Justice Conference Reflections: Practical Engagement

“If a person owns the kinds of things we need to make it in the world but refuses to share with those in need, is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love.” - 1 John 3:17-18 (The Voice)

“Our pursuit of God should inform our pursuit of justice, not the other way around.”  - Eugene Cho

One of the reasons Rich and I attended the Justice Conference was to find a way to pursue God more fully through obtaining tools to help us practically engage justice in our everyday life. We were blessed to hear many talented and prolific speakers at the conference, who provided new ideas and challenged our assumptions. I am going to highlight some ideas, and follow up with one more post about how we plan on utilizing these tools from here on out.

Eugene Cho, photo by Rich Marshall

Eugene Cho, photo by Rich Marshall

Eugene Cho, Pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, WA, was one of the speakers I was most excited to hear. I have followed his blog and Twitter feed for months. Eugene has a knack for expressing spiritual truths in ways that make me see things in a new light, as well as touching on topics that others aren’t often willing to address. He is also a relentless advocate for the equality of women both in the church and around the world, and knowing that brings me great joy. 

Eugene explained we should look at justice through the lens of God so it doesn’t become idolatry, and explained there is a cost to justice. It can be “messy and laborious.”  He provided the following six points on how to maintain engagement while continuing to seek out justice and compassion. I did my best to write down everything he said, but I’m not sure which of these were written verbatim or not. So just consider all of these credited to Eugene:

  1. Be generous and bless others with your blessings
  2. Shut up, listen, pray. Be connected to God, be in scripture, fast.
  3. Look into the eyes of humanity. You acknowledge a person’s dignity when you are willing to look them in the eye. Don’t let justice turn people into projects or pictures for a website. When you dehumanize the poor, you have no desire to build relationships.
  4. Go deep and learn. The word “disciple” means to be a learner. Be informed.
  5. Be tenacious. Be honest about how laborious and messy doing justice is.  We need people committed to the long haul, the marathon of justice. We have to persevere and be tenacious for the long haul.
  6. Take care of yourself.  No one can take your place in self-care. “When you think the grass is greener on the other side, you should water the grass you’re standing on.”

Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, of Salter McNeil & Associates, may have been one of the most prophetic and engaging speakers of the entire conference. Her ability to help the audience visualize our own failings when it comes to justice, while still being charismatic and focused on God, filled my spirit.

Rev. Salter McNeil spoke about the excuses people, including Christ followers, make when they find an individual in need and how to address those assumptions. She challenged us with the idea that Jesus would say it doesn’t matter how people get into a situation where they need help, but only that he calls us to “do justice,” to be the neighbor, particularly for the person in need.  She used the metaphor of what we say when we see trash on the ground to explain the different types of reactions of which many of us are guilty:

  • “I didn’t put it down there; someone else will get it off the ground.”
  • “This is too big for me.” We have a fear that we don’t have what it takes to fix something.
  • “You deserve this.”  Some Christians believe people are responsible for where they are in life through poor behavior or decision making, so it means we don’t need to do anything about helping the person in need.

Rev. Salter McNeil made sure to pat us on the back by telling us we are not all bad people, but just unsure of what to do in those situations. She said the Justice Conference is proof that God is “raising an army that is doing justice and loves mercy.”  She provided the following practical steps for those of us, like me, who often feel paralyzed. These free us from the excuses so we can actually “do justice”:

  1. Examine your theology. Ask yourself: “What do I believe? How do these messes happen? Who is God?”  She explains, “What you believe about God will tell you what you believe about people.”
  2. What does it mean for you to see an issue that so breaks your heart it causes your stomach to hurt?  We can see some of Jesus in every human being. “What God wants for me, God wants for everyone else.”
  3. Practice by picking up actual trash. 

When she mentioned the last action, at first, I thought it seemed tedious and pointless but I think it will help people understand these concepts. It will especially help me to remember that all individuals, no matter how they got into their current circumstances, should be shown mercy and treated in a just and compassionate manner.  When we see trash on the ground, we know that something went wrong. Someone forgot to throw it out; someone might have spitefully put it there. But if no one picks it up, it will continue to affect the things around it and cause great pollution.

