The Grace to Do Nothing: On Social Justice in the Neighborhood

WontYouBeMyNeighborRecently I saw a book project flash across my FB feed entitled “Refuse to do Nothing” and I grimaced. I know nothing about this book or its message.  It’s a book by good people. The abolishing of modern human trafficking is a worthy goal to gather round as Christians. I call for all Christians to join together to alleviate it! I recommend this book and the cause. I’m sure it’s good. But the reason for my discomfort was the “Finding your Power” part of the subtitle. I’m sure it makes sense in the book. (Nothing worse than judging a book by its cover! Sorry IVP) But recently, I found myself advocating the exact opposite idea. Thus my grimace.

We were in the middle of a discussion at one of our missional communities. We were talking about the challenges of being a missional community in the neighborhood and the subject turned to finding “what we are supposed to do next.” How do we locate places of need, situations of distress, places where the “least of these” are where we can devote some of our time and energy for the Kingdom? How about the domestic violence shelter down the street, can we help there? How about a project to help the community rally around improving the park? How do we locate where the needy are so that we can put our resources to work? (I’m not recording this conversation word for word, just trying to give you the sense of things).

After listening for a while, I felt prompted to say “maybe the best thing we can do is do nothing.” I then revealed a bit about my own mistakes in trying to go out and find “justice/mercy projects” in the neighborhood. I’ve had to learn gradually that by trying to find the “next project to do” I lead people into the following mistakes:

  • We end up turning people into an object, a project, which takes a lot of effort and resources, and ends up making us feel better about ourselves but actually ends up (because we come as visitors with resources to apply) promoting the existing structures that may have been the cause of the injustice itself.
  • We end up “colonizing” people: making people do things or accepting our help out of a power position that does not change the person, context itself, but imposes our will on them. Some mercy has been given, some respite from suffering has occurred and this is a good thing as long as it does not colonize. But often, in the end, nothing really happens in terms of justice. Things stay the same.

So, opposed to looking for projects, I offered that maybe what we are supposed to do is the opposite: Do (emphasis on :”do”) nothing.  Instead, our main task is to be “with” people in and around our lives long enough, years maybe, to listen and become friends, partners in life, sufficient to offer who we are and what we have become in Christ in exchange for their friendship and their support and who they are. These relationships should be characterized  by

  • Long term presence within everyday life. Being with people at same place same time each week, hanging out in same places, working alongside them, raising children in the park, sharing resources over long periods of time
  • Listening, helping and receiving help just as you would any other friend. Developing a mutual vulnerability
  • Developing trust.

The marvelous thing that happens out of these rhythms of being “with” people in the neighborhood, work, children’s clubs, school parents meetings etc. is the Kingdom is promised to break in (Jesus promises Matt 25). Opportunities shall be birthed, the way made clear for :

  • Proclaiming the gospel
  • Inviting into reconciliation
  • And of course “local group projects” in the neighborhood. Because out of local presence “with” people comes the opportunity to join together with the neighborhood to do group projects , bring the resources of the church together with the community’s to tackle a project that needs attention in the neighborhood, the local school, a distressed family on the block, a project to restore a park, hurting persons etc. etc. And the gospel of the Kingdom takes root.

This is what I mean by “The Grace to Do Nothing.” As far as I’m concerned the same rules about developing relationships, working through relational channels, inhabiting out of a posture of “withness” (incarnation) applies to how we participate in justice efforts around the world as well. But that might be a post for another time.

Much has been written about this way of inhabiting the world, the rhythms of “presence.” I encourage you to read books by Jon Huckins, Karen Wilk , the resources at Parishcollective and many more! I am convinced more and more the practice of “withness” as an extension of the Incarnation is the central theme for mission in our day. What do you think? What are your experiences? How has this dynamic of “being with” played out in your missional community?

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Posted in Cultivating Mission, Incarnational, Justice, Post-Attractional
26 comments on “The Grace to Do Nothing: On Social Justice in the Neighborhood
  1. Chris Walters says:

    Well expressed. I had similar thoughts the other day while “sitting” in our monthly ecumenical ministerial meeting as we talked about stuff we could offer to people trying to overcome addictions of all sorts. Um, if the church is truly concerned then we would be a people and a place where addicts can receive the thing they often need most, relationships with healthy people who are not addicts. Our churches are already hosts to AA and other groups, great, but why do we always think in terms of adding on more “programs” or specialized groups?

