Must Reads for Your Social Justice Book Club

Are you interested in starting a social justice book club? Choosing books that will interest and encourage participation from a wide group of people can be difficult. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is choosing texts that will engage my students—pique their interest, but also challenge them to think deeply. Narratives can activate our imagination and invite us into human complexity that otherwise escapes us. During the Synod, a number of the married couples who spoke criticized Church documents and theology for being incomprehensible to the average Christian; this does not have to be true. Moral theology can provoke us all to think more deeply about our relationship with God and neighbor, such that we discover the deep challenge and promise of discipleship. Blending these categories, here are some books to help you start a social justice book club in your parish, community, or campus ministry group:

Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber (Loyola Press, 2014)

Weber’s book should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in parish social ministry. She begins with a perennial Catholic discernment: what should I give up or do for Lent? She writes, “I wonder: what does it say about me that I’m giving up the same thing at age twenty-nine that I did when I was twelve? . . . And that’s not to say I haven’t tried to make Lent more meaningful, but somehow my sacrifice always sounds like a second attempt at a New Year’s resolution” (21). Rather than replacing “giving up” with the vague “more” that often accompanies our “do something” Lenten resolutions, she sets out to concretely practice the seven corporal works of mercy in New York City. Mercy requires us to let down our guard and enter into the reality of others. In her short narrative, Weber tells her own story with a self-reflective grace that gives voice to the ups and downs many of us feel in trying to figure out how to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty….and keep our day job. It is the perfect way to start a social justice book club.

Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle, SJ (Free Press, 2010)

Founder of Homeboy Industries, Fr. Greg Boyle has spent the past twenty years living and working in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Tattoos on the Heart tells the story of Homeboy Industries and Fr. Boyle’s ministry to counter gang influence and culture in LA through a collection of moving, heart-breaking, and heart-warming stories that challenges how we usually think about God, love, mercy, justice, and redemption. Who is God? What is compassion? Boyle’s stories demand that we examine the way we set up and maintain divisions and challenge our traditional definitions of success and failure. This book made me laugh and cry, and reminded me that “Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified – whichever came first” (172).

Living Justice by Thomas Massaro, SJ (Rowan& Littlefield, 2008)

Often called our best kept secret, the Catholic social tradition provides the strong foundation for Catholic social justice work. Building on a two-thousand-year tradition of Christian reflection on poverty, peace, and justice in light of the Gospel, modern Catholic social teaching engages the complexity and specific social problems of the modern world. Unfortunately, it is a tradition that seems academic and inaccessible to many. In Living Justice, Fr. Thomas Massaro, SJ, a moral theologian and dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara, provides a rich and accessible overview of Church teaching on social justice. Complete with questions for discussion, this book provides the vocabulary, background, and principles for connecting one’s social justice experiences to Catholic beliefs and theology.

Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) by Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation probably made a bigger splash than any apostolic exhortation of the past. Reflecting on the internal life of the Church, Pope Francis reiterates, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49). Aimed at renewal within our parish ministries and personal discipleship, the Joy of the Gospel challenges and invites us into deeper reflection about what saying YES to the Gospel means and what it demands we say NO to – making it a perfect text for a Catholic social justice book club (even though technically, it is not a book).

In The Company of the Poor by Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis, 2013)

This book is a conversation between two social justice giants: Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of liberation theology, and Dr. Paul Farmer, human rights activist and founder of Partners in Health. How do we say to the poor that God loves them, when everything in the world around them tells them they are worth nothing? How do we insist that healthcare is a human right when much of the world’s population is denied access to this right? Through these chapters, Farmer and Gutierrez offer deep theological and ethical reflection on structural violence, accompaniment, and solidarity. As we think about the ongoing Ebola epidemic, few social justice texts are as immediately relevant as this one.

Just Water by Christiana Z. Peppard (Orbis, 2014)

We cannot live without fresh water. We know that millions living in poverty do not have access to clean drinking water. Dr. Peppard explains the importance of this, writing, “Fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more. . . . If fresh water scarcity isn’t the definitive ‘sign of the times,’ then what is?” (67). Dr. Peppard’s tour de force will inspire and challenge your understanding of living Catholic social justice. After reading this book, you will never look at a bottle of water or the living waters of baptism the same way again.