I happened to see the above image on a tote-bag a few days ago and was immediately struck by it. I had a good conversation with the owner of the bag about progress and how it can feel like progress is being lost right now. One step forward and two steps back. But for me the image represents exactly the way in which the arc of history is bumpy when you look at it up close.
I got home and started researching the image. I found out that Women You Should Know commissioned David Trumble to riff off of the classic depression-era image colloquially called “Men at Work” calling his image “Feminism at Work.” In it, in chronological order, are some of the most influential women in advocating for feminism and the rights of women, whether it was the right to vote, use birth control, or have a seat at the political table.
Then I got to work on a writing assignment I have in which I’m exegeting the book of Romans. I know the Apostle Paul isn’t known for his staunchly feminist viewpoint, but try to follow me on this one. Up to this point in the letter to the Romans Paul systematically showed how neither Jews nor Gentiles could claim to be righteous before God based on what they’d done or how they were born (side note, and probably fodder for a future blog post, whenever you see the term “righteous” in the New Testament it almost certainly carries the weight of “justice” as understood in the Prophets of the Old Testament, so economic, gender, and racial justice are all in view when the New Testament refers to righteousness).
From there Paul went somewhere that seems a little strange at first:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom. 5:1-5, NRSV)
Because we are declared just people and have peace with God we should boast in our suffering. Wait. What?
I think Paul is giving advice to woke people. I think he’s saying, once you’ve settled your shit with God, you realize all the ways that you’ve been unjust and unloving and admit that you can’t fix any of that, all you can do is work towards being just and loving in the future, you’ll have peace within yourself. You have to start by loving yourself even though you participated in unjust systems, did unjust actions, and were unloving to yourself, others, and God. Once you accept that you are loveable and can forgive yourself for all of your unjust and unloving actions, then you start seeing all of the injustice around you. That’s when you need to develop the skills of hope.
I think every woman depicted on the girder above became an expert in hope. They endured suffering, they built character, and they strengthened their hope-muscles. It’s easy enough to hope for something that’s a day away, or two. But to do work in the hopes that maybe in a decade or a century your work will bear fruit. That’s some strong-ass hope!
And that’s exactly the hope that we all need to cultivate if we want to continue seeing progress towards gender justice, racial justice, economic justice, and all forms social justice. Some Christians want to attack social justice as if it doesn’t have anything to do with God or the gospel (more blog fodder I guess), but the bible makes it clear that there is no difference. The good news of Jesus is that everyone is worthy of love and belonging, that we get to put down our various hustles for worthiness (TM – Dr. Brené Brown), and start the work of seeking justice. I believe that’s what Jesus meant when he said:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30, NRSV)
Once you let go of the hustle it’s easy to see suffering as something to endure rather than a commentary on your worth and value. Once your worthiness is not on the line it’s easy to advocate for the worthiness of other people. Once you know that you are lovely and loved no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how you were born, it’s easy to hope that everyone can receive that beautiful gift.
Then the work begins, that has always been the work and will be until it is done: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NRSV).
when the world
takes two steps backward
progress is not lost
a game of inches
do not forget
the whiff of freedom
glimpses of equality
find the corners
the shape of
what might be
and make it so