Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Let the Conversation Begin

Photo by Andrew Schalin
On February 21st and 22nd, I attended the Justice Conference 2014 at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. At the start someone (likely Ken Wystma, the founder) suggested that the event was "a conversation." A main goal of conference organizers was "to frame the conversation by highlighting the broad concept of justice from philosophical, ethical, historical and religious perspectives."

An impressive lineup of speakers captivated my attention by describing efforts related to 5 of the challenges identified by Transform World--challenges that have fed the beast of modern-day slavery--failed relationships, a secular worldview, poverty, human rights, and orphans.

In his talk, NY Times bestselling author, Donald Miller, spoke of  The Mentoring Project, which helps fatherless children rewrite their stories. Nicole Baker Fulgham's The Expectations Project eloquently addresses the inequity in the educational sphere of society.

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative made a profound impact on me as he set forth the case for defending children prosecuted (and housed) with adults. The story of Stevenson's maltreatment by a prison warden prior to interactions with a severely disabled man on death row, who just wanted a chocolate milkshake, tugged at my heartstrings. I hadn't realized how abuse, neglect, domestic and community violence, and poverty have.impacted American society to where the U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. That's a problem.

Still I wonder, how does criminal justice relate to biblical justice? And though chocolate milkshakes evoke sensory experiences, I can't help but wonder about the victims of that mentally disabled man's crime. What was the crime that put him on track to be executed and was he guilty? Don't actions have consequences? And, what role does evil play? Though our battle is not against flesh and blood, people made of flesh and blood are generally the perpetrators of evil. Would Jesus have stood idly by and simply said "I love you," while a mass murderer is in the midst of shooting children? What does justice look like for them and their families?

Lynne Hybels (a social activist who helped her husband start Willow Creek Community Church) moderated a panel that involved stories from Marcel Serubungo (a pastor who works with World Relief in the DR Congo) and Sami Awad (a Palestinian Christian who is the Executive Director of Holy Land Trust). Seubungo works for reconciliation by bringing together enemies and helping them become friends in a land where millions have died due to what might be called Africa's world war.  Village peace committees began working together to solve problems at the local level. A key component of reconciliation was telling each other the truth about the problems.

Awad began living a transformed life when he put himself in the shoes of his enemies during a trip to Auschwitz. Witnessing the trauma caused by the Holocaust, he began to comprehend the fear and suffering of the Jewish people. Now Awad works "to strengthen and empower the peoples of the Holy Land to engage in spiritual, pragmatic and strategic paths that will end all forms of oppression."

Steven Bauman, CEO of World Relief spoke of how the Christian faith needs reformation and described how "reformations are sparked by recovery of truth from the periphery and sustained by love." Truth. I couldn't help but notice the depth of biblical truth when Bauman asked the question about why we pity a rape victim names Charlene, when she had the strength to forgive her "perpetrators until my wound went away." Her narrative is one of hope, not of pity, so much so that Bauman and his team asked her to pray for them rather than enshrine a victim status. Making suffering count was a powerful point in Donald Miller's message as well. He wouldn't have become who he is without the struggle. So I can't help but wonder, how justice might either cultivate a victim mentality or empower those who otherwise could easily become so dependent on entitlements that they never explore their God-given potential.

Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke on the chasm between social justice and the church. She advocated for nonviolent change and invoked President Obama's campaign slogan "Yes we can," as she challenged the process of choosing community over chaos. Her emphasis on civil rights and a black President made me wonder most of all about the chasm of views between left-and-right-leaning Christians--those who love the Lord and care enough about biblical justice to devote their lives to it.

Even more, I wonder how can we speak of justice and not address the God-given right to life (see Psalm 139:13-16). In being a "voice for the voiceless," I wonder where is the voice for the unborn and what about justice for them. Behind every challenge--poverty, ideology, human rights, relationships (family, tribal, nation) and orphans--is one thing that should motivate the Christian community to come together in unity more than any other. The value of life from the womb to the grave. If we genuinely value life, we'll take care of the orphans and the fatherless. We'll respect and value girls and women and fight against rape. We'll work harder to end extreme poverty in our lifetime. And, we'll empower people to the full extent of their God-given capabilities.

I admire the work being done by the Justice Conference, and I greatly appreciate their commitment to a conversation. In the notebook they provided when talking about the history of this conference, it said: "A single factor motivates all of the growth [in the conference]: the desire to bring more voices into the conversation in order to empower people to affect change on behalf of the vulnerable." So I wonder when and how that two-way dialogue will take place. And, where in that process will we hear the voice of someone like Marcella Garcia who can tell what abortion did to oppress the Hispanic people? Or perhaps Eric Metaxes, who wrote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and understood the similarities between the Nazi Holocaust and the murder of unborn human beings. (See "Abortion holecaust? If the Hitler size shoe fits . . ." for the comparison.) I hope and pray that it's time to let that conversation, as well as and many others, begin.

Part 2 of "Let the Conversation Begin" will discuss ideas for a powerful way to proceed.

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