For many of us the past year of global pandemic, economic crisis, social unrest and political turbulence has left us with the dismal feeling that we’re living through the longest year ever! The sheer weight of being under such a prolonged period of stress and crisis constitutes an allostatic load—a wear and tear that millions of bodies nationwide cannot bear much longer.1 This strain is worsened by the unending nightmare of gun violence, mass killings, and law-and-order shootings that constantly shock and shake the nation. Many are asking, What is happening in the United States?
A sociological view informs us that the pandemic has merely accelerated massive global shifts in unemployment, production and distribution, global trade, capital flows, migration, and demographic change that have been occurring for some time. Forty years of widening income inequality have concentrated wealth in the hands of the few while facilitating economic insecurity over a broader swath of the population (a trend continuing in the pandemic).2 Such economic extremism inevitably leads to social and political extremism.
These zero-sum arrangements have led to a messy and turbulent conversation in our nation about who matters. From the summer racial reckoning of 2020 to the Capitol insurrection, January 2021, American society is seemingly at war with itself over the existential questions of whose life matters, whose voice deserves to be heard, whose experience needs validation, who deserves relief and redress, and to whom belong the rights, privileges, and opportunities of the national wealth. The question being asked, in sum, is what needs to be preserved, post-pandemic, and what needs to be dismantled?
French sociologist Émile Durkheim noted similar disruptive social conflicts in nineteenth-century Europe and America as Western societies transitioned from agricultural economies to the market industrial economy.3 The Industrial Revolution precipitated a massive reorganization of social life spawning urban migration, urbanization, poverty, crime, and dislocation.4 Durkheim theorized that the solidarity found in the shared traditions, beliefs, and experiences of the agricultural society were what bound people together.5 The Industrial Revolution generated a breakdown in these collective bonds and shared values, leading to social conflict and disintegration. The community was coming apart. Today we find ourselves in a similar massive global economic reorganization that is testing the durability of our communal bonds.
In these restless times the sociological view is useful, but insufficient. We must turn to a higher source to conceptualize both the root of our social ills and the proper remedy. Consider prophet Isaiah’s searing indictment of the kingdom of Judah: “None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity” (Isa. 59:4, KJV). For God, the problem with this pre-exilic Judean society was the absence of justice. By ordinance of Yahweh Himself, justice (tsedeq) was the ethical foundation of the Hebrew economy (Lev. 19:36; Deut. 16:20; Prov. 16:11; 20:10; Micah 6:8, 11; Amos 5:24). Tsedeq was “rightdoing toward the other” in law, economy, and social policy.6 Justice and equity were to underlie the economic, social, moral, and political arrangements of life. However, in Isaiah’s times, with these principles entirely abandoned in society, the prophet calls the people to account, “Judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter” (Isa. 59:14, KJV). Judah was experiencing a breakdown in justice: economically, politically, and socially. And this breakdown in Yahweh’s governing principle of justice led to a breakdown in community.
Breach repair requires being present, visible, engaged, and vocal. We cannot fix the gaps by excluding ourselves from them.
Twenty-seven hundred years later the truth of Isaiah’s polemic speaks directly to our current ills. While corporations amass trillions in wealth, tens of thousands of working families earn less than a living wage and are unable to meet their basic needs. Because of the debts they incurred to qualify themselves as workers, millions of educated Millennials cannot now gain access to home ownership and the vehicles of wealth creation. Also, racial discrimination locks communities out of access and opportunity at every level of social life.7 The pernicious intersection of race and class ensures that the zip code and skin in which one is born exercise controlling influence over many life opportunities.8 Ages of gender inequality and sexual predation have sparked the Me Too movement. And systemic racism within institutions ostensibly designed to protect all society continues to mete out deadly punishment on some but not other bodies and communities across the nation.9
As I write this article, one more unarmed Black man, Daunte Wright, has lost his life. There is a breakdown in economic justice, social justice, and criminal justice. Judgment is turned away backward, and justice stands afar off! And as in Isaiah’s day, this breakdown in justice has led to a precipitous breakdown in community. By abandoning Yahweh’s justice, we fail to see our common shared humanity. Who believes we can continue like this?
