Andy and I have just returned from Chennai, India. It’s our second trip to India in partnership with International Justice Mission (IJM) to engage church pastors in thinking around issues of justice from a biblical and theological perspective.
It is always a huge privilege to be invited to take part in a conversation around issues of justice and faith but it is also deeply humbling to hear first hand the stories of how much it costs to ‘do the right thing’ in contexts where biblical concepts of equality and fairness are very far from the norm. In addition to the stories of bonded slavery there were also personal stories of how seeking to do the right thing makes life so much harder; like the father who took the risk of sacrificing his son’s entry to further education because he refused to cooperate with systemic corruption, or the professional who had blown the whistle on workplace injustice and been sidelined for promotion and eventually forced out of their job.
Seeking to do the right thing is often slow, hard work; there are very few efficient short cuts. It is painful to see the woundedness of those who leave the comfort of the cultural highway to forge a new path through the thickets…pioneering a new way of being human…transgressing culturally accepted norms which don’t measure up with the biblical picture of shalom, the well-being and flourishing of both human and non-human creation.
IJM’s focus is specifically on assisting marginalised individuals and communities in accessing legal justice and in Chennai much of that work revolves around issues of bonded slavery, where generations have been enslaved to ‘pay back’ a small debt. Biblical concepts like the year of jubilee are deeply relevant in such contexts and yet they are far away from the public imagination. The radical scope of the biblical vision in the contexts of many of our empire-building and unequal cultures is breathtaking. It begs the question…how can we dare to hope for change?
At the heart of the biblical vision for justice is the hope in the goodness and faithfulness of God to complete His work of reconciling and renewing all things. That reconciling work came by the way of the cross…and in contexts such as India it is particularly easy to see the sufferings which accompany the kind of faithful discipleship of which the apostle Peter speaks:
Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.
Instead, be very glad–for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. (1 Peter4:12-13)
One of the starting points of a journey of justice is the recognition of injustice in our world and lament is an appropriate response to the chronic and sometimes severe and brutal effects of injustice in our communities. As we engaged in some teaching around themes of lament one pastor shared how his wife was a composer and a number of her songs of lament were written from the perspective of the abused and disabled children they worked with. She sings these songs of lament in churches and schools and often teachers and children weep as they hear them and changes of perspective and attitude take place which begins to change the culture of the school environment. Lament had turned hearts of stone into hearts of flesh…compassion opened the way for a tangible change.
I leave you with this quote which emphasises the ‘infinite succession of presents’ in which our actions determine the future…
‘To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.’ Howard Zinn