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There is a disconnect between souls and bodies in American Christianity. The warring priorities between evangelism (saving souls) and justice (transforming systems) has widened as our political landscape has become more polarized. The result is the cultivation of souls detached from bodies and social justice work detached from soul care and life-giving spiritual resources.

In progressive Christian circles, there’s a lot of emphasis on challenging evangelicalism around its lack of a justice oriented teachings. And rightly so — a gospel that saves souls for the after-life with little thought or concern for the injustices being perpetuated against bodies here and now is a horrendous oversight.

From the Crusades, to Native American removal, to slavery, this disconnect between the need for evangelism and biblical justice is what has allowed so many human atrocities to transpire in the name of Christianity. It’s what keeps well-meaning evangelicals from supporting movements for justice for black, brown, and queer lives today.

But there’s something missing in our social activism when we neglect our souls. Activism is not enough to sustain us, we need spiritual practices, healing spaces, and community.

Many people involved in social justice work — ourselves included — have experienced hurt in our lives. Our work to make the world right often comes from a desire to see the pain in our own lives made right. Our understanding of power comes from our own experiences as either oppressors or as victims of power abuse.

The work of justice includes both the healing of our souls and the healing of our world. Justice is not only about the fight for better systems or policies; it’s about longing for and seeking healing in places of brokenness.

Justice is a personal, communal, and systemic work. Removing the internal barriers of fear, self-centeredness, hatred, and hurt are just as important and necessary as removing the external barriers of marginalization, poverty. They are in fact one and the same work. When we divide the gospel into liberal (systemic) and conservative (personal) agendas, we impede the movement of justice into all areas of our lives and society. 

This is why the civil rights movement was so impactful. The movement for justice was fueled and sustained by faith. The soul was not considered something separate from the body it was the source, the epicenter, and the driver for non-violent resistance and hope-filled resilience. Dr. King called this soulful way of doing justice “soul force.” Soul force heals the misguided bifurcation between evangelism and social justice by showing the deep connection between our souls and our actions. We must recover the soul of justice, lest we end up cynical, burned out, and reactionary. Soul work sustains both individuals and communities in our justice work. We must not neglect our souls in the work for justice nor neglect justice to tend to our souls. We must commit to both lifestyles and collectives that demand soul care as a non-negotiable act of justice for all.

Here are a few practical ways to sustain our souls as we work for justice:

  1. Take care of your body. Because we are integrated beings, soul care is body care. If we want to be in the work long-term, we need to take care of our bodies by resting, drinking water, having good nutrition, sleeping well, and being physically active.
  2. Do what brings you life. Sustaining our souls requires taking time to do what brings life. This could be reading, writing, running, worshipping, meditating, meeting up with friends, or walking in a local park.
  3. Learn when to say no and when to say yes. Needs are always around us. Practicing discernment and setting boundaries will allow us to protect ourselves from burnout and help keep us focused on what we can do sustainably.
  4. Form community and collaborate. Forming community can be just as subversive as attending a protest. Doing life together with others motivates us to keep going and not give in to despair when things get difficult.
  5. Find a mentor, counselor, or coach for personal growth and lifelong learning. Having a mentor, counselor, or coach allows us to continue discovering and changing ourselves while we are working on changing the world.
  6. Commit to the long haul. When we commit for the long haul, we can take time for ourselves without feeling guilty. We can take breaks and rest, and give ourselves time to develop our capacities and gifts to create a sustained and lasting impact over a lifetime.

Reesheda Graham-Washington is the executive director of Communities First Association, a faith-based nonprofit committed to asset-based community development.

Shawn Casselberry is executive director of Mission Year, a yearlong urban ministry program that empowers young people to live a lifestyle of love and justice.

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