Many of us have worked in mercy ministries and found that charity plays an important role in helping people thrive. But sooner or later, we run up against (or are the victims of) larger forces that go beyond what our 1-on-1 interactions or charitable resources can accomplish. Sometimes we have experienced situations where charity actually makes a situation worse or becomes its own injustice (see the book When Helping Hurts or the movie Poverty, Inc.).
Proverbs 13:23 says:
“The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”
We’ve heard that it’s better to teach someone to fish than hand them a fish—give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. What we quickly realize is that very often people already know how to “fish.” Their problem is the fish thieves or pond bullies. Their problem is a polluted lake. Their problem is that the lake is blocked off for private pay-only fishing so they don’t have access. Giving a fish or teaching how to fish will never make a sustained difference until you address and remove the injustices that create poverty or mistreatment in the first place.
Developing our injustice radar
To give a quick rule of thumb, we can recognize injustice as something wrong being done TO someone or some group, not bad things happening to someone as a result of their own shortcomings (which we all have and are themselves often linked to injustice). Injustice is usually people suffering because of other people’s bad actions. Examples of stories in the Bible that are related closely to injustice include Jesus, Joseph, the Exodus, and Esther.
I have the privilege of leading justice training cohorts and we talk about how we often think of injustice as something that happens “over there,” but it takes extra effort to recognize the injustices happening right around us. Injustices are almost always linked to some form of bias, belief, policy, system, or manipulative/coercive relationship. What are some of the common examples of injustices in our own communities?
- Employees not being paid for time they work (wage theft)
- People using public defenders who are told to go ahead and plead guilty even if they’re innocent because there’s not enough time to represent their case and if they plead guilty, they can get a lower sentence
- Abuse of any kind in families, workplaces, and churches
- Impunity for wrongdoing due to political, economic, or social factors
- False accusations and malicious rumors
- Biases—positive or negative—that affect how we treat people.
Studies show that black students are graded more harshly by their teachers. And that even when their resumes are exactly identical, men are viewed by recruiters as more qualified than women.
Unequal access to rights, opportunities, resources and services in different communities
Maybe other injustices you see around you come to mind as you read through this list.
These and all injustices cause tremendous damage. Lives are ruined or changed forever. Hearts and trust are broken. Opportunities and potential are left untapped. Communities are torn apart. Even if the injustice is made right, the impacts can continue for generations. The damage is not only individual, but also collective as the case of economic inequality (a biblical justice priority) shows. Research tells us that income inequality, which has been rising nonstop in the United States since the 1980s, has a stunning number of negative impacts on a whole society. It has been shown to slow economic growth and decrease overall happiness (of both rich and poor), life expectancy, community connection, and trust in a society. This is major stuff!
Our call to the work of justice
That’s why injustice needs to be confronted and God calls the beloved community to be a people who both live justly and stand up actively against injustice in our spheres.
- “Defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17)
- “Promote justice! Do what is right! (Isaiah 56:1)
- “Hate what is wrong, love what is right! Promote justice at the city gate!” (Amos 5:15)
- “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.” (Matthew 7:12)
As we shift to seeing things through a justice lens, it changes how we respond. Before, we focused on charity activities that would address the symptoms of a problem (and this is important!), but now we also start to address the causes of the problem with justice activities.
How do we start to make this shift to justice work in concrete terms? How do we learn and practice the skills required to identify and confront different types of injustice effectively?
Get grounded and dig deeper
First we can ground ourselves in the details of God’s design for a just community. Explore in Leviticus 25 how the Jubilee erases debt, frees slaves, and levels the playing field. Study how a universal sabbath is a justice issue in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Look in Deuteronomy 16 at how God makes sure people are having frequent feasts and parties across socioeconomic lines – all paid for with tithe money. Read the stories of Reuben, the Hebrew midwives, Moses, Boaz, Nathan, Mordecai, Esther, Amos, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, James, and others who spoke against and confronted injustice each in their own way. Our scriptures are full of beautifully detailed justice mandates and stories.
Then we can start learning more about the injustices right around us. Find someone in your community, church, or workplace who talks about things being unfair and ask them to tell you more. Connect with your local chapter of Bread for the World. Start reading the news with this injustice lens. Pick one justice issue that interests you and really dig in: learn about the history, the mechanisms, the impacts, and the potential solutions.
Learn and practice the skills of justice
As we learn and practice what it takes to confront the injustice we’re learning about, it’s important to start first with ourselves, with the logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7). We lead by example. We fail, ask questions, learn, and try again.
What can this look like in our daily lives? These are a few ideas among hundreds—you can pick one and start there!
- Put your own financial house in order. How can you make sure that your investments are not funding pollution, weapons manufacturing, war, poverty, and injustice? Visit ussif.org for a list of 150+ mutual fund options and other ethical investing resources. What ethical companies can you support with your purchases? What justice-oriented organizations can you support with your donations?
- Build on your children’s natural instinct toward justice with questions like “What wasn’t fair about that? Why is it not fair?” Instead of saying “Sorry kid, life’s not fair,” involve them in finding ways to make things fair.
- Invite your teen to help you find individuals or organizations in your community that research, advocate against, or directly confront injustice. Sign up for their newsletter. Follow them on social media. Volunteer for grunt work. Read the reports they publish about justice issues. Learn together.
- Learn how to undo your own biases. Identify one group that you feel subconsciously uneasy about and start learning more about them either virtually through books and social media accounts or through local connections and events.
- Make sure your family, church, workplace or community organization has a plan in place for how to investigate any rumors or accusations of injustice that may come up. Does everyone know who to talk to? Do leaders have a plan so they’re not caught flat-footed?
- Teach your kiddos not to stop at an apology but to lean into the restorative justice practice of making it right to the person they hurt.
- Talk as a family and a church community about ways to intervene when you see injustice happening in the real time. When we prepare, we are less likely to freeze in the moment. Practice speaking up or creating a distraction when someone is being bullied, for example.
Why does all this matter? All this change, healing, reform, accountability—the work of justice —leads to a community growing toward connection, flourishing, and equality. And that’s God’s kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven!