At my college, we have a student-led on-campus interdenominational Christian worship group that meets weekly for worship and fellowship. Each week there are speakers: students, faculty, alumni, or special guests sharing their testimonies or reflections on Scripture. On January 18, 2017, I had the privilege of being the speaker during our college’s Martin Luther King, Jr Celebration Week. I was able to harness my passion for activism and my faith journey thus far into this talk.
Tonight, I’d like to talk to you all about justice, and what justice looks like to us as Christians. It’s rather appropriate given that it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Week, which is easily probably my favorite week of the entire school year.
I’m a tour guide with the Office of Admissions, so all throughout this week I have a more tangible reason to ramble on and on about NCC’s legacy as it pertains to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. For example, did you all know that he used this very podium when he spoke at Pfeiffer Hall in November of 1960? Or that the school sent students down to Alabama for the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, the march that ultimately was the turning point in achieving the right to vote for black Americans? Or that in 2015 the school sent a group of students including myself back down to Alabama for the 50th anniversary of that march? (Most of you might know if only just because I can’t shut up about it.) I love our school for its involvement in civil rights and justice, especially during this week. You’ve got a prayer breakfast. A keynote speaker. Screenings of documentaries that shed light on the more contemporary and current issues of today.
All right. Now that that shameless plug for MLK week is over, back to my talk.
You know, when I was first approached to do this talk for Week 3 because it’s MLK week, I was immediately excited. Those of you who know me know that I’m all about that social justice life, about activism and fighting for the underdog to be heard. But I was also immediately hesitant. I knew with a topic like this, things could run a little political. And with such a contentious, divisive political climate nowadays, I feel like that’s the last thing anyone would want up here at this podium.
As I was wrestling with the idea of speaking this week and speaking on this topic for that very reason, I found myself getting frustrated. Why is it that the topic of justice has become so politicized? Why is it that different parts of our society have different ideas of what justice looks like, and why is it that those differences often fall along religious and political lines? The worst rub of it all is that we as Christians are called to justice out of love. Love for our neighbors. And yet, sometimes it feels like there is so much dispute within our own community as to what that love for our neighbors should look like. I don’t want to give examples of where those disputes fall, but I’m sure you all can think of some yourselves.
Whew. Okay. Yeah, this is a heavy and hard-hitting topic. But I think that’s all the more reason to discuss it. We as Christians are not just here for the feel-good worship moments. We are not just here for studying our Bibles within the four walls of our bedrooms or the gathering space among people we know are already Christian. No, we as Christians need to also be here for the hard conversations. Hard conversations like this one, which I so desperately wish wasn’t a hard conversation to have in the first place. And you know, by the end of this conversation tonight, I know we won’t have reached an answer. I might leave you all feeling more confused, unseated, or just in flat out disagreement with what I’ve had to say. But I think that’s the whole point. I think there’s a danger in assuming that we already have all the answers to the point where we’ll dismiss what anyone else has to say just because we disagree with it on an individual basis. And so what I’m hoping to achieve tonight is to just encourage you all to think a little more deeply as to what justice looks to you, to us, as Christians. Not have an answer. Just think. Think about what we as Christians say justice is.
Allow me to give a personal example of a hard conversation as it relates to Christianity and justice. This past summer, I was completely unseated with regards to my faith life. I am a first-generation Filipina-American, and those of you who know me know that my cultural identity is one of the most important things to me – it’s up there right along with my identities in social justice and in Christ. But allow me to give you a brief history of the Philippines, especially as it relates to Christianity. The Philippines was colonized by Spain for about three and a half centuries. Now, that I knew for as long as I can remember. It’s the reason why many Filipinos have Hispanic-sounding last names like Rodriguez or Astudillo. It’s why the Spanish and Tagalog languages have many words in common. But for some reason, until this past summer, I didn’t put two and two together what it meant in terms of religion.
The Spanish colonization of the Philippines was brutal and violent. It was a subjugation of a whole people and eradication of its culture. And why did the Spaniards say they did it? So they could evangelize. In the name of God. When I put two and two together, I was floored. I felt like the three most important things to me – my faith, my culture, and my love for social justice – were all at war with each other. My faith was my rock, but after coming to the realization I had, it’s like I turned that rock over and saw someone else’s name written on it. Would I even be Christian today if not for the history that forced Christianity onto my people? I kept asking God, “Why?” I asked my fellow Christians, “Why?”
