Justice Conference Reflections: What is Justice?

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ – Zechariah 7:9-10

“This conversation about justice is not meant to serve us, but to serve God.”                  - Ken Wytsma

For almost my entire life, I’ve felt compassion for and longing to help the oppressed but have been paralyzed in how to follow through. In fact, during the 11 years I’ve been a Christian, I’ve only been involved with ministry for the past three years. Having a desire to do more, I decided to attend the Justice Conference. I hoped it would help me discover how I can make justice a part of my every day life and follow Jesus fully.

Since Rich and I have returned from the conference in Philadelphia, my head has been spinning with the question, “What now?” This blog is just the very beginning of answering that question.  The amount of information that was planted in my brain a few weeks ago was overwhelming and I need to slowly dissect everything to discover what is relevant to me at this point in my life.  So I am going to break up my commentary over four blogs.  This blog will focus on the question of what is justice and why it’s important. My second blog will be about presenters like Shane Claiborne, Eugene Cho and Brenda Salter McNeil, and their call for practical engagement. My third blog will focus on the issue of gender inequality, particularly the oppression of women around the globe. Lastly, I’m going to highlight some changes Rich and I are looking at making in our life to better reflect our values, ethics, and faith, while working towards “doing justice” and following Jesus in our everyday life.

So what is Biblical Justice?  Most often people hear the word "justice" and think of restorative justice, such as being punished for a crime, but Ken Wytsma, Justice Conference founder and pastor of Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon, says the primary form of justice spoken of in the Bible actually has to do with the justice that helps the oppressed and those in need.  It’s the justice Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25. Jesus tells of how when He returns, He will separate the sheep from the goats and exclaim:  

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

Jesus goes on to explain to his confused followers who just didn’t get it, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Where primary justice looks at providing dignity and worth to each individual, despite  circumstance, restorative justice is a secondary type of justice that is usually necessary only after primary justice has failed to be enacted, and people are acting in opposition to primary justice.

The main focus of the conference was biblical or primary justice.  Isaiah 1:17 says, Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” How can we truly encourage the oppressed? What is our role as Christ followers when it comes to justice?  The truth seemed to be simpler than many make it out to be. To me it came down to the great commandment, to love God and love others as ourselves. But what does that really look like?

The first pre-conference session I attended discussed the theology of Christian ethics developed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In this session, Joe McGarry talked about how the Church is the actual body of Christ and it is where “God’s reality is lived out faithfully.”  Particularly, the church exists as community and is represented through “concrete self-giving acts of love.”  Through prayer, mutual forgiveness and self-renouncing active work for our neighbor, this reality becomes concrete.  It is God’s job to make the world the Kingdom of God. However, we are responsible for taking the next step and taking responsibility for others and bearing their burdens. 

“We can’t fully be human until we fully bear the burdens of those in our life.”

This is the quote (which is from the Bonhoeffer session) that has stuck with me the most since the conference ended.  To fully follow Christ, to be fully human, to fully love others as ourselves, is to bear the burdens of those in our life. Many speakers expounded on this and talked about how we shouldn’t look at justice as taking on projects but instead as developing relationships with people… i.e. bearing their burdens.

Ken Wytsma, photo taken by Rich Marshall

Ken Wytsma, photo taken by Rich Marshall

Wytsma explained, “When you study God, you learn about Justice. When you study Justice, you learn about God.”  He went on to say that justice isn’t just a good thing; it’s a necessary thing.  I believe it’s essential to note that it’s necessary particularly in terms of how to follow Jesus.

Wytsma was also quick to advise that people can’t fix the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change it. As a Christian, I’m well aware we live in a broken world. There will always be sin, and people doing things that hurt others and have negative consequences. However, there will also always be people like those at the Justice Conference, looking to make a difference, be a positive influence, and make life a little better for those who are struggling.  Ken touched a chord with pragmatists like myself when he said, “We need hopeful realism.”  There is no place for cynicism when it comes to justice. Christians follow a God of hope. It’s essential to maintain that hope, even through the difficult realities of a broken world.

Like I’ve said before, I’ve become paralyzed when it comes to this justice stuff, not knowing what to do.  However, many who attended the conference already understood the “doing” part. They’ve been to India, Uganda, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and tough neighborhoods in Philadelphia. As Wytsma said, “We get the standing up and doing part, but we need to understand the sitting and listening part.” What does that mean?  Wytsma says we need to be wise in our actions. We need patience and discernment. We need to be humble and empathetic. We need to listen to the stories of the people who are struggling and get to know who they are as people and their real needs, instead of riding in on a white horse hoping to be seen as a hero.

Wytsma used C.S. Lewis’s definition of humility: “It’s not being dishonest about your strengths, but honest about your weaknesses.”  It made me think about my weakness. I get scared putting myself out there and getting to know people. I’m an introvert. I don’t like small chitchat. It’s hard for me to connect with people on a shallow level. I need depth and vulnerability, and want to know people’s strengths and weaknesses… their joys and struggles.  But for so many people, like me, it’s hard to put themselves out there. To share our inner demons and struggles is to take off a mask that has protected each of us for so long. My fear is that if I try to go deep with people I don’t know, they will be offended and I will be rejected. 

But my desires to connect with people line up with Wytsma’s talk on justice. He said “empathy is erring to the side of the brokenness of another human being,” and “we need to grieve and lament with the brokenness of the world.”  I want to grieve with people, to empathize and know their brokenness, and to be there to celebrate when there are moments of joy and triumph. I want to be in relationship with people, talking about our struggles, dreams and desires… I’m so over talking about the weather.

Justice is rooted in the character of God, says Wytsma, that "Jesus Christ grieves with the poor and the oppressed... He laments over injustice and unrighteousness." Jesus empathizes with those who have suffered, as He has suffered as well. Jesus was a foreigner… He was homeless… He was on death row for crimes He didn’t commit… but throughout His ministry on earth, Jesus’s goal was to bear the burdens of those He encountered. And even to this day He continues to bear the burdens of those who call out to Him, while asking His followers to take care of the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, and the oppressed. I now understand how justice is rooted in the character of God.  To be a follower of Jesus is to live a life of justice… a life of love, mercy, and compassion. Now how do we actually do that?

Stay tuned for the second part of my reflections on the Justice conference… practical engagement.