word my question well and I should have more carefully thought about it but the responses were interesting and challenging in spite of the sloppy question. 

I am stuck on the idea that our responses become our habit and that sometimes our habits make us passive and even apathetic toward injustice. Apathy is problematic and is a difficult thing to change and overcome. I know that many would disagree with me on that, but that is where I landed.

First we form habits, and then they form us.