This really comes back to the idea from the Bonheoffer session: we were created to bear one another’s burdens. So as I see it, we all need to take responsibility for one another and continue to pick each other up, even if we don’t agree with how someone got into the situation they are in. Rev. Salter McNeil explains God “wants people to be whole and well and have dignity… We are all image bearers of who God is.”  Justice is about love and compassion, not about making people feel bad for the poor decisions they may have made or the bad luck that has come their way. When you meet people where they’re at, encourage them, forgive them, walk beside them in their journey, you are imitating what Jesus did during his ministry. This will create a situation where people reconsider how they’ve done things in the past and then are more likely to change their ways. This isn’t about feeling ashamed, but about people being loved in such a way that they don’t feel judged and instead feel free to make those changes. Fostering authentic relationships, like Jesus did, facilitates justice.

Shane Claiborne, peace activist, spoke twice during the Justice Conference. During the pre-conference session, he used his time to answer questions. It was pretty free-form. He spoke a little bit about The Simple Way, an intentional community in Philadelphia he helped start in the mid 1990s. Many people asked about how they could help their communities even if they don’t do what he and the Simple Way have done.  Shane said that we all have different ways to give: time, money, skills, etc. Not every community needs will do it the same way.

“Non-conformity doesn’t mean uniformity.” – Shane Claiborne

Shane also spoke about how our politics and theology are informed by what we experience, but we can’t end poverty until it becomes personal. This means meeting people we might not otherwise meet in our life. Shane believes we don’t learn as much from people who agree with everything we think as we do from those who challenge our assumptions. Although not discussed fully, this really is the basis for reconciliation within the church and within society as a whole.

Shane Claiborne and "Raw Tools", photo by Rich Marshall

Shane Claiborne and "Raw Tools", photo by Rich Marshall

During the main session, Shane shared the story of a few people who started an organization called “Raw Tools.” It is a real life example of people using the pain caused by violence along with their gifts to change the world they live in. Inspired by the scripture from Isaiah regarding turning swords into plowshares, Raw Tools turn guns into farm tools. Taking weapons and turning them into tools for a redemptive purpose, they track each tool made with serial number to track how many people are being fed instead of killed.

Shane asked the audience to consider how the gifts they have interact with the needs of the place they are living in?  This is definitely something Rich and I are considering as we reflect on our role in the Kingdom of God.

Shane went on to speak about how “we need a consistent ethic of life” and how “when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed everyone.” He also spoke about how our connection with God can bring us to a place where violence is not necessary. It was so refreshing to hear an Evangelical talk about how we need to be “pro-life from the womb to the tomb,” and every human being has value. This is something that is close to my heart, yet difficult to speak with people about because many people hold very personal, deep opinions on the matter. To address the issue of life, whether it’s abortion, war, or the death penalty, has to be done in a compassionate and respectful manner. I may blog about that at some point in the future.

Here are some great quotes from Shane Claiborne… I think many of them speak for themselves:

  • “The good news is mercy triumphs over judgment, and no one is beyond redemption.”
  • “There is something worth dying for, not nothing worth killing for.”
  • “The world is starved for grace even though it is not a natural instinct.”
  • “It’s harder to hate when we’ve tasted grace.”
  • “Everywhere Jesus goes he interrupts hatred and condemnation.”
  • “The closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones.”
  • “There is not us and them. There is just us.”
  • “Self righteousness is prison to the soul.”

A few other highlights from the Justice Conference:

Lisa Sharon Harper, Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners, spoke about how faith provides us with a redemptive worldview. Some of the gifts of faith include: vision and hope; values and principles; scripture and other inspiration; texts; practices, ceremonies and liturgies; Symbols, rituals, arts, music, holistic community. She focused on how our perspective is affected when we look at things through the eyes of faith.  The end of her session included the importance of confessional prayer where we confess the lies we have believed; agree with God about what is true; ask for God’s forgiveness and the strength to turn and walk in the direction of truth.

Leroy Barber and Noel Castellanos, photo by Rich Marshall

Leroy Barber and Noel Castellanos, photo by Rich Marshall

Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year, and Noel Castellanos, CEO of Christian Community Development Association, spoke together about justice. Barber asserted “justice is a path towards the kingdom,” yet racism and sexism creates a barrier to the Holy Spirit.  Castellanos recognized that it’s impossible to talk about reconciliation without having hard conversations, such as recognizing the dehumanization of people when they are grouped together into categories such as “illegal aliens.” However, he is aware there is a paradigm shift taking place. People now understand that the way to reach the world is to start with the poor. The center of Jesus’s ministry was the poor and “Jesus entered the world on the margins.” He is calling his followers to be with those on the margins. To me that really is the manifestation of the great commandment.

After taking this all in, the next step for Rich and I (besides a big deep breath and doing a ton of laundry) was coming up with a sort of strategic plan for our life so we can follow Jesus through loving God and loving others.  Check out my next blog post for more information on that exciting process!