The Justice Conference took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania one month ago today. Those hosting the conference have a vision to “reach tens of thousands of people over the next decade through an annual gathering that educates, inspires and connects a generation to a shared concern for the vulnerable and oppressed.”
In its third year, the Justice Conference draws thousands of attendees and has expanded to Asia, where it will convene for the second time this year.
The vision is noble. Its claim to justice, however – like so many claims to justice these days – seems incomplete.
I’ve spent more than seven years taking a close look at injustice. Working for a relief and development agency, attending gatherings where injustices are paraded across stage, and decrying the wrongs done in the world has not brought clarity on what justice is though.
I struggle to think of the Justice Conference as other than more of the same – a display that moves people to rage and tears in hopes of inciting immediate action. I have difficulty imagining it as more than the latest trend in Christian fashion, another formula dismissing a world of questions and a life of thought.
I suspect I’d leave such a conference with more frustration than hope; with no greater clarity on God-defined Justice or where such an ideal hides; with dismay at the absence of justice and distortion of truth in the world.
When a former colleague offered me free entrance to the Justice Conference, therefore, I declined.
Instead, I sat across a table from an African friend who flew in to speak at the conference. I asked how he’s not eaten alive with anger and bitterness as he looks in the eyes of corrupt oppressors each day. I wanted to understand how he continues to hope and to maintain the belief that God will bring justice.
Together we wrestled with questions he was unlikely to discuss from a stage.
I’m thankful for such personal conversation and wonder if through globalization we’ve not all come closer to speaking face to face. Yet we continue to offer simplistic solutions to complex realities in places we hardly know.
The West categorizes “underdeveloped countries” and expects progress through methodically thrown money. Even with pure intentions, myopic vision ensues. We seek to help others become more like us – more industrialized, more efficient, more individualized and independent. We want to help them attain more income, more choices, more in general.
Yet, we fail to ask the fundamental question on which all these motives rest. The question of what is good and just in the first place.
The American Christian community is especially guilty of such lack of thought. We tend to assume God has given us answers without having to listen to those on whose behalf we claim to speak, and we fail to recognize how deeply ingrained the surrounding culture is in our thinking.
We allow celebrity figures, within and outside the Church, to define what is good. We accept without question that the good life is one of ease, filled with happiness and bursting at the seams.
Despite our claims otherwise, we often expect wealth to solve mankind’s problems. Or in the opposite extreme, we expect a five-step gospel to make the problems less pressing.
But what of the African woman who asks the American how she can stand the isolation that comes with running water in her home? With no opportunity to walk alongside neighbors collecting water each day, the American lacks depth of community. Yet, she pities the African woman who must walk so far for fresh water.
Few Christians I know pause to question if one woman’s life truly is better than the other, or which one, or why. Propaganda quickly convinces us of the answer.
However, when walking several miles to reach drinkable water leads to women being raped, the answer also is clear. We cannot turn our heads away with comfort at the thought that at least the women have community.
Nor can we expect men to have a sense of dignity when Westerners come to the rescue, digging wells and repairing them any time a problem arises.
Amidst these tensions, through questions and dialogue, we may discover truths that are closer to the Truth.
I suppose many Americans may remain unaware of the depths of injustices committed around the world. If the Justice Conference awakens people to these depths more than media exposure already has and propels them to thoughtfully respond, I applaud the effort. If it keeps the conversation going within society, I am immensely grateful.
And if the conference asks questions of what Justice is and how to live in the tension of pursuing it; if it spurns propaganda to consider how we define what is good in the first place, then I may reconsider attending.
Otherwise, I’d much rather hear the thoughts of speakers – many whom I greatly respect, others whom I desire to know more – outside a conference where I’d feel I’d contributed to justice as a fad rather than the infinitely complex, timeless struggle it is.