Social Justice in the Christian Tradition (By Laura Litschi, Theology Instructor)

Students in Social Justice class, co-taught by Mr. Waguespack and myself, began the semester considering the question: what does it mean to be an activist for social justice in the Christian tradition? Accordingly, our first unit goal was to construct and apply a theory of prophetic social action. We first read essays from Dorothy Day, a social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Then we read an article about Dom Helder Camara, an archbishop from Brazil who organized the bishops across Latin America to fight for social change and was known for his compassion, humility, peacemaking, and unwavering commitment to justice.
We next read excerpts of homilies from Archbishop Oscar Romero who was outspoken in calling for justice for the Salvadoran people, and subsequently was assassinated while saying Mass. Finally, we read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a powerful statement about solidarity, dignity, just vs. unjust laws, nonviolence, and peacemaking. 

We studied these four as models of not just any kind of social activism, but that which is rooted in the Christian prophetic tradition. They were all a voice crying out in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3), trying to awaken people’s consciences and call society to conversion. After discussing each of these individually, students paired up to synthesize the four models and articulate what they would argue are the five essential elements of prophetic social action.

Perseverance was a trait named by many groups, including Madolyn Dolce and Hannah Morgan who wrote: “In order to create a world of peace where everyone is treated justly, we must persevere through every obstacle big or small. A prophet continues to fight on knowing  that the fruits of his hard work may not be enjoyed in his lifetime or for years to come.” 

Kristen Walton and Chi Banh also argued for perseverance: “Despite facing hardship and persecution, we must maintain composure and continue advocating for social justice. As King says, “We must be willing to suffer and be disciplined in the midst of great provocation.” Social justice will never come easily despite how much it is advocated. 

As Camara says, “If we are to be pilgrims for justice and peace, we must expect the desert.” Another crucial theme highlighted the importance of a prophetic activist’s relationship with God. As expressed by Paula Gutierrez and Abby Thurman, “Your wisdom and strength as a leader must come from a relationship with God. emphasized by Dorothy Day, Christian prophetic social activists must strive not only to remedy the physical hunger and poverty of humans, but also the spiritual hunger.” 

Sabrina Shaw and Marina Resines claimed that humility is essential: “By staying humble, we ground ourselves and see others as equals (just as God intended). We must see each other the way that God sees us and act upon that.” 

This vision extends even to those who oppose the prophet, as Mitch Kundler, Madeleine Montgomery, and Adri Sotelo asserted: “Prophetic action is unique in that the individual not only recognizes Christ in the oppressed but also in the oppressor.” 

Next up, the students will write about an “everyday prophet” who embodies at least one element of their theory and helps us to see how everyone, not only those who we study as heroes, can live a life of prophetic witness.