Confronting Social Justice Fatigue

In recent weeks, I’ve begun hearing people talk about social justice fatigue. This refers to the physical, mental, and/or emotional toll incurred through advocating for social change.

There’s no doubt, standing up against racial injustice or any other form of violence and marginalization is exhausting work. But, could we really be fatigued already?

Many predominantly white churches have been strongly advocating for racial justice only since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, just several months ago. It’s like we’re running a marathon and complaining that we’ve hit “the wall” after the first 400 yards.

As the daughter of my one of my colleagues so aptly put it: If you’re feeling social justice fatigue now, it’s probably because you’re not in shape.

Our lack of social justice stamina reveals two things about how we are going about this work.

First, we haven’t yet developed the muscle memory for social justice. When a certain motor skill is repeated again and again over time, long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing us to perform it with little to no conscious effort. Carrying out such activities becomes automatic.

Most churches think of justice as a “movement” to join or an idea to advocate for. While well intentioned, such approaches aren’t effective at developing muscle memory because they see social justice either as a temporary initiative or a theological position. We won’t truly develop social justice muscle memory until we start thinking about it as an on-going, everyday practice that is intrinsic to who we are and what we believe.

This doesn’t mean that the church should only focus on social justice issues. But it does mean that we should see social justice as being deeply embedded in the DNA of the Gospel. In Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry by declaring good news to the poor and release to the captives (4:18). For Jesus, the connection between sharing the Gospel and practicing justice is there from the start. It is only when this becomes true for us that we will develop the habits and practices that sustain our social justice activities for the long haul.

Second, our lack of social justice stamina reveals that we haven’t been taking Sabbath seriously. Many of us come to the work of social justice already worn out. Our over-full schedules and frenetic-paced lives leave us depleted. Without regular rhythms and routines of rest, we just don’t have the energy to sustain the work before us.

The Israelites learn this very lesson in Exodus 16. It’s been less than a month since they’ve been liberated from Egypt and they’ve begun to complain about their hunger. God miraculously intervenes, not only providing quail and manna but also giving them the gift of Sabbath (v. 23). Why provide Sabbath if the problem is hunger?

God calls Israel to Sabbath not because they are already fatigued – remember, they’ve only been traveling for a few weeks – but because the journey ahead is long and hard (40 years, to be precise). Even more than quail and manna, Sabbath is what’s needed to sustain the Israelites through their wilderness wanderings.

In the Bible, Sabbath and social justice go hand-in-hand. This is not just because the Sabbath invites us to develop healthy personal care practices that sustain the difficult work of seeking justice. It is also because the Bible calls us to give Sabbath to others as well as keep Sabbath ourselves (Exod 20:10). The Sabbath is a social mandate, one that orients us to routinely offering rest and release to all those who are burdened with the weight of injustice. So, if we want to be people committed to social justice, then we need to become people committed to Sabbath.

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