  2. Len C says:

    A great suffering exists for those who are insanely committed to social justice & acts of mercy. The “suffering” simply put: this dehumanizing of the other. In fact, it’s a dehumanizing of ourselves, too! I have served side-by-side in soup kitchens where there were too many serving. Teens were told to just sit and wait until the event was over- wait until the adults finished serving the needy. The only “job” left was to actually talk to, sit with, dine with the people we were serving. No one wanted to do that. But we did want to direct them where to go, correct them if they got out of line (believe it or not, some people like to do this), pray for the meal (surely they couldn’t do that) and tell them when they were allowed to have seconds. But conversation? Surely, the older servants should have gained enough contact with those being served year after year that they could have sparked up conversations. But that is not comfortable, doesn’t “feel as good” as fighting for justice, and in some ways takes greater effort, more work.

    The western world is so alone. With all our “good causes,” loneliness continues to be a main source of misery.

    Until we’ve gotten to KNOW people- joy will never jump off the page of our scripture or the laws we hope to enact to provide justice. Surely we should not stop fighting against human trafficking, but personal relationships trump the overcoming of sin, and precede this very victory. It did for Jesus. What social structure did Jesus tear down? Did he cry out “fight for the equality of women in an unjust society?” No- he got to know women and empowered them by sharing his unconditional love for them. By loving people authentically from his being, he modeled how people should be treated. Anyone who followed Christ, was immersed in his treatment of others; and they followed suit. Lets work on changing the laws, but until hearts are changed by Christ’s love and our love- we will run these cycles, and injustices will continue to pop up.

    Well written, David!

  3. Dave, I share your concern about objectifying people and colonizing them through our well-intentioned, but paternalistic attempts to be their saviours. So, starting from that point of agreement, I want to push back a little.

    I affirm what you are putting forward as long as we are vigilant to be aware how this can be exercised out of privilege. This can be largely offset with a firm understanding of the difference between certain kinds of needs (i.e. development vs. relief). Again, we need to be aware that there are times when those in need cannot afford the luxury of waiting. Interestingly, loving (mutual) service in a time of crisis can go a long way to build deep relationships that might otherwise take years.

    Second, we have to acknowledge the not all neighbourhoods are created equally. In fact, the very nature of some neighbourhoods result in the quality (or deterioration/exploitation) of others. Therefore, because of this privileging in certain neighbourhoods, you could end up waiting a long time, as the injustice we are called to engage has been pushed out. So while I affirm localism, that must include those other communities that have been impacted by our community. After all, when God said there should be no poor among us, He wasn’t recommending segregation. We are local expressions of a global Body and we need to learn to live in that local/global tension.

    The fact is that, while rooted in love, relationship and mutuality, we are still called to “do”. We have to be careful not to over abstrationalize “the least of these”. The explicit nature of those listed are people who confront our own sense of security, both with respect to life and identity. “Doing” for them will require a greater level of intentionality.

  4. Scott Jones says:

    I love both the phrases “The Grace to Do Nothing” and “Withness” What a beautiful picture of neighbors living well with one another. Sharing, listening, eating, drinking, laughing, playing, sitting, comforting, trusting, and “being with” one another. I wrote a love poem to my fiance a couple months ago about my love of just “being” with her. I realized that sometimes that “being” is enough and that “being” is good! I mean I am a human “being”. I could always get caught up serving her and wooing her, but I most of all loved being with her. Just being next to her. If “being” is good enough for us, it should be good enough with our neighbors too. The Church is often “in” the neighborhood (via a building.) The Church is sometimes “for” a neighborhood. (Serve Day Projects, Serving Homeless, and AA meetings) Yet it rare to see the Church “with” the neighborhood. (In trusting, faithful, relationships with neighbors.) I long to be a part of the Church that is forever “with” neighbors till I die.

  5. davidfitch says:

    Jamie,
    The one I have tried to learn from on this (when I can catch him in one place) is Wayne Gordon and the CCDA movement. Wayne teaches at Northern but I’ved watched/followed his life and ministry at Lawndale Chicago from the beginning. They went to a resource-less community. The way he chose to inhabit and submit and be part of that place and then respond is helpful as I continue to try to learn their ways. What has emerged with John Perkins in the CCDA group and their many variant types of church expressions, is something I think allmissional communities can learn from. Have you explored much with them?

    • Yes, I am very familiar with them and have learned much. Like my comment stated, I am largely on your side in this one. However, I am exhausted (and becoming less than patient) with groups who use the language & logic you present, but do so to justify inaction. I know that is not what you are advocating for. I simply want to reaffirm that there are dangers on the other side of the colonialist expressions that can be equally as damaging.

