Friday, July 5, 2013

Into the Tidal Zone Part Two: Making Justice

Photo Credit: Morguefile

Welcome to part two of Into the Tidal Zone. Part One can be read here. This is intended for audience participation, so please comment, and comment on comments, and follow comments, and otherwise keep things interesting in a respectful way. This series is intended to explore in a variety of ways those areas of our lives that we might call spiritual, religious, ethical, or whatever name you have for the magma core of who-you-are. I call mine my spirituality. Today I am delving into the issue of obligation to make justice, or change, in the world.


At the church of my childhood, there is one religious teaching I remember most: Make justice. This is the thing that got stuck on me.

It was the 1980s and the government of El Salvador was killing its own people (10,000 by 1980). My church was part of the Sanctuary Movement at the time. After long deliberation, the adult members of the church had decided to harbor a family from El Salvador in open defiance of federal law. The family had two children: Marta and Jesus. When they first came to us, we played a game with them and, all the other kids, where our names were drawn out of a hat.

"JEE-SUS?" my friend Karuna whispered, holding a slip of paper in disbelief, before someone corrected her.

Marta was around my age. She was taller than I was and had long dark, wavy hair and a broad-lipped smile. She seemed shy without more English, shy out of her world, but likable and kind. This hiding of people was an important secret that had to be kept, or Marta might be dragged away to blood-covered jungles, I imagined, where, taken by the military, she would be turned into black smoke. Disappeared. One day we went with her and her brother to the county fair, and I was scared the whole time that she would be recognized and dragged away with the cotton candy still sticky and pink in her hands and teeth.

This was how I learned that justice was something that real people needed and real people provided, that it was imperative, and that it included risk.

I wondered why we didn't do more.

"Would you give up your TV if it would save a starving child in Africa?" I asked an adult friend one day, when I was twelve. (All the starving children were in Africa in the 1980s.) She thought about it and answered honestly.


This drove me crazy about the world. I gave up eating meat when I was seven, but everyone else ate it. If I asked questions about why, they tended to say that they thought it was wrong but that they did it anyhow, which bothered more than the people who said they thought it was all right.

When I was fourteen, my friend and I walked into Macy's and, examining all the make-up, left it with stickers that said "This product tested on animals." When we were caught, the store clerk was kind and gentle and didn't yell at us, but simply asked us to stop. We did. Having walked in as nonviolent protesters, we left as reprimanded kids. We walked on to the food court to order a calzone.

When, at twenty-two,  I was getting ready to have my first baby, I was hearing about the conditions of workers in China in factories. No baby things from China please, I asked everybody.

"Here," said my grandmother, proudly, handing me a stuffed animal for my coming child. "This seal was made in Sri Lanka."

"You're not realistic enough," people told me. "You can't make them stop."

"I know," I told him. "I think I'm still supposed to try."

There were no diaper bags that weren't from China. At least not in our price range. So we bought a Chinese one anyway. Would you give up your TV? Maybe I wouldn't... Maybe not...

Having been presented with no more refugees to be friends with since middle school, my heart ached for something meaningful to do. How do you make justice? I wondered. Does it always mean making someone mad? The kind of justice I was trying to practice seemed to involve $5 cookies from Whole Foods, made locally with all-natural dyes. It seemed to make shopping harder, make life harder and bring no obvious reward. Thinking in terms of justice, without getting next to injustice, was like walking around barefoot on hot and rocky ground.


Today, I look at the world and ask myself the very same thing.

Today, I buy ethically-questionable meat along with ethically-questionable rice and sometimes the only thing I can be sure of are the bunches of lettuce from my yard. I sob inwardly at the mountains of fire and the young firefighters killed and think, Surely, we could do better than this. Surely I could do more to prevent the climate change of the world! I become exhausted by the need for action and justice-making and do nothing, too often, when something would be the thing to do.

But still I am moved by the need for justice. I let my heart be engaged. I watch the films posted of children who, having grown up in America, then face deportation because they cannot get the right paperwork*. I wonder if Marta ever became a citizen. Did she go back to El Salvador? Or was she deported, after learning to love cotton candy, and learning to speak easy English, and calling this nation her home? I wonder.

I carve out small spaces and do what I can: I give up paper towels, plant a garden and learn to grow food in a way that does not make war with the earth. I eat eggs from chickens that I keep and tend myself. I strive to teach and love and honor each child that I am given to teach and love—mine or someone's else's—in a way that makes both of us larger than we were. We make small donations. and read and try to stay awake.

It does not seem enough.

When my teenage son came back from Mexico this April, where with his own hands, he built houses for those living in dirt-covered shacks, I saw the face of justice-making: he was exhausted, nauseated, dirty and, getting in the van, he told me:

"I want to go home and take a shower and eat real food and go back to Mexico again."


How were you raised to understand justice and action to the change the world? Was this part of your religious upbringing?

Has this understanding changed?

What have you lost? What have you gained?

*You should really try and find time to watch this moving film. Gather tissues first.


  1. I have often watched shows about people who go to other countries and do amazing things and think, "I can do nothing to change the world." I feel very stifled by my circumstance.

    It often feels like you have to have money to make any change. I can't afford to shop at the local stores and buy local products because they're so much more expensive. I shop at Wal-Mart because it's cheap. And,then, I also think, 'what difference would it make if I stopped shopping there?'

    As for my religious upbringing, I can't really remember being taught about justice or doing things to change the world. But, I don't know if that's because the Mormon church didn't teach that or if it's because of the bubble my family kept me in. Our church is very involved in many world issues now, and, I have a feeling it's always been that way.

    What I understand now, because of my religion, and also from the things I've learned in life, is that my best chance at changing the world is by raising children who are strong and sensitive. I hope that by instilling in them the values I hold dear, and by releasing them from the prejudices I learned as a child, that they will be better adults who will find ways to make a change by living good lives.

    1. I can relate so much to this. I also can't afford to shop at the local places that I would feel better about supporting, and I resist the idea that changing the world is best approached from a consumer perspective, which is some of what I was pointing to above. This is necessarily going to be an elitist and racist approach, given that most people don't have the economic options to shop the way we are "supposed to."

      What was so valuable to me about the sanctuary experience and for my son about going to Mexico is that it put a human face to making justice. I, and he, knew that something absolutely made a difference. It was right there for us to see. I think I need more experiences like this. There are, of course, lots of opportunities because there is lots of need, and I am disturbed at the extent to which my bubble of reality makes them not-obvious to me.

      The importance of raising sensitive kids cannot be overstated. I think it's critical.

  2. Loved this: "You're not realistic enough," people told me. "You can't make them stop."

    "I know," I told him. "I think I'm still supposed to try."

    That's really the whole of it in a nutshell, isn't it?

    My parents were absurdly young when I was born (16 & 18) and went on to have three more children on enlisted military pay. Needless to say, our financial resources growing up were somewhat limited, and as an adult, mine continue to be so. The making of justice I saw at home had mostly to do with my parents, especially my mother, ranting like loons about injustices in the world interspersed with the occasional letter to the editor. It is a tradition I have continued on to some extent though I have tried to supplement it with action when possible (and by possible, I mean when it is not too inconvenient).

    Like you, I feel there is never a way to do enough and perhaps I sometimes give myself a little too much credit for simply trying.


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