Thursday, August 16, 2007
Book Review: Justice in the Burbs
This is an important book. And it is a long overdue book. As soon as I heard the title, Justice in the Burbs, I thought "Yes, finally!"

The problem is that while more and more of us are getting inspired by a concern for issues of justice - whether it's serving the poor, fighting sex slavery and bonded labor, reforming global economic injustices, living more sustainably, etc. - the examples we see around us of people actually living it out all tend to be urban ministry folks (like the CCDA) or radical intentional community types (e.g. Shane Claiborne and his neo-monastic friends). Many of us look at this and wonder if the only way to truly live justly is to move to the inner city and live in a commune. And yet many of us, for various reasons, have been planted in the suburbs. This is where we live, often where we feel God wants us, and it isn't always feasible for us to simply move into the city. Can this way of life be lived where we are already at? Is it possible to live justly in the suburbs?

And on a theological level, if living justly is part of what it means follow the way of Christ with our lives, then shouldn't it be possible to do this wherever we are at? God hasn't given up on suburbia has he? But what would it look like? How do you practice justice in the land of self-indulgent affluence? When so much of your environment and the culture around you seems designed to prevent just living, how do you go against the flow in a meaningful way? And how do you do it in a way that integrates actual relationships with the poor and oppressed into your whole lifestyle, when at times it can seem impossible to even find anyone poor or oppressed in your immediate vicinity?

This book doesn't completely answer all of those questions, but it begins the conversation, and starts to paint a picture of what it could look like. That, in fact, is one of the great strengths of this book - rather than just give us straight prose about justice issues and how to live them out in the 'burbs, the book is actually evenly divided between prose and an ongoing story about one suburban couple (Matt & Christine) and their journey into a justice-oriented way of life. These narrative portions are simply brilliant for giving us a concrete idea of what it might mean for typical suburbanites to actually "do it", and for what kind of obstacles and heartbreak we might meet along the way. In fact, in a lot of ways this story is really the heart of the book, while the prose stands as a kind of commentary on the narrative, talking about the issues surrounding Matt & Christine's experiences.

There were just a few minor tweaks I would have liked to see in this book nonetheless. The first is that I wish it were longer. I really felt like Will & Lisa Samson (the husband & wife authors) just barely scratched the surface of all the issues they could have talked about. More specifically, I think they could have spent more time at the front end of the book giving an apologetic for living justly (from both a biblical and ethical basis) as well as a more thorough overview of what kinds of issues are actually involved in what it means to live justly. Instead it felt like this book was almost "preaching to the choir", in the sense that it was really for the already convinced - for people who already know and care about justice issues and just need more help figuring out what that will look like in the 'burbs. Since I fit that description it was helpful to me. However, I'm not sure whether I'd be able to give it a friend or family member who is less familiar with what justice issues even are, or perhaps has a built in bias against them as "liberal issues".

(I still remember the time I decided to preach on "Seeking Justice" at my former, conservative baptist church. When I told the senior pastor my sermon title he honestly thought I wanted to preach on criminal justice and the prison system. That's the only kind of "justice" issues he was familiar with.)

However, I think this book would be a great discussion starter for church small groups, Emergent cohorts, church leadership teams, and book discussion groups that are already attuned to justice issues to some degree but are struggling with how to live it out in the suburbs. In fact, at my own church we are currently reading Shane Claiborne's book, The Irresistible Revolution, with all of his wild stories and infectious enthusiasm for a just lifestyle. My hope is that they'll catch a little bit of the passion that Shane communicates so well. However, I also hope they come away feeling a bit confused as to how to take Shane's inner city Philadelphia experiences and translate them to the far southwest suburbs of Chicago. I hope they feel this, because I then want us to read Justice in the Burbs together as a catalyst to talk about how to apply these passions to our own context.

I hope a lot of churches and communities will be inspired to use this book in similar ways. That's why I said this is an important book. It is a conversation that is very much needed, and this book will be an excellent tool to help it get started.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 12:01 AM | Permalink |


At 3/26/2008 03:24:00 PM, Anonymous Another World is Possible

Hey, judging by this post and all the other goings on of your site, I think you should really check out the Another World is Possible DVD series. It's a multimedia project by Shane Claiborne and Jamie Moffett (co-founders of the Simple Way) that emerged in response to their belief that things are not right in the world, and that they don't have to stay that way. There are three DVD's, one on war, one on poverty, and one on creation. You can find out more about them at


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