Why is Transformational Justice So Hard?

By Nicole George

As the Baton Exchange’s workplace training video on how to bring about justice in your city explains, justice is not just about the way we distribute things but also the right way to value things. Here’s where justice becomes so tricky. Values are always based on beliefs about the purpose of life, human nature and what is right and wrong but across our culture, people form very different values based on an array of beliefs.

Sin has corrupted values and how people understand the purpose of life, our nature and what is right and wrong. After all, Jesus said “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19, ESV). There’s something inherent in people longing for justice. This is a reflection of how we were made in God’s image. But sin means the depths of our heart love darkness instead. We love sin and it permeates every area of life.

However, the Gospel does a beautiful thing of redeeming both personal lives and communities. Matt Chandler in The Explicit Gospel explains it as both “the Gospel on the ground” and “the Gospel in the air.” And justice must also be worked out in both individual ways and in community breaching ways.

A Dynamic Approach

Robert Caldwell, the Regional Director for Training and Development with Think Tank Inc., points out that our approach to justice and helping justice flourish in cities must be multi-faceted. For example, education for underprivileged students is a key part to helping them access opportunities, but what do they go home to each day? I have a good friend in inner city education in Knoxville who has pointed out that students who move a lot because of a transient family lifestyle (many times rooted in poverty issues) do not perform as well in classes.

Our approach to helping the poor and the marginalized cannot focus on individual areas. Does that mean that food providers should stop their efforts? Or after-school tutor and recreation programs should quit their efforts? Certainly not! What it means is embracing the more difficult effort of collaboration across these programs to nurture people. It means embracing the difficult work of addressing overlooked areas. Maybe a city is doing great at providing work programs, but are they missing out on providing housing for people?

It also means reaching people in both an individual and community way. For instance, convincing one individual parent of the value of sending their child to school every day is important, but you must also convince a larger body of people to embrace a community norm of valuing education and supporting the local schools.

Sowing Spiritual Seeds

We certainly can’t forget the spiritual aspect either, which many social justice programs would rather leave out. However, Baton Exchange director John Scroggins points out that if our society is secular and if our origins are rooted in a naturalistic, evolutionary philosophy, why should we even care for the poor and homeless? It doesn’t make sense to leave out the spiritual aspect of justice that Christ’s death and resurrection brings.

Many times, outreaches will embrace half-truths about human value. (By the way, Satan loves to use half-truths against us. They’re lies that sound really nice but are still LIES.) Organizations will promote the self-worth of humans and the abilities and value of all people, but they leave out the part of where this value comes from and what it’s for. In our justice efforts, we cannot make outreach and love humanistic. People are NOT innately good, otherwise we wouldn’t need Christ. People are NOT prone to do good things. (Didn’t we just talk about human sin and man’s love for evil?)

As we work to bring about justice and human flourishing, we must point to the value designated by the creator, and we must point to his desire to reconcile his valuable creation back to him. We lavish love on others through justice because he first loved us, including those people who may still reject him but are the recipients of justice. We should be willing to form friendships and relationships with the outcasts because Jesus did and because God in his kindness, makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45). God’s wrath is slow and he is patient and we don’t know who might come to know Christ and who might not. However, we do know that as we take part in obedience to administrate justice and goodness, we sow seeds of righteousness and get to take part in redemption of how the world was meant to operate.

What Are We Supposed To Do?

This is the hardest part. I honestly can get paralyzed by both the number of opportunities to serve and the number of needs that I see. But Caldwell points out a great start for young people. We need to start with recognizing our privilege. Whatever class or situation you were born into, which I believe for many of my readers is mid to upper middle class, you were born with privilege that others don’t have.

It means that while you may think you “earned” where you are, it’s more like a baseball analogy that Caldwell uses. Most people like me were born on second or third base, but we come in thinking we worked hard, we got there because we hit a double or triple. Ha! Not really. You were born with opportunities that others don’t have and what that means is that you have a duty.

Wait, wait, wait. Now where does the idea of duty come from? Why should you give back?

Well every person has two fundamental rights.

1) The right to be treated with dignity (based on the image in which we have been created.)

2) The right to exercise free will (based on the ability to make decisions that God gave us…and then we chose disobedience and sin entered the world.)

However, one’s person’s rights becomes another person’s duty because we know that when anyone’s rights are violated, their person is violated. This is why slavery had to be abolished and this is why other forms of injustices must also be demolished. So it starts with recognizing the privilege you have and reflecting on how you can use those privileges, those gifts, to honor your duty to people who are being violated.

This is tricky because flourishing is not a right and we’re not entitled to societal success. Sin comes in and makes it so that we really don’t DESERVE any good thing because we all have sinned. Plus, sin means that human flourishing doesn’t always look like how we want it to look.

Because we’ve violated his commands and we sin, things don’t always go as we wish, but because of his mercy and grace, they can get redeemed and in the end, because of Christ's return and victory, all things will be redeemed.

It’s his great desire to redeem us, even though we don’t deserve it. So we call on his nature and ask him to redeem people and communities through us. God’s grace allows us to extend grace to other people.

Still, many people are not treated with dignity, and we often act like God wouldn’t extend grace to them. They are never given the right to choose certain opportunities because of social cycles working against them or because someone else’s decisions affected them. Those are things worth fighting against and are places we can start acting in and praying for.