      • Alex says:

        Jamie, I agree that there’s a danger in justifying inaction. But I also think there’s a danger in jumping into “doing” without thinking about the way what we are doing engages the people we are trying to help or reach. I think David’s right that when we create a dynamic in which we are consistently the “authority” reaching down to assist the poor and neglected, we might feed them for a day, but we aren’t equipping them to rise above their circumstance. We’re actually in a way enforcing a glass ceiling with such a power dynamic.

        So there’s a balance that has to be struck here, I guess. I really appreciated the way David conceptualized this issue, I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, but I think this is a very helpful way of approaching the question, “how do we walk alongside those we are seeking to serve?”

  6. Howard Lawrence says:

    We have all heard the warning issued to missionary types “do no harm!”. This exhortation to be careful with our good intentions certainly extends to our neighbourhoods.
    John Mcknight in his book “the careless society” gives us some categories which are helpful here.He says that there are two postures that we can take, one of “servant” and one as “friend”. He warns against the perils of servanthood and the way in which servants become masters. When we become “service providers” in the neighbourhood we will most likely create “clients” of the neighbours.True neighbours are rarely treated like clients with professional boundaries and all. Neighbours are most naturally friends.
    So in my mind the issue is not one of doing something or not, but one of posture. Are you a friend or fellow citizen OF THE neighbourhood or a Servant or service provider TO THE nieghbourhood?

  7. Ric Hudgens says:

    I was going to comment and then read what Jamie wrote and he said what I intended to say (in his original comment and subsequent rejoinders). There is a time to do nothing . . . and a time to do something . . . and I bet in some really desperate situations there is a time to do anything.

  8. Howard says:

    If I am reading this right, friendship is being connected with inaction and servanthood with action. I believe that both postures can both be active or inactive. Granted, initiative in friendship is not well known, and among men in particular. While activity around projects has been commonplace. In the west we have built the Industrial Service Complex in which we entrust all “care”. But servants are not caring by nature, friends are.
    You can hire a personal trainer to help you stay fit or you can organize a group of friends to run with. Same fitness outcome, same amount of initiative, completely different posture.

  9. This reminds me of the distinction Gary Nelson makes, in his Borderlands book, between “mission projects” and having a “mission field.” Mission projects, whether soup kitchens, school support, drop-in centre volunteering, or otherwise, are good and they are necessary. But a “mission field” is about entering into the “rhythms, concerns, and faces of a place.” It’s about developing long-term relationships with those we are serving and with whom we are sharing life together.

  10. The question that came to me as I ready this was the following: if you do not know the needs in the neighbourhood, is you community living in the neighbourhood, or just situated in the neighbourhood. You seem to be advocating a shift to living in the neighbourhood, which is more than just doing nothing.

  11. Richard M says:

    Good points. I do find myself wondering what Jesus and the apostles did in this regard. It wasn’t project-based, but it was Kingdom-based. It wasn’t just “hanging out for years” either, but it was being amongst people .

    When Paul turned up in a new town he went straight into action, headed to a promising location and started speaking! When Jesus arrived he would preach, heal, cast out demons.

    Perhaps “doing vs being with” is the wrong scale; perhaps they are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s more about… being sent? Being sent to our neighbours, but also being sent to the ‘least of these’ (which might involve MOVEMENT at least, intentionally putting ourselves in the place where we meet them!).

    Thanks for making me think.

  12. Connie Jakab says:

    I struggled with your intro because I’m friends with Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Kim – the authors of “Refuse to do Nothing”. I am currently reading the book and it’s a great read. I understand the struggle we’ve had as a North American church – to almost idolize the GREAT and promote solving the world’s hardest issues while not even knowing our neighbour. I am an urban missionary in Calgary, AB and know the missional side of what you’re stating and agree fully with the idea of dwelling “with” as Jesus dwelled among. Totally sold on it and living it. However, I feel the need to state the book’s purpose of getting women out of the matrix of the mall, botox treatments and living for the next outfit and onto what we’re created to be: an answer. The book is practical to the North American woman to live Christ’s mission. I feel like the book’s message and your message are on the same team, just different titles.

  13. Terri Kraus says:

    While I can agree with many of your points, I, too, would recommend that you actually read REFUSE TO DO NOTHING by my friends Shayne Moore and Kimberly Kim. Right now in our world there are 27 million people that are slaves—mostly women and children—who need to be rescued. The message is to raise awareness, help women who live in freedom and relative wealth to understand the problem and discover their power to mobilize and work for a solution. While there are many approaches to working for justice in an appropriate way for each problem that exists, with this issue we don’t have the luxury of waiting.