I would often be met with the same answer: “Well, look on the bright side – at least you are Christian now! The whole point is to bring you to God!”
No, that didn’t feel good. What excuses violence? What excuses a bloody history? How do we reconcile what some might view as injustice and what some might view as justice? The words “In the name of God”? That’s where it gets tricky.
For me, it was this realization with regards to Christianity and its history “in the name of God” that got me thinking. We put those words on all that we do and call it justice because we’re Christians. We put those words on everything we do, and we call it Christianity. And sometimes I wonder if we’re a little blinded because we’ve gotten too comfortable in what we think we know. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we take our own identities as Christians for granted in that respect. I want to encourage us to do better than that, to not stay in our comfort zones. Rather than remaining stagnant and comfortable in what we think we know justice looks like, I want to encourage all of us to be more intentional, to challenge ourselves to reflect on what justice looks like to us as Christians and what we can do to carry out that justice.
Allow me to ground this a little in Scripture. You all know the parable of the Good Samaritan? Someone comes up to Jesus and asks about the whole idea of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. “But who is my neighbor?” he asks. And Jesus describes a situation in which there was a man who was attacked by robbers and left for dead. A priest walked down the road, but when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. Another man, a Levite, walked over and looked at the man, and then walked on by on the other side. But the third passerby, a Samaritan, was the one who stopped and helped the man. Now, why do I bring this up? But the Samaritan — keep in mind, Samaritans were viewed as undesirable, as less than — the Samaritan was the one to help the man. The priest and the Levite, who are supposedly the ones who are supposed to help others, were the very ones that didn’t. Think about that parable for a second. Who do you want to be in that story? The one everyone expects certain acts out of, because of what you’re called, like a priest — or a Christian? Or the one that actually does something, regardless of identity?
Obviously, the colonization of an entire country and its people is an extreme example. So might be seeing a violent act like a person robbed and left for dead. Thinking about that doesn’t have to be what reflecting on justice looks like. Justice comes in all shapes and forms. I think it goes hand in hand with the idea of service and serving others. When I was studying abroad in Glasgow, Scotland, this past fall, I joined a prayer group that met for lunch every Friday. It was called Just Love, and it was awesome. It was a massive group of college students who explored and discussed Scripture together, but didn’t leave it at that – they reached out to the homeless on the streets of Glasgow, not with the intent to evangelize and pull them to where we are as Christians – not yet – but rather to meet them where they’re at first in order to extend God’s love. They also did “prayer sub crawls,” where they got on the subway and would get off at each subway stop and pray for that area. It was refreshing to see these Christians who were so in love with Christ and with their environment carry out justice in the most loving of ways – service. Service, without expecting anything in return.
I’ll end on a few quotes. One of them is what our chaplain told me not too long ago – “Focus less on what is said is done in the name of Christ, and focus more on what is actually happening in His name.” Focus less on calling the things you do Christ-like just because you call yourself a Christian. Focus more on just doing Christ-like things.
The second quote I’ll share with you with is by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” I’d like to expand on that briefly and encourage you all to reflect not only on what we are doing for others, but why we are doing it. Is it to pull them to where we are as Christians and call it justice? Or first and foremost to meet them where they’re at, extending Christ’s love gently, radically, unconditionally?
Love. Loving our neighbors, beyond political affiliations, beyond religious views, which has become so intertwined with each other nowadays. Love, first and foremost, unconditionally, regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, you name it. It’s easy to say it, it’s another thing to do it. But love is the fundamental building block for us as Christians. I think about the history of the Filipino people and though I am so happy to have my identity in Christ today due to Christianity’s deep roots in my culture, I cannot possibly believe that the injustice that was inflicted onto my ancestors was done out of Christ’s love. I wonder what today would look like if the Spaniards evangelized with love and not violence. It’d certainly save a lot of controversy and a lot of pain. Love, on its most basic and fundamental of levels, is the most effective form of justice that we as Christians can carry out.
Would you pray with me?
Dear Heavenly Father, thank You for gathering us in this space. God, You are all powerful, all knowing, and all seeing. We know that when there’s injustice, Your heart is the first to break. Lord, I pray that You continue to break our hearts for what breaks Yours. I pray that each individual in this chapel tonight will challenge themselves to think critically and carefully about our identities in You, Christ, as Christians, and what that means as we serve in Your love, in Your name. You are marching beside us in every step of the way, and I pray that we continue to be aware of Your presence, to always search for it, in everything we do.