What is Church? And What Does That Have To Do With Economic Justice in the 21st Century?
By the Rev. Beth Ann Maier, MD
What is church? And what does that have to do with economic justice in the 21st Century?
These are questions I have been asking myself. As we sat by and watched our government cavalierly disregard the needs of hundreds of thousands of federal employees who went without paychecks for several weeks, I asked myself these questions. As I received anxious texts from very vulnerable people, already living on the edge, panicking that they would be without the SNAP funds and housing vouchers that keep them sheltered and fed, I asked myself these questions. As I considered the 45% of Vermont’s children, whose families do not earn a livable wage, a wage that meets their very basic needs of food, housing, heat, clothes, transportation, health care and child care, whose families are one major illness or car transmission away from catastrophe, I asked myself these questions.
In Vermont, we have articulated that our mission is “to pray the prayer of Christ, to learn the mind of Christ, and to do the deeds of Christ.” What does this really mean?
I am committed, heart and soul, to Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God, where every person is loved, valued, and contributes to and shares equally in the abundance of creation. I am also committed to The Episcopal Church through ordination to the diaconate ten years ago. Are these commitments one and the same? Do they augment each other; do they merely co-exist; or are they actually in conflict? What is the central mission of our Church? In Vermont, we have articulated that our mission is “to pray the prayer of Christ, to learn the mind of Christ, and to do the deeds of Christ.” What does this really mean when we gather at our annual meetings or our diocesan convention and review our budgeting of time, talent and treasure?
To assist me in my quest for clarity and direction, I have turned to the writings of two 20th century prophets, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Verna Dozier. They were both deeply committed to their Church, deeply steeped in the discipline of Bible study, and deeply committed to Christ’s vision for the world. They were both African-Americans. This makes sense, because who knows better about the experience of economic injustice and the commitment needed for re-creating a fairer world, than people of African-American descent? During what would be the last two years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. focused the light of his writing and activism on the dual evils of economic injustice and militarism, in his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) and in the founding of The Poor People’s Campaign (1968). Some of us participated in a re-examination and re-awakening of the Poor People’s Campaign in 2018.
In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
“Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the fires of justice.”
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: “This is not just.”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
“Dignity is corroded by poverty no matter how poetically we invest the humble with simple graces and charm. No worker can maintain his morale or sustain his spirit if in the market place his capacities are declared to be worthless to society. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer… There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family.”
The power and momentum of this movement was truncated by Dr. King’s assassination. Fifty years later, we are still struggling to get traction on his Bible-informed, faith-inspired action plan to bring the world closer to Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God.
Verna Dozier may need more of an introduction. She was born in 1917 and lived her life in Washington, DC where she was an English teacher in the public schools, and a Christian educator throughout The Episcopal Church. Both of her parents were federal employees, at the bottom of the pay scale, and her family would have suffered significantly during a government shutdown. Her biographer, Fredrica Harris Thompsett, writes that Verna was formed in the fundamentalist Baptist church of her mother, and through long philosophical discussions with her well-read agnostic father, whose formal schooling ended after the 8th grade. Verna received a scholarship to attend Howard University and continued her theological formation through extensive reading and listening to the sermons of the school’s dean, Howard Thurman. In 1950, she joined the multi-denominational, highly disciplined community of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. This was, and still is, a unique church community that takes church membership very seriously. Membership requires a commitment to intense community formation. Daily meditation and devotions, weekly participation in an educational cell group, tithing and taking on some form of social action are all required for membership.
“…Her desire was for Christians to become an authentically Gospel-shaped people…”
Verna, as she preferred to be addressed, was later drawn to The Episcopal Church by the radical justice-based preaching of the priest at St Mark’s on Capitol Hill. She continued in lay ministry at St Mark’s for the rest of her life. In her oral history she later remarked, “When I discovered the Episcopal Church, it was as if I had been waiting for that all my life.” A layman and friend of long standing observed: “Verna was accepted at St. Mark’s as a prophet. Like the prophets, her “powerful gyroscope” balanced the core biblical tradition with promoting justice in contemporary society.” Thompsett writes: “Her grounded definition of mission was the people of God struggling and groaning to become agents of reconciliation in the world…Her challenge was against superficial forms of living the tradition, and her desire was for Christians to become an authentically Gospel-shaped people, working for constant reformation in the church and for justice and compassion in society.”
Verna Dozier had a very clear sense of the mission of the Church. She wrote: “God came into history to create a people who would change the world, who would make the world a place where every person knew that he or she was loved, was valued, had a contribution to make, and had just as much right to the riches of the world as every other person. That is what the church is all about, to bring into being that vision, that ideal community of love in which we all are equally valuable and in which we equally share. Every structure of life comes under the judgment of that vision: our politics, our economics, our education, our social structures. Even the church!” (Authority of the Laity, 1982)
Our Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, called Dozier “his Moses.” As a result, Thomsett writes, the vision statement of his former diocese in North Carolina speaks of “a community of disciples following Jesus Christ into God’s dream for us and all creation.”
