Book review: Service: The Path to Justice

Mar 23, 2020 by

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A friend asked when justice became a conspicuous topic for the worldwide church. I suggested the crises of the 20th century inspired an almost constant inquiry about justice. This occurred first in the global ecumenical church. Now it happens in almost all groups that hope to offer Christian insight on morality in public life.

Service: The Path to Justice

Service: The Path to Justice

Martin Luther King Jr. observed in the 1960s that “justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Mennonite theologian J. Lawrence Burkholder called Mennonites to make justice integral to personal and public ethical thought.

Now Calvin Redekop and Terry Beitzel provide a fresh angle of vision. Their book, Service: The Path to Justice, includes two powerful testimonies from international service.

For Redekop, service has been a theme of his lifelong work. As a Mennonite Central Committee service volunteer in Europe in the early 1950s, he was one of the architects of Pax, the MCC overseas program of alternative service for conscientious objectors. Since then this theme entered into his teaching and writing on an applied Christian ethic.

Beitzel is professor of justice studies at James Madison University and director of the Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence. Together they tell the story of historic peace church ser­vice programs. This story illustrates the path to justice.

For the authors, service as the path to justice is loving the neighbor in such a way that justice is understood as procedural and distributive: “Service is the simplest procedure to achieve justice in both specific situations and generally.”

Justice is doing good, a “pro-social” action. A critical ingredient is empathy, the capacity to love in unlovely situations as well as refusing to participate in war and violence. Pro-social behavior feeds the hungry, houses the homeless and provides resources for humane public policies.

Redekop and Beitzel dare to believe service impacts public policies and public justice, including environmental and economic systems. Independent service programming has pioneered projects and policies for the public sector.

Much of this volume summarizes the North American Mennonite, Quaker and Church of the Brethren refusal to participate in World War II militarism and their subsequent work in developing large-scale voluntary service programs. They demonstrate how a variety of programs became pro-social activities. Each of these churches envisioned service programs for the postwar era.

Each church had strong international as well as domestic emphases. American Friends Ser­vice Committee programs often had a political thrust. The Church of the Brethren pioneered international volunteer activity in Eastern Europe. Mennonites had multi-agency programming, both domestic and international.

Service: The Path to Justice is a fine book on critically important themes. Readers will discover good theology here, a convincing social ethic and lots of illustrations where service practices demonstrate the path to justice — a theme and purpose too rarely remembered in churchly literature.

As is the case with many short volumes, much more could be said. Some topics are not addressed, like how to empower service workers in an unjust society.

Another important detail missing is peace church service in responding to mental health injustice during and after World War II.

The Quaker pioneering effort in changing the character of public institutions required a major political effort, beginning at Byberry Hospital in Philadelphia. Both Mennonite and Breth­ren volunteers assisted in exposing the treatment of mentally ill people.

Brethren placed numerous volunteers in several public mental-health institutions. The more separatist Mennonites developed a remarkable network of church-related mental-health institutions.

Service theology and program are highly dependent on personality and leadership. World War II-era leaders were the Quaker Clarence Pickett, the Mennonite Orie Miller and the Church of the Brethren member Robert Zigler. They were cooperative friends and, on occasion, competitive.

Their successors, Steve Cary, Harold Row and William Snyder, were also warm and respected friends, but then these institutions all had to put more energy into their own denominational developments due to competition from such interests as church education, church missions and support for developing congregational life. Church-related leadership is part of the communitarian roots so essential to church agencies.

Justice has been a richly debated ethical theory and practice. Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Sider have thought deeply and wrestled with the issue in numerous volumes. I wish Redekop and Beitzel would have referenced this literature, which surely has relevance to Service: The Path to Justice.

The authors are also aware that the character of service and priorities on the path to justice can be controversial. Should the priority be local, regional or global? Rural or urban? Palliative or sustaining? Service agencies frequently choose their topic or specialty. Service is rarely devoid of political or evangelical passion. Service is almost always controversial in some way, which is why studies like this one are necessary.

John A. Lapp, of Goshen, Ind., is executive secretary emeritus of Mennonite Central Committee.


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