“Can waiting itself be an act?”
This provocative question, posed by Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson in their new book, The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance, should give us pause. It might seem strange to pair the term “waiting” with “justice.” By its very nature, justice demands a complete putting to rights. It seems to be a very active idea, and social justice movements inside and outside the church have shown us again and again how much there is to do. We need to stay busy, busy, busy.
Waiting, however, generally brings to mind utter motionlessness— stopped in mind-numbing traffic, sitting in the dentist office’s pleather chair, or, more currently, searching for something— anything—on our phones. While waiting as an act might seem like an existential paradox, I think we need to hold these ideas together and see where they lead.
What would it look like if those of us who care passionately about justice work had a biblical narrative of active and hopeful waiting to sustain us? And, for those of us who haven’t quite jumped on the social justice bandwagon, what if we had a fresh view of Scripture to help us see that, as former Comment Editor Gideon Strauss has said, “justice is not optional”?
That is what Hoang and Johnson offer us in their book. “Our intent is that this book would provide a Genesis to Revelation biblical theology of justice,” they explain, “above all by drawing you nearer to our God who loves justice and is himself the embodiment of justice.”
Taking us carefully through six movements found in the Bible—creation, the fall, Israel, Jesus, the church, and all things being made new—Hoang and Johnson show how the call to justice is rooted in a God whose mysterious essence contains the holiness, hesed (faithful and active loving-kindness), justice, righteousness, and shalom (flourishing wholeness) that Christians are asked to emulate.
What I appreciate about this book is their expansive unpacking of the daily habits that shape us in light of the biblical story. Many of us these days have formed a conscience around where we shop, how we invest our money, how we care for the earth, or what neighbourhood we choose to live in. But we don’t always integrate these considerations with spiritual disciplines like Sabbath-keeping, the Eucharist, gratitude, and lament found in the Bible. Or, if we practice these spiritual disciplines, some of us haven’t seen them connected to the contemporary work of social justice. Hoang and Johnson help us see how the holistic call to justice makes sense as we reject the material/ spiritual dualism that continues to creep into the church today. Quoting James K.A. Smith, Hoang and Johnson point out, “The things we undertake in the rest of our lives need to be ‘tethered to and nourished by the practices of Christian worship.'”
Moreover, all of these habits—Sabbathkeeping, the Eucharist, gratitude, lament— have waiting woven into their DNA. Perhaps this is part of the answer to their question, “Can waiting itself be an act?”
The Beauty Of Shalom
There is something in beauty, something in the work of art in the world, that connects with waiting. It seems frivolous in the face of injustice, a “royal waste of time” as Marva Dawn puts it in her book A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. There was a time when I considered my own love for drawing and painting in this suspicious way. Experiencing the injustices of race and poverty in inner-city Boston and Kenya during my early years, I cultivated a passion for social justice work while pushing aside art-making. What could art do to help put things to right?
But then, I began attending a graduate school that helped me expand my limited vision, and I allowed myself to return to art and beauty. There I cultivated the Christian imagination alongside building Christian communities, painting the landscape alongside urban anthropology and missions. And just as Hoang and Johnson help us connect the dots between thoughtful action and hopeful waiting, I was introduced to others who were connecting the seemingly disparate worlds of justice and beauty.
In his poetically written treatise Until Justice and Peace Embrace, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff explains to us that beauty is not optional in working out shalom. “Beauty is a moral right,” he claims, and “no one should live in aesthetic squalor . . . that would be an injustice.” He continues: “A community of shalom, for one thing, is a responsible community: where shalom exists, there we enact our responsibilities to one another, to God, and to nature. But shalom is more than that. It is fully present only where there is delight and joy in those relationships.” Delight, you might say, is active participation in beauty.
Dorothy Day, the untiring and inspiring social justice worker, is a beautiful example of this delight. Day’s biographer Robert Ellsberg captures this in an introduction to By Little and By Little, her selected writings.
She knew what needed to be taken seriously. But she was never too serious to forget what Ruskin called “the duty of delight.” In the face of desperate suffering in the world, she felt we had a special obligation to attend to life’s joys and beauties. “We would be contributing to the misery of the world if we failed to rejoice in the sun, the moon, and the stars, in the rivers which surround this island on which we live, in the cool breezes of the bay.” Frequently, in her column, she cited Dostoevsky’s words: “The world will be saved by beauty.”
Ellsberg goes on to recount a story of Day giving a diamond ring that had been donated to the Catholic Worker to a poor, lonely old woman. When someone argued that the ring could have paid for her rent for a year, she responded that the woman had her dignity and could use it for rent or for a trip to the Bahamas! “Do you suppose God created diamonds only for the rich?”
Learning To Wait
And so, ever since I took up my pencils and paintbrushes during graduate school, I have been giving myself over to this extravagant habit, one that has the unusual result of creating a daily contemplative space for some of those habits of waiting Hoang and Johnson mention—lament, gratitude, worship, Sabbath-keeping—alongside cultivating an imagination to picture what justice might look like here and now. I’ve found that this “duty of delight” is more than just an obligation: it’s vital. Without beauty, and the imagination that helps us access it, we would not only burn out in our work for justice, we might well lose the vision for what it is we’re working towards.
This experience isn’t limited to my solitary studio practice. In our own city of Charlottesville, Virginia, I’m seeing this duty of delight happening right now in an exciting new partnership between New City Arts and the Haven, a day shelter for those struggling with homelessness. Through a large grant, these organizations have just hired a creative coordinator, who is working with recently housed people as they set out to design and decorate the space of their homes—to accompany and support them as they consider what furniture to buy, what artwork to hang on the walls, how to furnish a sense of place all their own. While more pragmatic minds might see this as frivolous, a waste of time and money, those who are spearheading this effort see that redignifying individuals is perhaps one of the first ways to help them flourish and become more fully human. Contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura speaks to the “rehumanizing” power of the arts; I would consider this a perfect example.
And there are many more examples I’ve been privileged to learn from: Buildabridge out of Philadelphia, JustPotters in Vancouver, British Columbia, RawArts in Lynn, Massachusetts, Christians in the Visual Arts, International Arts Movement, Art House America, International Justice Mission’s Art Music Justice tour, ArtPlace, Artspace, not to mention the proliferation of undergraduate art and MFA programs incorporating community engagement. People are starting to see that the generous gift of beauty coming from the ashes (Isa. 61:3), as Hoang and Johnson mention through their stories of redemption, is always available.
Hoang and Johnson have given us a gift in The Justice Calling. In a world with so many distracting voices, they’ve helped clarify the biblical account of God’s desire for this world to be set to rights, and have invited us to practice renewal in a thousand small, daily ways. Perhaps our biggest failure is not our lack of effort to engage this practice, but our lack of imagination. What were the prophets and people like Martin Luther King Jr. doing when they invoked their visions and dreams for a better world? They were tapping into the beautiful, using the engines of their imaginations to move beyond the strictly rational and seemingly practical.
The beautiful call to justice is waiting for us to answer. And within that response we wait: actively with hope and imaginatively with patient anticipation for the new heavens and the new earth.