“I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
I possess knowledge and discretion…
I walk in the way of righteousness,
along the paths of justice.”
Orange City’s Central Avenue. To walk the length of it – just over a mile – is to take in the quintessence of Small Town America. Shady and serene, Central mingles homes, businesses, and churches in a broad and beautiful thoroughfare.
The speed limit is 25, not that anybody needs the advice. Most people take the street at a leisurely pace: Kids play contentedly on the wood-chip-lined playground. Friends enjoy lattes outside the coffee shop. Seniors linger inside the bakery (donuts are 75 cents on Tuesdays).
I know Central Avenue well. My office is in the 400 block, so I drive up the street almost every day.
But for me, the defining moments on Central Avenue aren’t the ones spent in the car. They are the ones spent on foot.
Each spring, I march southward down Central Avenue as part of our town’s annual Tulip Festival parades. Dressed in the garb of a 19th Century Frisian Reverend, I join with hundreds of friends and fellow citizens to celebrate our Dutch heritage by scrubbing the street. Traditional Netherlands music pipes through the pole-mounted speakers as we scour the cement, readying the road for the arrival of the Tulip Queen. The atmosphere is jaunty and uncritical. We’re about one work.
This May’s Tulip Festival was cancelled due to COVID-19. But last week, another march played out on Central Avenue.
Once again, hundreds turned out. But this time, we walked north.
This June’s march was Orange City’s first-ever Partnering for Justice Walk. It assembled men, women, and children from across our community to stand against police brutality and to call for a more just and equitable society for persons of all races. Some wore clothes with messages of hope. Others carried placards and signs. Many cried out for justice for Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
In the days leading up to the walk, a number of my colleagues wondered if such an event would work in our predominantly-white town. Do Orange City residents possess a passion for racial reconciliation? Will outside agitators leverage the event for mischief? Shouldn’t these endeavors remain the purchase of urban groups?
But by the end of the event, it had become clear that Orange City did feel strongly about its part in understanding and addressing racism in our own area. The march – and the short program that followed – was peaceful and passionate. The cry for justice for our black and brown brothers and sisters was clear and compelling. We, too, were about one work.
Christians raised in my theological tradition need events like the Partnering for Justice Walk to rightly reframe our public theology. We have been raised in (and on) a belief system that locates God’s activity in the prayers and practices of individuals. We value good personal choices and – in ways subtle and overt – presume an operative theology of retribution: If we do what is right, we will be blessed.
The corollary, of course, also applies. If we appear to be blessed, we must be doing it right.
And of course, there are Biblical passages that talk that way. The theology of Deuteronomy, in particular, articulates a fairly straightforward moral abacus: You get what you deserve.
But these texts are at least counterbalanced (if not vastly outweighed) by a stream of teaching that suggests that prosperity is not the natural consequence of morality: Sometimes righteous people suffer greatly. Often the successful are those least-aligned with God’s intent. Job, Ecclesiastes, Luke, and Revelation engage these themes.
With this awareness, Christians like me are asked to think carefully about what really underpins our present reality. If our security and material blessings aren’t necessarily God’s rewards for good behavior, what did bring them about? What advantages did we inherit? Upon what underlying systems did our efforts rely? And have these permitted all of God’s image-bearers the same opportunities?
These questions usher us past personal piety into a shared kingdom mindset. They unsettle us in order to remake us. You won’t (and probably, you can’t) ease into them. You have to really listen, really learn, and then really think about what’s going on out there.
The book of Proverbs says that wisdom – arising from the fear of the Lord – dwells with discretion and prudence. It dares to wrestle with these things. It is introspective and bold.
And then, after it has taken careful stock of the world, wisdom marches. It goes on justice walks. The fear of the Lord eventually leads us northward up Central Avenue.
In the week since the Partnering for Justice Walk I’ve reflected plenty on my role in the work of racial reconciliation. I’ve had to read more broadly. I’ve had to center the voices of minorities in my podcast feed. I’ve had to acknowledge inconsistencies in my thinking (eg, celebrating my heritage each May doesn’t mean that I think only Dutch lives matter!).
There’s still a long way to go.
But this year’s march was a great next step. As a complimentary current to the Tulip Festival parades, the event portends our community’s desire to grow more connected, more compassionate, and more committed to Scripture’s call to wisdom that gets walking.