Editor’s Note: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or apathetic when faced with the sheer volume of need in our world. Writing a check or volunteering with a local organization are important steps to walking in justice, but they’re not the only steps. “Alternate Routes” is a blog series that explores imaginative ways of cultivating empathy and restoring the cracked pieces of the world—in other words, alternate routes to living justly. Read the first post here. Up next: Walking
“Most of us try to find personal and individual freedom even as we remain inside of structural boxes and a system of consumption that we are then unable or unwilling to critique.”
— Richard Rohr
The U.S. Capitol loomed high above the grounds: the weight of power, heavy as the dome itself, choked the life out of any who dared walk through its domain. I was at a transition point in life, ready to leave my job on Capitol Hill—tired of the political game—but wasn’t sure what the next step forward would be. “What are you calling me to?” I prayed, day after day, lap after lap, walking in circles around the Cannon House Office Building situated just across Independence Avenue from the chamber that houses the center of the free world.
Free, and yet not free. Every follower of Jesus I’ve talked to about the spiritual climate of Capitol Hill has agreed: there’s a darkness hanging over the place. On the long, busy days filled with political fighting, it seeps inside us all. Paradoxically, the reverse is also true: the darkness is already inside us, and given power we let it out, we give it to others, share it with our colleagues. We see it in each other’s eyes. We are enslaved.
The headlights of the Jeep shown clear as day in my rearview mirror. The car in front slowed to a stop on the no-merge-area ramp onto I-395. We stopped too, I and my friend in the passenger seat, waiting for traffic to clear, for the car in front to pull way, waiting to accelerate.
The lights behind came toward us swiftly. BOOM. Then after the impact, a crunching sound, the car collapsing on itself, the Jeep plowing into the backseat of my car where Members of Congress used to sit. My friend screamed—both of us were tossed forward, hands and arms catching bodies on the dashboard, seat belts pulling us back to safety. The car was totaled, the back end gone, its crumpled ruins everywhere. From this point forward I’d be walking to get around the city.
The crash happened a year after those prayer laps around the Cannon House Office Building, a year after I left my job on Capitol Hill to start a nonprofit focused on bringing healing to the dark places in American politics. It was a financially risky decision, one which put me neither totally on the inside of power nor completely outside the political universe in which I’d walked for years. All of those days walking and praying around the Cannon building led to that decision, and now, here I was a year in, standing on the edge of the highway and watching a piece of my social status towed away in a broken mess.
Mercifully, when you give up some of your financial stability or social status or even a career to follow Jesus, you see a little deeper into the heart of reality. You see how trivial the signs of social status and normalcy we use to judge the world really are. Without a car or complete financial certainty, I’ve had a small taste of what it means to walk in the steps of those who are less fortunate. We tend to expect anyone can pull themselves up by their boot straps (whatever that means), which never gives us a reason to consider that social classes are real, that social stigmas are real, and that without a comfortable threshold of financial certainty we might not be able to “pull ourselves up” either.
What’s beautiful is that when we lose the ability to live in the center of any social group or class, when we give up the things we think we need to be successful, we discover the compassion to include all people in our community because the illusion that we can earn superiority over the other is finally broken. Whether it was walking on the outside of congressional office buildings or along the edge of the streets where I once drove my car, my travels around the city taught me something: when we resist buying into the political or social systems of power, we are free to see the evil inside ourselves.
I know from experience that the drive to gain power, rooted in a need for validation, drives us to weave narratives in which we are the heroes and those who disagree with us are the greatest threat to human flourishing. Once we acknowledge this darkness inside us, we are also free to let Jesus transform us. Walking and praying, or walking the routes of those less fortunate than us—on the outside edges of groups—initiates a longing not just for justice, but for restorative justice.
My perspective on justice and work in politics has changed dramatically over the past few years. In many ways, the changes began long before I lost my car, during a prayer walk with members in my church community. Together we walked through Capitol Hill and down Pennsylvania Avenue, our hearts wide open, praying for the well being of our city.
Walking through the city in prayer will change your perspective. When you beg God to break your heart for what breaks his, your passions will align with his. When we follow in the steps of Jesus, we walk on the outside edge of power and societal hierarchies where we can include everyone in the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In the end, I don’t only view walking in terms of social status, as if not having a car is some kind of disability. This fall I ran my fifth marathon, 26.2 miles all over the city where I could once drive at will. There’s an irony here: when we give up something to follow Jesus, when we walk in his footsteps and disregard what our culture tells us we need to survive, we find that instead of being confined to walking, we are strengthened. We can finally hit our stride, doing the work he has called us to do. We can run.
By Caleb Paxton