I remember sitting at Fuller Seminary’s coffee shop in March 2008, reading the book of Isaiah, and I remember the moment, reading chapter 61, when God broke my heart for issues of injustice, when it became not just “God cares about justice,” not just “we should care about justice,” but “I, Justin, am called to the work of justice.”
And that led me to a deeper interest in politics, because as my friend Eugene Cho puts it, “Politics impacts policies, which impact people”; and it led me to intern at Oasis, an anti-trafficking organization in California, for a summer; and it led me to apply for an internship here in DC at Sojourners, a social justice organization, working in advocacy; and that led me to meet Aaron, who was also working there, and that led me to be a part of the team that started The District Church, whose core values are worship, community, and justice; and here we are three years later:
- serving through Playtime Project with homeless kids in a city with outrageous poverty,
- starting an HIV/AIDS small group in a city with an epidemic-level infection rate,
- pursuing ways to address human trafficking on a local level, and
- spearheading DC127, an initiative to unite the churches in DC to reverse the foster care waitlist.
DC127 is not just about charity—it’s not just “Oh, let’s help those poor kids.” It’s about the gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us to give our lives for other people—especially those who are poor, to love and serve the least of these; it’s about following the God who says, “I, Yahweh, love justice” (Is. 61:8), and then doing whatever it takes to see God’s kingdom on earth, to bring up there down here.
Justice asks us to commit ourselves to the task of working with God to set the world to rights, to see all of creation redeemed and restored by the good news of Jesus. And let me be clear: this is not an easy calling. Last year, Bono spoke in Georgetown and he said this:
… justice is a higher, tougher standard. This is hard work; I’m not going to soft-pedal it. … People are looking for clear simple melody lines: ‘Just a dollar and you can save a life, just a minute of your time, just an hour of your week.’ It’s bollocks; it’s not true; it’s crap. In truth, if you want to turn the world right side up, it’s not going to take a minute or an hour or a day; it’s going to take your whole life.
I want us to move forward with eyes wide open, counting the cost, knowing that it may take more than we feel like we have right now, but trusting that God will step in and do what he does. Yes, it will be hard, but I believe that justice is not only what we are called to in this world, but it prepares us for the world to come—because we are trying to see more of that world in this world, more of God’s kingdom here on earth. And I believe that when we engage in the work of justice, God refines our souls and our spirits and our very lives in a unique way.
So what’s next? One thing that can’t come next is nothing, because here’s the deal: injustice flourishes in indifference. It’s been said that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, writes:
It [may not be] our fault that people are poor [and here you could substitute any injustice we see in the world], but it is our responsibility to do something about it. God says that we are guilty if we allow people to remain deprived when we have the means to help them. It is our moral duty to help our neighbors in need. We cannot look at their situation and simply say, “Not my problem.” Neither can we sit smugly in our comfortable bubbles and claim no responsibility for the disadvantaged in our world. God did not leave us that option. (A Hole in Our Gospel, 123)
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said in his acceptance speech:
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
And so too, in our neighborhoods and in our city and in our world, we must take sides. As the church of God, we must follow the example of our Lord Jesus and take sides against the blight of poverty—Jesus said, “I have come to bring good news to the poor”; what good news are you bringing to the poor? We must take sides against injustice and oppression in all its forms; we must take sides against death and sin and evil; we must choose the side of life, of justice, of peace, of wholeness, of right relationships, of the God who is for all those things and of the gospel that brings all those things.
You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something. It’s not enough to say, “Well, my church does some good stuff,” or “I have some friends who care about justice.” It’s kind of like exercise in that regard: saying, “My office has a gym and people go there all the time,” or “My friend John runs a gazillion miles a day” isn’t going to help you get in shape! Justice is not someone else’s burden, someone else’s interest, someone else’s hobby; justice is deeply and intimately connected with your worship. Your relationship with God is deeply and intimately connected with your relationship with those around you. Love God, love your neighbor.
I want to give you four possible next steps on the journey of justice, and I want to challenge you to think about where you are on this journey and what you want to grow in, because the reality is that we are all in different places and at different points on the journey, but God has a plan to address injustice in our world and in your city, and in case you weren’t aware of this before, I’m here to tell you: you’re part of the plan!
- Lead by example. Don’t ask or call people to do something unless you’re willing to do it yourself. Don’t ask your small group to pray about an issue unless you’re already praying about it. Don’t ask your friends to commit to a cause unless you’re already giving to it. Don’t ask an elected official to do fund an anti-poverty development at 1% unless you are giving 1% of your own income to address poverty. Leading by example gives integrity to your advocacy and substance to your words, and it ensures that you remain humble, challenged, and committed.
- Do justice in community. One of the lies that people who come to DC often believe is that they can change the world apart from community, and so they come full of vigor and bright ideas and enthusiasm, and then quickly run into the brick wall of bureaucracy or get cut down by the cynicism of others or get burned out by the busyness of just trying to keep their heads above water. Just as you’re more likely to work out if you have a work out buddy, you’re more likely to make a change if you have a community in which you’re moving in the same direction together. This is why we have small groups that serve together and do outreach together; this is why we have small groups that play with homeless kids and work on issues of HIV/AIDS and human trafficking together. This is what the body of Christ is about; this is why the local church is so important in the work of justice.
- Speak up. Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Power and privilege and resources and talents aren’t supposed to be employed simply to make our own lives more comfortable—that was what the people of Israel in Amos’ time did, and God wasn’t pleased with that! Rather, our power, our privilege, our resources, our talents, are all gifts that God gives us to serve others and help others and bless others and speak up for others. And you can put this into practice in a hundred different ways, from speaking up for someone being hurt on your street, to speaking up for that person everyone makes fun of at work, to speaking up when you see the impact of unjust policies on the poor or a marginalized group, to speaking up to your elected officials about the cause of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (and while you’re there, speak up about the fact that the capital of the nation has no voting representation in Congress).
- Choose to learn. Don’t settle for “I heard someone say this,” or “I got this in an email” (especially if it’s a chain email). Do your own research. Talk to someone you trust; they may not know all the answers, but they might be able to point you in the right direction. To be a “disciple” is to be a “learner,” and so as disciples of Christ, we’re called to learn to be more like Jesus and to learn how Jesus might respond in the situations in which we find ourselves.
In Psalm 41, David sings,
Happy are those who consider the poor;
the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.
It is as we turn to help the poor that God also promises to help us, not the other way around; so together let us join together as the church, as the body of Christ, to be the answer to the prayer that we pray—“your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”—and may justice roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.