In such a polarized and dark environment, what and whom can you trust? Where the trusted bonds of community are giving way to social disintegration, what is the role of the church? What is the purpose and work of the community of faith in these distressing times? Thankfully, the same sacred scriptures that point out our social maladies identify our source of hope! Under divine inspiration Isaiah provides the social corrective, identifying the role and work of the community of faith. Though Judah was immersed in its sin, the faithful seer prophesies the work of a righteous remnant: “And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in” (Isa. 58:12, KJV). Isaiah declares that God’s righteousness will take up the hard work of repairing the physical, social, and ethical breaches wrought by humans’ inhumanity to humans. They would raise up the foundations and restore God’s justice in the land. They would rebuild what was torn down and reestablish God’s purposes in their realm. They would be breach repairers!
This is the exciting and just work of God’s church today! We are breach repairers! God’s people have the sacred calling of restoring God’s hope and goodness to a world sorely in need of light. The church is not to remain ensconced within our physical and religious walls, concerned only with ceremony and religious performance (verses 3-5). We must not become symbols of insular piety and detached sanctimony. The work of the people of God is active. Isaiah tells us that we must loose the bands of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, free the oppressed, and break every yoke. We must feed the hungry, bring home the poor, and cover the naked and vulnerable (verses 6, 7).
Moreover, breach repair requires being present, visible, engaged, and vocal. We cannot fix the gaps by excluding ourselves from them—by living separately; by hiding in our sacred towers away from the community’s pain. We must be actively present in the neighborhood and community; we must walk the streets; we must meet the people; we must identify with the struggling, with the poor and marginalized; we must work toward their relief. We must be visible. We must
be seen as the vanguard of relief, advocacy, and compassion! This is the great example given by the One who took a servant’s form, became like us, one with us, then, drawing even closer and being still more visible, became obedient to death on a criminal’s cross (see Phil. 2:5-8).
This is how we bring God’s light and hope to those around us who have lost hope. It highlights our third consideration: being engaged. We must lean forward on the issues of our time, committing to the hard work of rebuilding the foundations of righteousness in the world. The message of the three angels demands that we not retreat in resignation, leaving the world to its ultimate apocalyptic fate. Instead, we must launch into the world as righteous messengers and proclaimers of repair.
And finally, we must be vocal. We are the Isaiahs of our time—God’s mouthpieces calling for justice in unjust and politically inconvenient times; not silent in this consequential hour, but boldly speaking God’s truth to power and speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves (see Prov. 31:8).
In my current role I am blessed to shepherd a faith community that has taken up the prophetic charge of Isaiah 58:6-12, the engaged mindset of Philippians 2:5-8, and the vocal action of Revelation 14:6-12. Amid the pandemic we have provided groceries to more than 20,000 families each week on behalf of food security in our community; we have marched in protest against unjust killing, raised funds to support and care for suffering migrant children, and sent supplies to St. Vincent to aid in volcano relief efforts. Our church building has served as a COVID-19 vaccination site providing critical access to residents in our predominantly Black and Brown community. The pandemic has clarified our role—we are breach repairers.
Our sacred calling is to be restorers of Yahweh’s justice. The Scriptures declare that “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another” (1 John 1:7, KJV). The word here for “fellowship” is koinonia, which also translates as community. Walking in Christ’s light fosters community.
More than 50 years ago Martin Luther King termed it the “Beloved Community”—a society of reconciliation and redemption where the demands of justice were fully represented;10 a place and people touched by God’s life-transforming love. This is who we are called to be, breach repairers working with God for ultimate restoration of Eden’s original peace; breach repairers who get it: no justice, no peace; know justice—true justice, know peace—eternal peace.
Trevor Kinlock, senior pastor, Metropolitan Seventh-day Adventist Church, Hyattsville, Maryland, pursues graduate studies in sociology and criminology at Howard University, Washington, D.C., United States.