When you pray, move your feet

John Lewis marching in Selma prior to being attacked by state troopers

They say it’s an African proverb (who knows if it actually is):

When you pray, move your feet.

The reason I know this phrase is not because I grew up in South Africa, but because it is a favorite saying of John Lewis, one of the key leaders of the USA Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Lewis was responsible for helping to lead a lot of the grassroots college protests in the 60’s– the Freedom Rides, lunch-counter sit-ins, and also led the famous march in Selma for voting rights.

In other news, we just finished a small group study of the book Generous Justice with some people from our church. The book systematically goes through the Bible and shows how justice is central to God’s character, and to the way he expects his people to live. One of the most interesting things Keller brings up is the term righteousness in the Bible doesn’t mainly refer to private personal morality, but rather refers to the individual’s role in bringing social justice. Throughout scripture (but especially in the book of Job), we see the definition of an unrighteous person is one who advantages himself at the expense of the community, while the righteous man disadvantages himself for the sake of his neighbour. Whether that is clothes, food, legal counsel, or paying a fair wage–righteous people actively seek justice for their neighbours, even at cost to themselves.

I’ve been thinking about prayer, and justice, and what it means to pray while moving your feet this week, because South Africa just had possibly its largest ever prayer meeting. Thousands of people gathered to pray for our country, and for just leadership in our nation. I believe the work of justice is spiritual work, and so I was encouraged to see so many people willing to travel for hours in order to pray for just leadership.

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But when we pray for justice, we can’t just pray for justice “out there.” We also need to pray for justice “in here” . Prayers for just leadership and an end to corruption cannot be separated from prayers for forgiveness for how we are implicated in this corrupt system as well. There must be lament, not only because of unrighteous leaders that advantage themselves at the expense of the community, but also because we are just as unrighteous. We advantage ourselves at the expense of the poor. That’s the prayer meeting South Africa needs right now– a corporate lament.

I want to see the church lead the way when it comes to racial justice in South Africa. I firmly believe God wants to use the witness of the church in his work of reconciliation and redemption. God wants the church to be leaders, not half-hearted, complaining followers, when it comes to making our world a more socially just place. It seems like a giant prayer meeting is a good place to start. But the mixed-bag of reactions it got makes me think we’re still missing something. I think maybe that “something” is our inability (especially us white people) to listen honestly to black voices, look at ourselves, see how we are implicated in unjust systems, repent, and make actual lifestyle changes. We’re willing to pray– but are we willing to move our feet? Especially when we are not the ones leading the march? 

The #Zumamustfall marches were not a bad thing, by all means we need more government accountability and just leadership. It’s something that will definitely help the common good. But the fact the marches received a “meh” from a large portion of the black community (just like our big prayer meeting received a resounding “meh”) should tell us something.  If as Christians we are going to build communities of justice, we need to be willing to listen.

I get that it’s scary. It’s a very brave thing to go to a protest if you’ve never been to one before. It’s taking a risk. You’re willing to be vulnerable, to stick your neck out there, hold up your sign, and call for an end to government corruption because you love your country. In that moment of vulnerability, it’s really difficult to hear someone say, “Yeah, okay, fine, but where were you when we were all marching to bring access to education for all of South Africans with #feesmustfall? At the end of this march, what will change for the woman who cleans your house? She’s still going to spend half her paycheck to commute in to your white neighbourhood, and then return to the township. How does getting rid of the current administration change her life? The only reason you’re out here is because your savings account is about to turn into monopoly money.” 

Um, ouch. No one wants to hear that. 

But maybe we need to hear it. Maybe our problem is we’re willing to pray, but we’re not willing to repent. We’re willing to march against the administration, but we’re not willing to move our feet when it comes to making our own churches more racially just, let alone sacrificing individual privileges for the sake of social justice in the nation at large. We’re willing to make our own signs, but we’re not willing to stand next to someone else who’s been out on the street longer than we have.

We can call a prayer meeting for our leaders, but where is our own sackcloth and ashes?

What can I do?

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Justice in the abstract is one thing– but what does it look like to be a just person in South Africa right now? If you’re lokoing for a place to start, I suggest you watch Sivuyile Kotela’s plenary talk at The Justice ConferenceSA (or just find him on twitter).

You can view all of the Justice Conference SA talks here.




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