Verna Dozier’s clarity of mission was formed through intense study of the Bible. The prophet Amos, especially spoke truth to her. We love and know the thrilling passage in Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters. And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Verna points out that we are not as conversant or enamored with what precedes that in verses 5:21-23: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps”.
We hear the same theme in Isaiah 1:15-17: “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! 16Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. 17Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
And Jeremiah 7:2-7: “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: “‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.”
Verna writes: “The church missed its high calling to be the new thing in the world when it decided to worship Jesus instead of following him… Worship is setting Jesus on a pedestal, distancing him, enshrining (enshrouding) him in liturgies, stained glass windows, biblical translations, medallions, pilgrimages to places where he walked – the whole nine yards. Following him is doing what he did, weeping over a situation that was so far removed from the dream of God and spending his life to make it different. Following is discipleship.” (The Dream of God, 1991)
Verna writes: “A Scripture community has a passion for justice. It is intensely interesting that in our religious life, we have talked much about love, but little about justice. Justice is the most fundamental concept in the Old Testament and is almost ignored in our study of Scripture. Justice is about life in community. We are more individually-minded than community-minded. Religion for many of us is very individualized, private, and personal. We wax eloquent about love and say not a word about justice. Love without justice is sentimentality.” (In Dialogue with Scripture: An Episcopal Guide to Studying the Bible, 1993)
We do think of spirituality, our connection to God, as very personal and private, but Verna, in her life and teaching, makes clear that we are accountable for our corporate spirituality, both as Church, and as a nation. She draws attention to the context of the Matthew 25:31-36, verses we know so well: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
The nations are gathered before God! We are known by God as a nation, and we share in the corporate accounting concerning who gets fed, who has water, who is welcomed, who is imprisoned, who is sick.
Verna writes: “Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying revolution. . . . Help people to pray it, with all the cost and promise of that. “Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” A call for a world turned upside down – or as one young man said to me, “No, Verna, it’s a call for a world to be turned right side up.” A fallen world lifted up, a new heaven and a new earth. That’s the end of the story, and we are called to be a part of that. (A sermon at the commencement of the Episcopal Theological School of the Southwest)
What is the focus of our energy and resources? Is that Christ’s focus? What are we passionate about? Is that Christ’s passion?
The people of Jesus’ day understood that he was challenging the very structures of Church and State, and Church and State combined to do away with him. We articulate our mission: “to pray the prayer of Christ, to learn the mind of Christ, and to do the deeds of Christ.” I guess my question for the Church is – What is the focus of our energy and resources? Is that Christ’s focus? What inflames us, what are we passionate about? Is that Christ’s passion? Are we engaged in a mission to re-orient the world right side up, or have we settled for worshiping God and doing our little bit of good where and when we can? Maybe that’s okay, but it just doesn’t resonate with my experience of the scope of the Bible story and Christ’s dramatic revelation to us.
I want more from my Church community. I want us to show up proclaiming justice in the committee rooms of our state legislature and national congress, until we get a livable wage and equitable access to healthcare and education for every family. I want us to show up en masse in every venue possible, until every stranger is welcomed with dignity. I want us to work tirelessly until our criminal justice system treats all fairly and equitable. I want the wonders of creation and its amazing abundance to be available to my children’s children. I want us to be fully engaged in God’s dream for us, God’s Kingdom come on earth, as in heaven. How shall we get there?
Dozier, V. J. (1991). The dream of God: A call to return. Cambridge, Massachusetts: CowleyPublications.
Dozier, V. J. (1982). The authority of the laity. Washington, DC: The Alban Institute.
Dozier, V. J. (1993). In L. L. Grenz (Ed.), In dialogue with scripture: An Episcopal guide to studying the Bible. New York: Episcopal Church Center.
Dozier, V. J. (1997, Fall). Praying the Lord’s prayer (May). A commencement sermon for the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, Ratherview, 8-9.
Dozier, V. J. (1992). An interview with Verna Dozier (Video Recording). Nashville, Tennessee: EcuFilm.
King, M. L. (1967, 2010) Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Beacon Press
Thompsett, F. H. (2005) Verna Josephine Dozier. https://www.biola.edu/talbot/ce20/database/verna-josephine-dozie
Featured images: Martin Luther King, Jr. By Nobel Foundation – http://nobelprize.org/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9719576 .Verna Dozier, c. 1995 The Archives of the Episcopal Church, https://episcopalarchives.org/church-awakens/exhibits/show/leadership/lay/dozier