Malinda Elizabeth Berry is an associate professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. In an article about “shalom political theology,” Berry writes, “However clear an act of injustice may be, it cannot simply be overcome by human willpower to defy sin, evil, and oppression. ‘If we just mobilize enough volunteers.’ ‘If we can just get enough signatures on our petition.’ ‘If we can just prove they are behind this outrage.’ ‘What they’re doing is just wrong!’” We talked about why social change needs a spirituality. Here are two excerpts.
The world is in crisis—from the pandemic to climate change to racial injustice. For those who say we need more action and less talk, why do you think theology and spirituality matter?
One thing the UN works at is a sense of globalism, that earth itself is shared common ground. At the same time, the UN is not a church or religious organization, and a UN policy meeting is not going to open the Qur’an or the Bible. If I’m having a conversation with a Hindu or Buddhist or secular humanist and we agree that Tanzania needs clean water, we aren’t going to accomplish that by appealing to a common religious understanding about the sacredness of water. At the same time, for Christians working on justice, there is this balance of working out how we make common cause with people who operate out of another matrix of meaning which intersects with our own matrix of meaning. As Christians we believe that ultimately it is God who brings human beings together into a family and that what the psalmist says is true: that earth belongs to God, “the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).
This helps us from falling into the temptation of thinking that if we just change this one policy, that will bring about the kingdom of God. There are limitations to what we can accomplish when just approaching things from a policy perspective.
You have said injustice “cannot be simply overcome by human willpower,” and that both communal and personal transformation are needed. What is the work of personal transformation for those engaging difficult global issues?
My encouragement, to those of us who are public policy-minded Christians, is: How do we engage in that work not as a job that pays us or connects to our passions, but as a spiritual practice? How does it change our collegial relationships? How can our jobs help us become better Christians? The church exists for more than organizational efficiency and accomplishing our mission. This is why non-violence matters so much. I do think it is the way of the universe for human beings. God is calling us on a daily basis to renounce evil and violence as a form of evil. This leads us to advocate in a way that is winsome and life-giving, showing that non-violence is a path to abundance and flourishing with human beings and the rest of creation. It is a daily spiritual practice where every day I can make small choices and big choices.