Though I am not often asked to lend insight into the world of justice, if I ever had to share the single most important lesson I’ve learned in my own pursuit of justice, I could.
My advice? Walk the line.
Not to borrow too much from my friend Johnny Cash, what I mean to say is that to do the work of justice for any duration, and do so effectively, one must acknowledge and embrace the everyday tension between heroism and despair.
Let me tell you how I made this discovery initially…
In the summer of 2009, I left the US for the first time and traveled to the tiny, island nation of Haiti. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to embark on a journey that would literally alter the course of my life. I grew up in the world of evangelicalism, so I was well-acquainted with the concept of missions, but my experience in Haiti was so far outside of the realm of my expectations. The priorly abstract concepts of hunger, the AIDS epidemic, and deep poverty were made tangible by faces with beautiful smiles and names I struggled to pronounce. The people I met and the stories they told grieved, captivated, and changed me. As I flew home with a heavy heart, I knew that what I experienced would not allow me to be the same again. In the months that followed, I’m pretty certain I thoroughly exhausted my friends, family, and probably a couple random strangers with my continuous monologue about Haiti. I couldn’t get Haiti off my mind or my heart and was consumed by my desire to help all the people I met, my longing to “fix” Haiti. I spent much of my time in the months that followed learning everything I could about Haiti, commiserating with my teammates about missing it, practicing Creole and scheming ways to get back as soon as possible.
On January 12, 2010, Haiti experienced an earthquake of epic proportions that further devastated this crippled nation. This event only intensified my desperation. I remember sitting in my college dorm, glued to my computer, watching the news and hoping for word from my friends there, assuring me that they were okay. My desire to return to the people I loved so much became even more frenzied – Haiti “needed” me and I had to help them. So, I gathered hundreds of pounds of supplies, a few friends, and not nearly enough money and hurried back as quickly as I could. This return trip was as impacting as the first, but for different reason. When in Haiti for the first time, the people’s response to me made me feel like something of a savior, capable of swooping in and rescuing these poor souls. On the return trip, the limitations of my own triumphalism struck me with brutal force. One instance of this was particularly memorable. We met some children in a small rural village and offered them a few clothing items from the large store we had collected to give away during our trip. As is often the case in Haiti, a few children turned into many, most of whom were accompanied by their demanding mothers. We quickly realized that our supplies were not going to hold out and we had to begin turning people away. Those who remained empty handed were indignant and our guide indicated that we should make a quick exit before the chaos could escalate any further. Though many wonderful things happened on that trip, the despair I experienced in that moment plagued me for the rest of my time there. There I realized that all of my efforts were just a drop in the ocean of Haiti’s deep needs. The more I pondered and reflected on my experience upon returning to the US, the more disillusioned I became. I couldn’t possibly fix Haiti, so what was I even doing there?
It has taken a few years of exposure, experience, and wise counsel for me to learn the fragile balance the work of justice requires. Found somewhere between the opposing poles of triumphalism and fatalism, this balance is where hope resides. And it’s hope that allows us to continue the work of justice when it feels the most oppressive and impossible. There are two ideas that I found particularly valuable in this discovery of mine. While they seem self-evident, they were “perspective-rockers” for me.
1) The weight of justice is not mine to bear alone
If you are like me, you would agree that the “savior mantle” is easy to put on at first. We see injustice, feel compassion for the victims, and are passionate about bringing restoration to the situation. This mantle becomes heavier, though, when we realize just how much brokenness (and how much apathy) there is in the world. Without proper perspective, the weight of doing justice can crush us. I felt that weight so acutely in Haiti, and it drove me to despair. But since then, I have been liberated from the need to “save” people by the realization that they already have a Savior. At the cross, the ultimate work of redemption was done through Christ and even my most valiant efforts can do nothing to improve upon that. When we understand that the work of justice is ultimately God’s, we can abandon our mantles and the the weight that comes with them and leave them at His feet.
This realization has implications on who we are serving, as well. When I acknowledge that the work of justice is God’s and not mine, the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused or whomever we may be serving become partners, rather than targets. By laying aside the mentality of savior, we can more clearly see the capability of this demographic to restore justice for themselves, and in doing so, share the weight of justice.
2) I can’t do everything, but I can do something
While there is certainly value in acknowledging your limits, the associated danger is to give up all together. I adopted a form of fatalism when I realized that I couldn’t “fix” Haiti. But just because I can’t fix the world doesn’t mean I should do nothing to change it. Injustice, in all of its forms is remarkably complex. And while I fully advocate approaching social justice strategically, aiming to create sustainable resolutions to systemic problems, I’m constantly reminding myself that the trends and statistics we study have faces and stories. At the Justice Conference, Ken Wytsma shared the story of a man who literally ransoms girls out of brothels. When criticized about the efficacy of his work in changing the fundamental structures behind the sex trade, the man’s response was this: “You know, I don’t think I’m qualified to answer the question of whether or not it really makes a difference. You’d have to ask the girls I set free.” Even if I only change the world for one person, I’m still changing the world. While doing justice well requires that we stay informed of what our impact truly is, we’re not always lucky enough to know, in this life anyway, how that kind word or warm meal was life-changing.
So again, I encourage you, friends, to walk the line. Do, as Mother Teresa advised, “small things with great love,” and know the hope and joy found in this beautiful balancing act.