    • davidfitch says:

      Yep! Terri and Connie, I think I made it explicit, I wasn’t criticizing the book, I havn’t read it. Is it out yet? I basically said everything you said in the first paragraph right up front. So I’m riffing off the title and hopefully that will help you all clarify the need and message for the book.
      Peace and blessings on the book!

  14. Bengt says:

    David, thanks for your thoughts, I really like the idea of “The Grace to Do Nothing”! Maybe you could call this “living in praise of inutility” or “the grace of being useless” (http://cruciformphronesis.blogspot.se/2011/02/ten-theses-in-praise-of-inutility.html). I think many churches has something important to learn here.

  15. Shayne Moore says:

    I would like the opportunity to jump here, as the author of Refuse To Do Nothing and say that my book is not about any of the things you all are discussing. I am not insane about social justice nor is my book about objectifying people and colonizing.

    It is a book written to a specific demographic. Everyday American women. The goal is to educate and encourage them that they do indeed have power to make a change in our world.

    We do talk about power. Saying prayer is our number one tool in fighting this evil.

    I find this thread a little out of touch with the everyday person — real suffering in real people.

    And as academics, I find using a book that you have not read to simply enhance your point and then extrapolate to bizarre place is irresponsible, at best.

    ~ Shayne

  16. davidfitch says:

    Shayne Moore, Like I posted on your FB, you implied I reviewed the book and I think it’s obvious I didn’t review the book. If anything, I think my opening paragraph praises the cause and assumes the best .. and then goes on to talk on a diferent topic – local engagement relationally an how it works for justice. I think you might have missed the subversiveness of the title? Peace .. and sincerely I wish blessings on your work.

  17. David, I think you shoot yourself in the foot here. Your statement, “Do nothing…” establishes a very strict assumption of the boundary for action. But your call to “withness” isn’t “nothing”. It’s something very specific. This created a sense of confusion about the post that I thought wasn’t intended, but happened. You’re not telling Shayne’s readers to embrace inaction, but it comes across that way in a cursory read.

    The deeper question which you ask then gets lost. Withness is a deeper way of acting that doesn’t begin with validating oneself through rescuing, which is what a lot of projects can easily end up being. It’s much deeper than that and allows the movement of God to work itself out in a more powerful way.

    • davidfitch says:

      Right Jonathan … but come on, can’t we read the next layer of meaning in a turn of phrase? Ironically, if you google this post, the grand majority of the 5000 readers (best estimate of one my more popular posts) got the point, and the reason they got it was because of how the post made the point … that it’s not us doing it, it is God, and therefore we need a shift in posture away from activist to participant. So sure you right this is doing something, but it must be obvious to anyone that I didn’t mean “do nothing” literally. Check how many people got it. BTW, I wasn’t the first one to use this phrase. H Richard Niebuhr used it against his brother 70 years ago arguing for not making war … and he got his point across too, so much so that people still talk about it that many years later.
      Blessings … and thanx for coming on the blog.

      • I hear you and I got it. I read the subtext, although I will say that at first blush I didn’t get it, until I read the entire statement.

        The concern is not for those who got it. It’s for those who misunderstood it. There are lots of reason that may happen. Confirmation bias is a strong habit. I just wonder if the phrase isn’t as valuable as you may find.

        I am friends with Shayne on Facebook, and I think she wondered if you were attacking her.

        • davidfitch says:

          Jonathan,
          Yeah, I don’t what to say about that. It’s hard to predict. Unintended miscommunication is part of blog life. I wish it could have been different because I seriously think Shayne/her co-author could have read the post and maybe used it to talk about the issue in relation to their book and gotten their message out.

  18. Meg Ady says:

    This withness and doing nothing really resonates with me. I work as a community nurse for youth who are experiencing homelessness. I’ve noticed many times that the most significant work has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘goals’ and ‘outcomes’, and everything to do with connection, withness, acceptance, listening and celebrating the wonder of each unique human being, even amidst awful pain and suffering and helplessness and yuckiness. A bit like Jesus on the cross I suppose – withness doesn’t always lead to fulfillment, fun and happiness.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post David!

    Kind regards,

    Meg

  19. Jason Coker says:

    The most important thing I do in my neighborhood is make beer and drink it with my neighbors.

    I’m not joking. I make it 10 gallons at a time.

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  1. [...] of this is pretty standard operating procedure in the common program-style church. David Fitch, who is trying to help church adopt a more missional approach that goes beyond things that happen [...]

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  3. [...] The Grace to Do Nothing: On Social Justice in the Neighborhood - This article addresses some of the questions swirling through my mind, and maybe one day I’ll get them out of my head and more clearly in writing and in living. As a Church, we’re trying to hard “to do,” instead of just being and being with: [...]

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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