Books review

A Review of Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang

Deepening the Soul for Justice cover image

The book is divided into seven sections: Transforming Justice, Stop, See, Open, Choose, Ask, Proclaim, and Remember.

I’ll begin by getting my mild criticisms out of the way. First, I feel the tone of the book is a bit too professional. Hoang feels superhuman when writing of her college days, love of Scripture, evening hymn sings with her family and times of stillness and prayer at the office. It’s easy to get the impression that she’s never stopped caring, that she’s faithfully practiced all these disciplines as long as she’s known them. It was hard for me to relate at times. This is balanced some, however, by her descriptions of how hard it can be for her to stop and rest or pray. It’s also her first book, so it’s fair to say that she’s still finding her voice. In the end, it may simply be a matter of taste.

Second, the thrust of the book sometimes feels a little too simplistic for me. Is the answer to the difficult problem of persisting in the pursuit of justice and the God of justice really as simple as more prayer, more Bible reading, more sabbath, and more worship? What happens when I or the people around me just don’t want to or when these practices don’t work like they once did? What about the variety of other ways Christian contemplatives have engaged God throughout the centuries? Given the length of the book, I suspect these questions were simply outside the scope.

Now, to praise! I had many reasons to appreciate Deepening the Soul for Justice. In the first chapter Hoang warns that even the pursuit of justice can become a commodity for consumption. I’m not sure if I’m interpreting her quite correctly, but working at a university, I think I get to see this first-hand. When social justice campaigns become the cool thing to be part of and come complete with their own look (TOMS shoes, skinny jeans, big sweatshirts, epic beards and thick glasses), I can’t help but wonder a bit about these beautiful young peoples’ motivations. Then I must admit that my own motivations for pursuing justice are no more noble at times, like when I’m seeking value and approval from others. Hoang encourages us to ask ourselves whether we’re pursuing the God who loves justice or self-actualization.

While Hoang’s discussion of sabbath was familiar, it was a good reminder for me since I’ve moved away from many of the practices she promotes. Specifically, her own practice of leaving email and social media unchecked on Sunday is something I’d like to retry. I especially appreciated her framing of the purpose of sabbath as “an intentional declaration of the reality of God’s reign, of the reality of God’s finished work on our behalf” (p. 13).

At the end of the sabbath treatment comes the idea that has stuck with me the most. Hoang tells the reader that it’s often when we least feel like stopping that we most need to. This, she says, is why we need to establish a rhythm of sabbath. If we don’t make a regular practice of it, we’re definitely not going to do it when we least feel like it, when our work seems most urgent and important. And yet, it’s those very times we most need to remember that it’s not by our own strength and ingenuity that justice is accomplished. The work is the Lord’s and we simply have the privilege of participating.

I found Hoang’s elucidation of both spiritual and literal slavery, as described in passages like Isaiah 58 and Luke 4, helpful and enlightening. This may actually be the first time I’ve read someone acknowledge both. Excluding either interpretation feels incomplete. As we are freed from the chains of sin through God’s forgiveness, we also declare, together with Jesus, good news to the oppressed and loose the literal chains of oppression.

Though I find myself longing for a bit more discussion of the role of community in growing deep roots that sustain us in the work of justice, the topic did arise. It was implicit in the stories about all IJM employees around the world stopping twice a day for stillness and prayer. She mentioned the importance of interpreting Scripture in community. I especially connected with her description of discerning vocation in the context of community:

If we commit to the practice of listening intently both to the ways God is moving in this world and to the ways God is speaking through his Word, the reality is that at some point God is going to enable us to know the call on our own lives with increasing and even daily, step-by-step conviction. Scripture itself brings great clarity about the character and purposes of God, as well as for the decisions we face in our daily lives. If we pursue life in the midst of friends who are also listening intently both to God’s Word and God’s work in this world, then this community surrounding us will further confirm the convictions we ourselves are discerning. Our daily, intentional openness and pursuit of God will bring the deepening and clarifying of our soul’s conviction that is so necessary for persevering in the work of justice to be done in our world (p. 23).

She says pursuing justice is something that must be done in community, not alone. It’s “a manifestation of Christ’s body working at its very best” (p. 24). Finally, in Remembering, she describes the importance of telling stories of God’s goodness and action in the world, something that can only be done in community.

In Proclaim, Hoang provides a beautiful description of the connection between worship and justice:

Justice is always connected to worship, because both worship and justice are about the right ordering of the world. Both worship and justice proclaim and declare God’s lordship over all—including evil, including oppression. Singing that Jesus is Lord stands in protest to all other lords the world has to offer, be they the lords of security, self-righteousness or profit through slave ownership. Worship is always in protest to false lords while it boldly proclaims the only true Lord (pp. 35-36).

Isn’t that wonderful? “Both worship and justice proclaim and declare God’s lordship over all—including evil, including oppression.” I love that! She also warns the reader what happens when we work for justice without engaging in worship, or fulfill the second greatest commandment while bypassing the first. A new kind of legalism surfaces in which one pursues justice without examining one’s own heart for injustice. Attending to both allows us to avoid hypocrisy in our work and instead remain whole and integrated humans.

The book ends with a set of questions for reflection. I always need to reflect on what I’ve read in order to feel like I’ve learned anything, so I appreciate their inclusion. I especially appreciate the second and third questions, which allow the reader to be honest about their opinions of and faithfulness towards the practices Hoang has described.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly agree with Hoang’s thesis that we need deep spiritual roots in order to sustain the fight against injustice. Remembering that it’s ultimately God’s battle, not ours, is paramount. He has said that he hates injustice and will move against it. The impetus is his. We merely have the privilege of being used by him to carry out that work. It’s not up to us to save the world or even one person. God does the saving, we are merely the hands, feet, minds and hearts.

I’ll leave you with Bethany’s admonition to pray that stories of injustice would never become easy for us to swallow. It’s akin to praying for a heart that breaks at what breaks God’s. I think this is crucial, and we need places to go when we are broken by the stories. Those places are prayer, Scripture, and the people of God.

By Kevin Daum

Generic anti-oppression contemplative activist. Django development pays the bills.

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