I want to share some thoughts on the matter of injustice, by way of a personal experience. But before I tell our story, I want to preface this by saying that it is a single story, and is by no means an indicator of the hospitality we usually receive as foreigners in this country. On the contrary, it is an exception in our case, and I want to make that clear.
Not long ago, a person we’d once thought of as an honest friend took advantage of us. We had rented from him and made a $1,000 deposit at the time of rental. When we moved out, he didn’t give us our deposit, making some interesting excuse for why he wasn’t ready to give it back. This continued for some time, each time Jim went to meet him we crossed our fingers and hoped it would be the last time, and that he would return our money. Since we had made improvements to the apartment while we had lived there, we figured there was no reason we shouldn’t get our money back. It wasn’t till three months after we’d stopped renting and several more meetings that he finally handed over some money. He only gave half, claiming that the improvements we had made were of no consequence. By that point, we were relieved to have received any money back at all, and glad be done doing business with him. The fact of the matter is, there wouldn’t have been much we could have done if he didn’t return our money at all. As guests here, and being in the less-powerful position of “renter”, we are at the mercy of people like our former landlord.
It wasn’t till we were in the midst of waiting for our deposit that I began to wonder how often this happened to folks around us, and I asked a friend. I was sickened to learn that it happens pretty often, and it happens to people who have a lot more to lose than we do. Nearly all landlords require a deposit of one year’s worth of rent, the idea being that if a family cannot make their monthly rent, they won’t immediately be evicted, and the landlord will simply deduct the money from the deposit. However, the poorest renters have little to no recourse, and no resources to hire a legal advocate if the landlord withholds the deposit when they need to move. They are simply forced to take the hit.
In our combined years here, Jim and I have been profoundly changed by seeing injustice up close. We’ve been befriended by a diverse mix of people here and we’ve observed systemic injustice and poverty (those two things are inextricable, by the way) playing out in their personal lives and communities. A lot of times, we are helpless to do anything for our friends, and we’re painfully aware that we enjoy an extra measure of personal safety, and we receive special treatment that they do not, simply because of our skin color and our status as foreigners. We are constantly grieved by these disparities.
And therein lies my point:
We don’t care about justice until we note its absence, either in our own lives, or in the life of someone we love. (This is why I used a personal—if not petty—story, to help those of you who happen to love us.)
I say this to my shame, and not to my credit. I have been given the gift of seeing oppression and suffering up close, in the lives of loved ones, and that is why I care about justice when I was previously apathetic. This close-up view has caused me to re-examine my own culture and its dark history, the prejudices within my own heart, and most of all, the words of God.
And in so doing, I have shuddered to realize just how much the Bible talks about justice, how Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for those in power who exploited the vulnerable. I am reminded that God declares, “I am a God of justice”. I am thrilled that God commanded the Year of Jubilee as a time to set slaves free and cancel debts, and I am equally disturbed that his commandment was not followed. And God is not a fan of ignored injustice.
The subject of justice (and how we chose to interpret it) has serious implications for the Christian life; the Bible is full of words about justice. The less we are concerned and curious about injustice, the more likely it is that we are complicit in it. Without God-imparted vision and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, our passion for justice will only extend to the boundaries of our family, clan and race; as Craig Greenfield puts it, we will be about “just us” rather than true justice.
May we as God’s people reflect his heart for justice. May the church be known as the go-to place for the desperate to receive mercy and to be safe from injustice. May we be willing to lay down our status and comfort in order to help those who have none. May our communities be a reflection of the kingdom God is creating, where “every valley will be raised, and every mountain made level, and all rough places are made plain.”
(Children scavenging bottles for salvage; Rakhine State 2009)
A practical tip: I think being genuinely curious about the lives of others is a good start to learning about injustice. So if you want to learn, my first suggestion would be to read books written by authors from cultures and races that are different from your own. Listen to their stories, listen to their cultural histories. Be willing to listen to the ways your own culture may have influenced theirs. Here are just a few suggestions. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
And some words from God about justice:
The LORD remains faithful forever.
He stands up for those who are beaten down.
He gives food to hungry people.
The LORD sets prisoners free.
The LORD gives sight to those who are blind.
The LORD lifts up those who feel helpless.
The LORD loves those who do what is right.
The LORD watches over the outsiders who live in our land.
He takes good care of children whose fathers have died.
He also takes good care of widows.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
And then there is Jesus’ first public sermon, gracious and powerful words that give a person chills:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.