A Restorative Response to Injustice
The sticky heat tried to swallow us as we milled around the Liberian market. As casually as we could (although our American identities made that hard), we talked and engaged with local shoppers. A group of us from my church came here to partner with a local Christian health NGO in practical ways, and also to see if we might have a long-term relationship with aid workers and local pastors. To be honest, many of us did not know what we were doing, myself (thirteen and naïve) least of all.
Standing in the market on the dusty earth, smelling the mango and the cooking food, I felt at ease and content. Then we heard the scream. En masse, we pivoted towards the noise, and a scene of startling violence stunned me. A female vendor stood in front of us, bent slightly, while a man slapped her and yelled at her. Not just an instance of domestic violence , though that would also be sobering, this act both publically humiliated the woman and reflected the accepted dominance of the man. Even though we came to share the love of Christ and to do his work, when confronted with this blatant instance of injustice no one with me knew what to do – would intervening help or make things worse?
Quickly, it was over. I sobbed as we walked away, overwhelmed by the brokenness I had witnessed and the realization that this abuse happened because of profound gender inequality. I wept because situations like this are common in homes across the United States. Later, anger surged through me and a subtle cynicism set in. How was this still a reality? How do we respond to a world so broken?
After the Liberia trip, I transitioned into a high school where I became deeply involved in my school’s Christian social justice institute. There, under the mentorship of the incredible Dr. Michael Chen (whose ideas are influential in this essay), I began to wrestle with what it meant, theologically and practically, to be a Christian engaged with issues of social justice. I learned very quickly that the two realms of faith and social engagement must be linked, and that as a Christian my perspective and approach must be unique because of my faith in Christ. Christians are called to restorative justice, and we have been given a “ministry of reconciliation” for everyone (2 Cor 5:18). The message of the gospel includes making all things right, and Christians serve a God who loves justice and shows compassion for the oppressed (Isa 61, Jer 9:24, Jas 1:27, Isa 58:6, Ps 103:6 and many more). If Christians are called to imitate Christ, who is our forerunner (Eph 5:1-2, Heb 6:20), and spread the good news of his gospel, then this means we too must be justice-doers in the world. Since I began thinking this way, I have constantly wrestled with how I, as a human who experiences measures of injustice and as a person who seeks to do justice in this world, should approach injustice. Do I meet it with indignation and retaliation, or is there another option?
I believe that something deep and right lies at the root of our anger in confronting injustice. As Genesis tells it, when sin entered the world, everything fell apart and was fundamentally broken. As development expert Bryant Myers writes in Walking with the Poor, “The scope of sin proved very broad – very holistic, if you will. It led to widespread deception, distortion, and domination in all forms of human relationships—with God, within one’s self (and family), within the community and between others, and with the environment.” This means each of us lives in a state of constant imperfection, yearning for a wholeness we were created for but not quite getting there. As Romans 8:22-24 reads, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved” (NIV). The Christian vision encompasses nothing short of redemption and a new earth, and yet the reality on earth often seems diametrically and grotesquely opposed to that ideal. So a Christian response to injustice should involve a deep discontentment and frustration and a desire for restoration. Where we direct our strength of emotion, however, seems to matter enormously.
It is easy to look at a perpetrator and say that the problem lies uniquely in him or her. Yet I do not think Christians can do that. The problem of sin marks every person and every culture. That reality should cause us to step back for a moment. As a woman, it is easy to bitterly point fingers at the male gender and heap blame and anger upon it for injustice directed at me and other women; often this is a very legitimate injustice. However, while Christians are called to recognize sin and evil, and to actively work to rectify them, our understanding of the cross demands that this work be redemptive, restorative, and merciful.
Upon the cross, Christ took the weight of sin (individual and systemic) upon himself. In the words of 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV). My sinful nature makes me a participant in the deeply entrenched systems of injustice in this world. How is this so? As community development specialists Steve Corbett and Bryan Fikkert write in When Helping Hurts, “People affect systems, and systems affect people,” and, “The effects of the fall are manifested” in these various “economic, social, religious, and political systems that humans have created throughout history.” Put simply, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10), and because we are embedded in the context of specific cultures, inextricably bound to the systems of those cultures, we contribute to their brokenness. Yet Christ died for this brokenness and made us a “new creation” through absolutely no work of our own (2 Cor 5:17). These earth-shattering ideas of sinfulness and unmerited, sin-overcoming grace are what lead Jesus to say, “Blessed are the merciful,” and, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:7, 9), and James to write, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13). For Christians, our foundation is that hope of redemption, that Christ “died for all” (2 Cor 5:15), which radically includes perpetrators of injustice. As theologian Miroslav Volf writes, summarizing theologian Jurgen Moltmann, “Just as the oppressed must be liberated from the suffering caused by oppression, so the oppressors must be liberated from the injustice committed through oppression.” Jesus categorizes his own ministry, from the beginning (Luke 4), as a freedom-bringing, pooruplifting, oppression-releasing work. And at the same time, he befriends the corrupt tax collector, he saves the thief next to him on the cross, he transforms Saul the murderer of Christians into Paul the apostle. This is revolutionary.
I had a profound experience several years ago that makes me believe it is actually possible to live this way. I was in a large Asian city with a sizeable red-light district. Two Christian women spent time in this part of town, laboring to reveal the injustices going on and striving to be agents of healing. A little rough around the edges, they were not your picture of typical missionaries. But something far more meaningful distinguished them as well. Along with befriending prostitutes, they befriended the pimps – the persecutors — believing that showing them mercy and fighting for their transformation was just as much a part of their responsibility. This is living like Jesus.
Let me be clear. As humans, our emotions are and multifaceted. What we feel towards injustice usually is beyond our control. I am not saying you should “feel” a certain way, especially those who have been victims. What I am inviting us to explore is what the active response for all who bear the name of Christ looks like.
We certainly have to respond by seeking to make systems whole (for more on this, Myers’ book and Corbett and Fikkert’s work are highly recommended). We are also reminded in 2 Cor 5:19-20 that because of his reconciliatory work, God “Has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” This is a fundamental role for Christians. It means that even in the injustice around me and around us here on earth, we are called to love and show mercy even to those who do evil, to regard “no one from a worldly point of view” because “Christ died for all” (2 Cor 5:15- 16). Trust me, I am completely aware of the near-impossibility of this task, and as I wrestle through it, I see that it is only possible through the Holy Spirit’s work.
This is a complex issue, and my attempt to discuss it compellingly is, needless to say, both theologically and practically insufficient. Yet my goal is to disrupt our natural inclinations, to challenge us to explore what the Christian faith asks of those who claim it. When we confront injustice both experientially and from a distance, there is something important in our anger. But for Christians, empowered by God’s grace, we are invited to move rapidly beyond simple anger to a position of the deepest humility, mercy, and eagerness to partner with the Holy Spirit in restoring our world. As Micah 6:8 reads, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I pray I can respond in this way.
1 Myers, Bryant L. Walking With The Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. New York: Orbis Books. 2008. Print. P. 27.
2 Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers. 2012. Print. P. 56, 58.
3 Myers, Walking with the Poor, P. 48.
4 Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1996. Print. P. 23.
Molly Richmond ’18 is a History and Literature concentrator in Lowell House.Tags: Bryan Fikkert, Bryant Myers, community, gender, inequality, Jürgen Moltmann, justice, love, Michael Chen, Miroslav Volf, reconciliation, Steve Corbett, theology