The hard work of interconnected justice

October 2nd, 2017

With the quick pace of news these days, it can be difficult for any one thing to receive sustained attention, no matter how worthy. While communities in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean are only in the beginning stages of clean-up and healing after the impact of hurricanes, our national conversation quickly turned to outrage over the NFL and football players’ response to the National Anthem. Our attention span as a nation is not designed for the long-haul, and with new outrages coming at us fast and furious, day after day, we forget those communities in need.

In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan changed their water supply, previously sourced from Lake Huron through the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, to the Flint River. Improper treatment of the water resulted in the leaching of lead from aging service lines into the water that Flint residents were consuming. Despite the declaration of states of emergency for the area and the mobilization of the Michigan National Guard in late 2015 through early 2016, communities in Flint still do not have clean, safe water in their taps.

A working paper released last month shows one part of the impact of the water crisis — a decrease in fertility and an increase in fetal deaths. Compared to other cities in Michigan, fertility in Flint dropped twelve percent, and fetal deaths increased fifty-eight percent since the switch to the Flint River water source in April 2014. The exposure to lead also resulted in negative health outcomes for children who were born: lower birth weights and the possibility of irreversible neurological and behavioral consequences.

The water crisis in Flint is a perfect storm that also demonstrates how justice issues are intersectional by necessity. According to the US Census, the population of Flint is fifty-seven-percent black and more than forty-percent live below the poverty line. It is hard to imagine the level of indifference shown by the state government towards Flint being shown towards a wealthier, whiter community. Racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice are intertwined.

With the release of this latest information on fertility and fetal deaths, we can add another kind of justice to that list — reproductive justice. Born out of the needs of women of color and other marginalized women, reproductive justice is “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent children in safe and sustainable communities” (Sister Song). Broader than “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” reproductive justice is about true human flourishing, the kind of flourishing that has been denied to the citizens of Flint.

Our Christian faith calls us to the hard, slow work of justice in its myriad and overlapping forms. It is work that defies the soundbites and speed of whatever mainstream media deems worthy that day. It is local work, attentive to the needs of our communities — urban or rural, small or large. The water crisis in Flint is replicated on a smaller scale in communities across our nation, wherever people are impacted by the intersections of poverty, race, environmental degradation and adverse health.

Too often, those of us in the church select a niche issue that we are passionate about and neglect the ways in which justice is multifaceted. Environmental justice is reproductive justice is racial justice is economic justice. To care about unborn children must mean that we care about the external factors that affect their mothers. To care about the environment must mean that we recognize the ways in which poor communities of color are more likely to be adversely affected by the effects of climate change.

The church seems to foster this separation with its task forces and committees dedicated to addressing one issue or another but rarely coming together when things overlap. The fullness of God’s justice cannot be brought about by addressing one inequality at a time. The image from Amos of justice rolling down like water should help us envision the work of the church — not a checklist of problems to solve but a way in which entire structures of oppression are wiped away.

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