There is no way that one blog post of a reasonable length can possibly condense the entire Justice conference, so I’m going to go with a snapshot approach to the two days that I spent in Philadelphia.
1. The pre-conference experience was quite possibly the highlight of the two days for me. Who was I able to hear?
- Claire Diaz-Ortiz, who leads social innovation at Twitter and is the author of Twitter for Good, gets a shout-out for helping me plan my classes after spring break. What did I learn? I’m not using Twitter correctly at all, but there is hope for me. Out of all the authors represented at the conference, her book is the one that I brought home. I was hoping for some practical and immediately applicable information and was pretty much on a conference high when this hope was realized the first session in.
- Brian Fikkert wrote When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself, one of the two primary texts that I use in my Writing on Social Issues class, incidentally my favorite of the two. Don’t tell him, but I was secretly full of glee when he cut it close on ending his session on time. About mid-session, I was getting worried that he was going to be able to cram all the major principles of his book into 50 minutes, leaving me wondering what on earth I’ve been doing all semester. Alas, he could not because his book is so full of solid principles. I’m going to get around to reviewing the book someday, but for now, I’ll say that this book is on the top three list of ones that I’d recommend as a primer for a Christian perspective on social justice. Many of the ideas in it are pulled from other works in the field, but nothing I’ve read so far tops it for making the ideas accessible and memorable.
- Kim Yim, author of Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern Day Slavery, was inspiring. Four years ago, she wasn’t even aware that an estimated 27 million people are slaves around the world, and she started her journey by trying to get someone else to address the issue. Now she’s embraced the fact that using her voice to raise awareness is invaluable. We don’t have to have fancy degrees to embrace justice; we can be ordinary people who acknowledge that one particular injustice doubles us over with a kick to the gut.
2. We are not heroes or saviors. This theme was reiterated over and over again. I loved Eugene Cho’s encouragement to “look into the eyes of humanity.” We’re talking about people not projects, and we need to be careful not to co-opt their stories in an effort to make ours look more heroic. Paternalism has no place in justice, but it’s creep is subtle, so we must be ever vigilant to guard against it.
3. Related to the theme above was the encouragement that justice isn’t a sprint. While it’s about helping one person, it’s also about fixing broken (and complicated) systems that perpetuate injustice. Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission, shared that justice requires a “long obedience” and is rooted in a “love that requires monotony.” He shared that to convict one slave owner of a rice factory in India who was using indentured slaves for his labor force took 750 hours of preliminary investigation before official authorities would even look into the case, 50 trips to a court 4 hours away from the village, and 6,100 hours in court, which he pointed out is more time than one of his daughters will spend sitting in high school. But, the math adds up if you figure that those hours broke a cycle of indentured slavery chaining not just individuals but their children to the factory.
4. Prayer – Convicting, yes. I’d be the first to admit that I don’t pray the way I should, and I appreciate that speakers over and over again stressed the need for it. Haugen shared that IJM staff spend every day from 8:30-9 in stillness. Then, at 9, email gets opened, phone calls get made. Everything stops again for a half hour at 11:00 when the team gathers for corporate prayer. I was floored to hear of the commitment of the organization to prayer. In a culture that prioritizes man hours on the job, that kind of prioritization says much.
5. Humility – I’m not sure what the average age of conference attendees was, but many people were young. And, the way the conference ended was sobering. There wasn’t a raucous send off or a euphoric emergence from a cocoon of like minded people. Rather John Perkins was one of the panel speakers in the final session. Here was a man born in 1930 who weathered being harassed by the Klu Klux Klan in the 1960s south because of his vocal stance against injustice and who has given his life to community development efforts, and he was on stage saying that looking out over a crowd of thousands interested in justice is the fulfillment of his work. Lynne Hybels followed up by reminding those young and new to the movement that they must not forget that they take a stand for justice on the shoulders of others who labored long and hard to bring us to where we are today. And, while some at the conference feel that this resurgence of intense interest in justice will most certainly be included in church history of the future, it remains to be seen what will be written about it. Hybels cautioned that prayer and humility and being grounded in Scripture would be necessary because the movement could go wrong quickly, a sobering thought. Though as noted above, Christians should certainly not view themselves as saviors of the world, it would be horrific for people to look back 100 or 200 years from now to see a momentum towards global justice derailed by arrogance.