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Spirituality or Social Justice?

“Spirituality or Social Justice?”

Should I read or exercise? Should I tackle the next thing on my to-do list or rest? Should I do something for someone else or practice self-care? All of these either/or questions are essential for navigating our daily life while keeping anxiety at bay. We are finite beings who can only do so much. But we are also people of faith awakening to a still-new year who just celebrated the Christmas pronouncement of Mary, that with God all things are possible.

All things. So, if it’s all things, how do we choose in our daily life of faith between deepening our spirituality or doing acts of justice? What’s more important: spirituality or social justice?

At first listen, a song by the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls seems to answer that question. The chorus to “Hammer and Nail” sings:

I gotta get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail

Learn how to use my hands, not just my head

I think myself into jail

Now I know a refuge never grows

From a chin in a hand and a thoughtful pose

Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose

With that energizing ear worm firmly planted, I can’t help but hear the often-quoted Bible verse from James: “faith without works is dead.” It sounds like overt acts of justice are more important than inward spiritual growth, right? Not absolutely. It’s more like components of both thoughtfulness and action are necessary to one another if something big and beautiful is going to happen.

In an interview with Krista Tippett for her podcast called On Being, Emily Saliers, alongside her Indigo Girls partner Amy Ray, talked about transcendent moments in music where something greater than the musician or the audience is revealed. When the live performance of a song resonates so powerfully that the distance between performer and crowd dissolves, a unity transpires that lifts everyone to a plain beyond the parameters of words, rhythm, and music. In those moments, something greater than the musician’s labor is at play, because God is there. “That’s what spirituality is supposed to be,” Saliers concludes.

A transcendent God cannot be limited to either one place or another. When it comes to our need for certainty about whether spirituality or social justice are more important, we need to remind ourselves that God cannot be confined to either/or binaries. Ours is a both/and Creator, placing darkness and light alongside one another so that dusk and dawn and everything in between would envelop our existence with assurances that the One in whose image we are made is both productive and restful, insisting on both the practice of justice and of fidelity to Them.

Doing justice is spirituality, because when justice is done as an articulation of our spiritual growth, God is there. And in those moments when we are in a small group discussion or meditating in a worship service and we come to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ urgent insistence on loving God and neighbor as we love ourselves and how each of us plays a part in that work, that is justice, because God is there. Pressuring ourselves to pick either spirituality or social justice raises anxiety, which limits us as disciples, as human beings made in God’s image.

If we are anxious about what is best for us, either nurturing our spirituality or putting our faith into action, let us find peace in this steadfast assurance: Ours is also a God of liberation, setting us free to live into the both/and urgency of love that is bigger and more beautiful than any one of us and the either/or choices we make. Love God AND love your neighbor. Love your neighbor AND love yourself. Be in relationship with the Divine AND be in community with all of those made in that Divine image. That’s what spirituality is supposed to be.


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