On a late 90’s trip to Memphis to visit family, I had the pleasure of walking down Beale street. Over the years of going there with my mom and brother, we’d gone to Mud Island, Graceland and other quintessential Memphis places. In the window of a tourist-trap store, there was a Sun Studios t-shirt. It wasn’t one of the places we’d visited, but it was fun to buy it and think about the early recordings of folks like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and so many others. Years later, still rocking the t-shirt on occasion, a stranger asked me if I was just wearing the t-shirt or if I’d been there. My snarky reply was, “Just wearing it; I’m one of those people.”
In my Vanderbilt class this summer, the memory popped up. Dr. David Kim, Professor of Religion at Connecticut College, talked about his deep passion for building a world that is more just. He reminded us that we have to really know what it means to to do this work – work that I would define as creating the visible reign of God on earth. Dr. Kim reminded us that there are lots of people showing up in t-shirts but not everyone knows what they will face.
Doing social justice in an unjust world means we will face dismissal and disdain. We are not exempt from hardship. In fact, walking in the way of Jesus in a society that glorifies narcissism and consumerist pleasures means that we will know hardship. It can look like standing up to beloved friends and family when they are dehumanizing things about those who Jesus made his priority: the poor, women, children, people on the margins.
Back in June, Dr. Kim reminded me that Christians determined to make the gospel real in our world will appear absurd. The roots of the word absurd are “ab” meaning “from/away” and “surd” meaning “something that makes sense.” You see, our society believes that making money is more important than the quality of people’s lives. Our society believes that one has to be worthy to receive any mercy or help. God has a different view, though. God’s mercy is abundant and requires no test of worthiness. In God’s economy, there is enough of every needful thing not just for survival, but for all to thrive.
While taking Charlie to swimming lessons this summer, another mom told me after the first week, she liked seeing what t-shirt I might wear. (My sabbatical uniform was yoga pants and t’s.) The t-shirts I wore were all some expression of my values, rooted in my faith. I pray that when people see me in them, these shirts simply confirm what they know about how I live in the world and not make them wonder if I’ve been there.