Social Justice is a Pot of Spaghetti Sauce

I didn’t want to write a post on social justice. 

It feels fake sitting on my couch in my largely white, affluent, suburban neighborhood. What do I have to say? As a white woman, I feel like my steps at connection across lines—even on Facebook—feel privileged, bumbling, and awkward. I say the wrong things. I’m patronizing when I don’t mean to be. I’m not sure what to do. The problems seem so big and the distance between people so very wide and I don’t know how to help others find their common humanity. That being made in the image of God means something in small, secret spaces not just at protests or on social media. 

For white people, social justice seems like what the cool kids do. And I am so scared of doing it wrong. Justice has easily morphed into slogans, pithy Facebook rants, and diatribes about why X Organization or Y Church or Z Zeitgeist is wrong, unloving, and discriminatory. They all may well be. We are called as followers of the The Way to be bold truth tellers. To tell the truth in love. To hold grace and truth in glorious tension. We are called to live like Jesus—as prophet, priest and king. As prophets, we stand at the gates and shout our truths to anyone who will hear because our ears have been clogged by comfort. As kings, we work to legislate systemic change so our world is more just for everyone, no matter what they believe or how they live, because we’re all made in God’s image. We’re all afforded human dignity. But in all the Facebook clamoring, have we forgotten we also are priests? Called to lovingly sit alongside, hear the broken stories, and bring cups of water (and maybe, maybe, not write all about them?)

Justice cannot be a platform. 

Justice flows from the heart of God.

Justice is often the unseen quiet work of reconciliation, not just out there, but in our hearts. 

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I don’t want to use people as props in stories. To swirl a narrative around in a glass so you’ll drink it down, intoxicated, but the euphoria is fake and short-lived. I want to learn the quiet way of attention to the flesh and bone in front of me. I want to see “God with us” in the face of everyone I meet. Especially as we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly,” we can’t flatten those who are different from us into supporting characters—where we often are the hero of the story. Where we write all the time about us, us, us. It’s why I didn’t want to write about social justice in the first place. Yet, we need word enfleshed. We need stories. We need faltering stories like this one:

When I just had two babies, one in a stroller and one in my belly, we went with our church to a small halfway house and ate together monthly with those in recovery. We’d bring pots of spaghetti and sauce, large Costco salads, and plenty of bread and cookies. We’d sit in folding chairs in the garage with our quiet, unsure movements, not sure how to bridge the gap between helper and helped. I felt awkward. I didn’t know how to do this. My conversation was stilted. I didn’t have answers and on the best of days, I’m pretty allergic to small talk. All of our eyes were hungry. Mine most of all. What was I doing here? What did I have to offer? Nothing, rang out loud and clear. 

And then after we dished all the food up, my toddler went about throwing pasta, putting it all over his head, dousing himself in pasta sauce so his mouth was covered in a red ring of tomato juice no matter how hard I tried to rub it off. I had made a mess, stained their white plastic chairs, been a horrible guest, I thought. While I tried to scrub his face, to pick up the floor, a mother came up to me. She laughed the way you do when you know joy is a gift, not a birthright. Her kids did that with noodles too, she said. She told me all the platitudes—about how they grow up fast, about how no matter what they’re a blessing—but coming from her, I didn’t take the cynical edge that I do when I politely nod to the old woman in the grocery store. 

Because something had shifted: justice and mercy are never one-way. Something in my experience made her cross the divide to talk to a privileged white woman about motherhood. Not about Jesus or grace or giving our life to God. No, we talked about pasta. She gave me a view of motherhood from 35,000 feet, not the one where I spent my days: where I was so close to the ground I couldn’t stand back to catch my breath. We were mothers together. And she handed me a gift. She came to me. She took the first step. She shared her life right when I was picking up pasta off of the garage floor carpet. 

I didn’t have much to offer other than showing up, cooking some food, and being present. I didn’t have any wise words. I just had my own story and a whole lot of spaghetti sauce. 

And like most things in the upside-down kingdom, we’ve got everything flipped on their head. We go in thinking we’re teaching, telling, and ministering. We come out being ministered to. Justice-seeking is not an event. It is a way of life. But it’s got to start somewhere. It’s got to start small or we’ll be overwhelmed, awkward, and never get off the couch.

Facebook will not provide justice for the oppressed, sight for the blind. But maybe a pot of spaghetti shared across the divide will help one white woman see her common humanity with those different from her. Maybe a batch of cookies will be how God starts to bring justice to a neighborhood. Maybe we start with bumbling prayers about our own privilege. Maybe we pray God would open the eyes of our hearts to see rightly and then do rightly. Maybe we’ll finally have ears to hear then, as our hearts are pricked by stories that are different from ours, but also entirely the same. We all have stories—maybe we could start sharing them over a pot of spaghetti sauce. 

Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales

Writer and Editor at aahales.com
Ashley Hales holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. But she spends most of her time chasing around her four children and helping her husband plant a church. She writes at AAHales.com and loves to make friends on Twitter.
Ashley Hales

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  • Well, you’ve certainly taken the edge off for me, Ashley — sharing our stories, withholding judgment, listening with grace. “Social justice” has become such a big word and an overwhelming concept. Does anyone feel qualified for it anymore?

    • Yes, I agree, it has become such a big word that it can feel paralyzing and hard to know how to start and how to make a difference. I think we must start small by really seeing each other and letting us make blunders in the process.

  • Kathy Forsyth

    Maybe the secret is being humble enough to not think we’re better than others; to realize that we can learn from other’s stories if we take the time to really listen.

  • Ashley, This piece is excellent. Much of it resonated with me. I’m thankful for writer friends like you who encourage one another to proceed, even when we’re shaking in our boots. PS I loved the idea of maybe not telling all. the. stories.

    • Thanks so much Traci. I’m thankful for you and your words, too. Yes to not telling all the stories. Oh my, yes. Maybe some are told and some are kept as heirlooms. Some are just meant for an audience or a few. Perhaps we’ll learn more as we grow in wisdom. 🙂