If there is one university that looks upon its students as agents of social justice, it’s Berkeley. This is where the Free Speech Movement was founded, and even today, Berkeley has an array of programs and events for student interested in making an impact on society for equality: Alternative Breaks, JusticeCorps, etc. Just a couple of months ago, we heard the undying cries for justice on behalf of African-American young men in the wake of Ferguson and then for the 43 college students murdered in Mexico. It was through a Spanish course here at Berkeley that I personally became involved in working for a social justice cause. I volunteer at the East Bay Sanctuary and Covenant, a sanctuary that advocates for immigrant rights and helps political refugees establish themselves here in the U.S. on safe grounds. I help refugees who have their residency and are on a journey to gain U.S citizenship. It’s here where I have started to consider the limitations of humans in bringing about full justice and have been convicted that we can’t separate social justice (or even the idea of “justice”) from the God who created us.
For my adult students at the Sanctuary and Covenant, all of whom are members of indigenous groups in Guatemala, passing the citizenship test means that they are firmly established as American citizens and, most importantly, that nobody can take their rights away. Historically they have been denied this recognition (and the basic human rights that follow it) in their home country because of systemic discrimination due to their race. One of my students, Agustina, has her citizenship interview this Friday. With her baby carefully wrapped in her reboso, we go over everything from American history facts to tough questions that citizenship officials might pose. I take a deep breath and ask…
“How did you come to the U.S.?”
“I walked through the desert in Arizona.”
“Why did you come to the U.S.?”
“There was war in Guatemala; the soldiers would harass us because we were Mayan. They killed my father and my family had to leave. I came to the U.S. to find safety. I feel safe here.”
This is the story that many of my students share, and knowing this, I do the best I can to help them get what every human being deserves – the right to live with dignity and protected human rights. But I know it’s not enough, it’s not complete justice; they may gain for themselves and their children safety and rights here in the U.S., but that’s not going to fix the internal pain and brokenness caused by the murder of their loved ones or even help the damage done to them by corrupt men. To make matters worse, it’s highly possible that these perpetrators will never be arrested or punished. Agustina, like all of my students, needs a savior, not just a socio-political one, but one that can actually redeem her from pain and sin that has made deep wounds in her soul. But we are all left wondering who can go so far as to bring full justice to everyone on this earth? I appeal that the only reasonable answer is God.
Isaiah 30 gives us this picture of who God is, “Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; how blessed are all those who long for Him.”i It assures that God is compassionate and graceful (forgiveness is an unmerited gift), yet how can a God of justice bring to justice Agustina pain, and yet be merciful to the murders? 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains that God made “him [Jesus Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”[ii] On the cross there is a trade-off – Jesus trades his clean record, his righteousness, for our sins, our crimes and damaging deeds, and pays the justice those deeds. Why would a holy God be willing to give a piece of himself to be put to death for being evil, corrupted? It happened so that that I can be able to tell my student, “Agustina, God saw what happened to your dad, so he found the murderer guilty and sentenced him to death on a Roman cross. You can have peace now.” Yes, because that’s what Jesus did on the cross, he took the sins of everybody, including the sins of the Guatemalan soldiers, and paid the justice for them, regardless of whether they actually felt regretful about them or changed their evil ways. That’s the love of God for Agustina.
It’s the same for me and you: if you’ve gone through injustice and your perpetrator got away from it, you can look at the cross of Christ and see that sin is up there too. God has gifted you Justice at the price of his own life. That’s God’s love for you.
Believe it or not, it doesn’t stop there. Just like we can be the victims of other people’s bad actions, deep down within us we know we have caused hurt and damage to others – whether by things that we did or didn’t do. The cry for justice also calls us up to respond to our actions. Christ on the cross also covers those sins.
There is something that God can do that we can’t, and that is to give each one of us perfect justice. Though our hands work hard to bring social justice globally, we know that there are still so many whom we are unable to reach, there are setbacks, there’s sometimes even the destruction of the good we have made. Yet it has been God through the cross who has accomplished bringing full justice and at the same time bringing full mercy.
Image credit: Elaine Kim, The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Spring 2013.Tags: immigration, justice, mercy