Thoughts on the role of education in seeking justice
Natalie Martinez's post about the need for greater access to educational resources in our community reminded me about an insight I stumbled across a few years ago, as I was wrestling with the Bible's mandate to "do justice".
In the time in which God called the prophet Isaiah to speak out against his people, the people of Judah were not in a good place. The nation was so corrupt that God found their worship detestable (1:11-15). What God really wanted for them wasn't for them to bring more sacrifices to him - as if those could somehow offset their evildoing in God's eyes. Rather, they needed to stop their wrongdoing.
In the middle of this tirade which begins the book of Isaiah, we find these instructions for God's people about what to do to reverse this evil situation, turning aside God's anger:
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
While I had heard this verse many times before, what caught my attention as I studied this passage was the first word in this verse: learn.
Though I recognize that the passage probably wasn't exactly intended to make an argument about the crucial role of education in seeking justice, this verse is what first got me thinking about education and justice. I had always simply assumed that doing the right thing should come naturally to us. If everyone should have the capacity to do what is right, then it couldn't require having special skills and education, right? Shouldn't EVERYONE, regardless of level of educational attainment, have the capacity to "do right", "seek justice", etc.?
At the same time, the passage clearly talked about doing right as something that needs to be learned. It seems pretty clear that God is affirming that it requires mental energy, time, and hard work to do justice!
So how do these two things fit together: Education and Justice?
Here's my take:
- Justice is part of something bigger. For most of us, the picture that comes to mind when we hear the word "justice" probably isn't very inspiring. We might think of a judge handing out a sentence for a crime. Or, maybe we think of it this way: you leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone. In any case, justice is pictured in a pretty negative way. What if "justice," Biblically speaking, points to something much more dynamic and beautiful? Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff talks about Biblical justice isn't just a description of what goes down when things go wrong; justice is actually an integral part of ensuring that the world flourishes as God intended it. It's about right relationships between everyone and everything in God's creation.
- Education is part of something bigger. Just as life as God intended requires for the existence of justice in all relationships, so in the same way that picture of the flourishing of God's creation (or, "shalom" in Hebrew) includes human beings growing and stretching, learning and changing. Education has always been a part of God's dynamic plan for us as his creatures.
So, both education and justice are aspects of God's plan for a dynamic, thriving creation. So far, so good. But what about the question I posed earlier? If education is so tightly linked with justice, doesn't that bring it out of reach from those who are less educated? From those who can't afford formal education through colleges or graduate schools? Does it mean that book-lovers have an advantage over others in be able to "doing rightly"?
Only if we stick with a very narrow understanding of learning and education.
I'm involved in a Christian vocational school initiative in Hunting Park called Vocatio (Latin for "calling"). The aim is to supplement high school students' current educational offerings by providing academic and vocational options that will equip students with more skills for pursuing careers or further studies after they graduate from high school. Whether through Fall and Spring Saturday school classes or through our 6-week summer school, students are encouraged to try their hand at welding or carpentry, SAT prep or computer programming.
The way I see it, Vocatio is equipping students to seek justice.
- In the skills training, students are being given more skills with which they can engage this world to seek justice.
- In the Spiritual nurture, students are being guided to follow God and shaped to long for justice, just as God does.
Learning how to "do rightly" extends way beyond the classroom. If we do value justice, we will never downplay the need for promoting education in our community, but we will always at the same time recognize that education includes the formation of hearts and minds that takes place not only in formal educational environments, but also in our churches, community centers, workplaces, and homes.
If we are followers of Jesus, we all will recognize our life-long calling to continue to learn. What else could being Jesus' disciple mean but learning to sit at Jesus' feet, to become his apprentice, to humble ourselves to submit to the teaching of our great Rabbi, who will teach us to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8)?