The Movement for Transformative Justice
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Romans 12:2 (RSV)
A renewed and transformed mind. The Romans 12 text is a constant reminder that we are “in the world but not of the world”. More importantly, the way we see, and view, people, families, and systems is to be through the lens of the revolutionary, life-giving Christ. God has powerful plans for workers, families, and communities currently trapped in economic bondage of low wages and inability to build wealth and access credit. The predatory capitalist system of America is showing its “face” clearly during this coronavirus pandemic. It is high time that renewed, transformed minds look to the opportunity of re-building for a just economy for all.
The bonds of low-wage poverty and work-first, family-second labor policies have drained the resources and hope from our communities for too long. Wages have not kept up with the cost of living, meaning people working low-wage jobs are forced to work more hours (or more jobs) just to keep their families fed. Work culture has swallowed family time, refusing employees even the right to care for their loved ones by refusing to offer reasonable paid leave. And with schools closed due to COVID-19 and inadequate access to affordable child care, even making it to work has become an impossible juggling task for many families.
We’ve got big problems. We need bigger dreams. This Labor Day, it’s time to move toward the hopeful future God has in store for us. That means we need to reimagine a society in which none of God’s children fall through the cracks of a broken economy. A society where there is no longer a 10 percent that owns 70 percent of the resources, while other families are forced to take on impossible debt burdens in order to provide their loved ones with higher education or life-saving medical treatment.
First, we need to ensure that everyone has access to a guaranteed, equitable, livable income. Family care is holy work – God’s work – and it must be given the respect and support it deserves. Breadwinners shouldn’t have to decide between making money and providing care to the vulnerable in their lives. Neither should folks providing for their families be exploited by unsafe working conditions or unjust pay because of their line of work, their gender or the color of their skin. In order to keep exploitation at bay and income inequality from widening even further, we must put protections into place to provide safe harbor to economically vulnerable families. Policies like raising the minimum wage and Universal Basic Income help to bridge that gap in resources, but it’s just the starting place.
As a society, we have left those we have abandoned economically to make ends meet by taking on unmanageable debt. From unexpected medical debt to unmanageable student debt to predatory payday loans, our people are drowning because they have basic needs, like health care and education for the workforce, and nowhere to turn but lenders. Part of bringing justice and hope to our society requires that we offer mercy and debt relief to those who have fallen on hard times because we provided no safety net. Most urgently, we must strive to close the racial
wealth gap, which is the product of over 400 years of stolen resources, rigged systems and unequal opportunities. Until we address our nation’s shameful history firmly and directly, with a focus on making reparations for the wrongs committed, we cannot claim a truly renewed and transformed mind. Transformation only comes after repentance, and the debt we owe to Black descendants of slaves, whose ancestors built this nation’s wealth with their unpaid sweat and labor, is one which we must repay with interest. Thus, the effects of racial injustice in America and the world are a deep and hideous blight that infect God’s church and delay God’s coming kingdom the longer they go unremedied.
As we address race-based injustices in our society, however, it is important to understand that reparatory justice is multifaceted and requires a multi-pronged approach, guided by the testimony and leadership of those who are most affected by the injustice. In her article Hurricane Katrina’s Lessons for Transformative Recovery, Ashley Gardere describes the massive efforts made by the city of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to rebuild the city with an eye to racial equity. She cites many excellent programs created and goals achieved, but ultimately concludes: “Despite our best intentions, as leaders we employ race-neutral strategies expecting to achieve racial equity, convinced that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ And so we fail to center people over profits, always in a negotiation with the economic markets.” Because the recovery chose to center “all people” over those who were most affected by the crisis, racial wealth and resource access gaps persist in New Orleans. The lesson is clear: the lived experience of people and the necessity of repairing the breach, not the success of programs, must be the center of reparatory justice efforts.
As we seize the Kairos moments of transforming flawed systems, our minds must be renewed, and our actions centered of racial equity and not respectability politics or theologies. This Labor Day, let us step into our role as God’s hands and feet, fighting for justice and economic security for all people. And then, may we realize a just economy for all.
The Rev. Sekinah Hamlin is Minister of Economic Justice, Justice and Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ.