Just Placemaking

Thursday, October 26, 2023

From Michael Anthony Howard, Minister of Faith in Action,
Living Water Association, Ohio North East, UCC

Tags: Streams of Connection | From Our Association Ministers | Faith in Action

As the Minister of Faith in Action, I am deeply concerned with how our understanding of the gospel shapes the dreams we have for the places we inhabit. This has everything to do with our understanding of justice. So while justice is concerned with all areas of life, it raises questions it cannot answer when it is separated from the lived reality of the people and places we are called to love.

The term is desecrated in public life through selective branding, “just cause” marketing, and one-sided political agendas. Today, justice is a branding ploy. Whereas Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of whitewashing (Matthew 23:27-28), we now have green-washing, pink-washing, and rainbow-washing. We see the results in political manipulation, partisan division, clickbait culture, and the erosion of trust in our public institutions. We add qualifiers to the term so we can distinguish one understanding from another. Retributive justice seeks retribution. Restorative justice seeks to repair. Distributive justice aims to reallocate resources. We use the term social justice to collectively name all areas of society-economic justice, political justice, cultural justice, environmental justice, gender justice, etc.-with a strong emphasis on addressing systemic inequity.

Justice has always been a slippery idea, a timeless debate. Philosophers, theologians, and spiritual leaders have spoken about it at length since the beginning of time. The cornerstone of Western philosophy, Plato’s Republic, was primarily aimed at answering the “what is justice” question. In our sacred texts, justice is about our relationship with God, each other, and Creation: “Let justice roll on like a river” (Amos 5:4); “Learn to do right. Seek justice and defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17); “Act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). A faithful response to the question, “What is justice?” might simply be, “What does justice look like here, in the places God has called us to live, work, and worship?”

In 1985, the United Church of Christ became the first denomination to declare itself a Just Peace Church. This made a significant impact on our faith communities’ understanding of the role of Church in public life, calling us to address systemic injustice using non-violence and Just Peace practices. We collectively covenanted together under the belief that God’s peace is a gift promised for all; War can be eliminated; and real peace is possible. By using the term justice as a modifier for peace, we placed our understanding of justice in the context of our call to be peacemakers. We adopted the term peacemaker as an alternative to pacifist when we covenanted together to be a Peace Church in 1981.

The Just Peace Pronouncement was a way for us to live into our calling without ignoring the work of justice. Together, we had come to understand, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, that true peace is not merely the absence of conflict but the presence of justice. The invitation for congregations to adopt their own Just Peace covenants is one of eight Just World Covenants. The others include: Accessible to All (A2A)Creation Justice; Economic Justice; Global Mission; Immigrant Welcoming; Open and Affirming; and WISE. Each of these, and more, are expressions of our living into the covenant we have made with each other, with Creation, and with God.

In our varied use of the term, it is easy to forget that justice is more than a slogan, a pronouncement, or an idea. The work of justice has always been in the context of our lived reality, in the flesh-and-blood struggle against the injustice experienced in the world around us. Justice is a word that needs flesh on it in order for it to matter. God’s dream for a just world always takes the face of our neighbors in the context of our common places. If our collective covenant is to participate in the creation of a just world, then we are also called to just placemaking – to living into God’s Dream in the places we inhabit.