Justice is central to the Christian faith yet many Christians, especially in the United States, leave the work of justice largely untouched. The signs of the times cry out for people who will stand in the gap and engage the pursuit of justice, but what does that really mean?
It means that more than 20 million people around the world are desperate to be freed from human trafficking. It means that 795 million people across the globe do not have enough food to eat. It means we live in a world where more than 20 million people have been forced to seek refuge in foreign lands because of political unrest at home. There is an incredible need for the world to understand and act to restore the liberty of others.
Through my work as a missionary, I’ve been challenged to dive into the world of justice headfirst over and over again. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of joy and success in this area but there are also the disappointments and struggles people don’t tell you about. As the incredible novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, there are dangers in only hearing the “single story” so what is it that people don’t tell you about pursuing justice?
It takes time.
I live up to the stereotype that millennials are instant-gratification seekers. Like most Christians, I am well-versed in “mercy ministries.” I knew how to donate money, clothes, food or whatever the cause might be that week. I also knew to anticipate the warm and fuzzy feeling that came after helping someone with an immediate need. Seeing someone transition from hungry to full before my eyes would make me feel like I had made a difference. And I knew that the act would leave me immediately satisfied.
I anticipated a comparable satisfaction when I began working toward justice. It did not take long to understand that pursuing justice was an entirely different sort of initiative. I had to tame that inner desire for instant gratification and settle in for a longer struggle. Working for justice can take decades, and even then not see success. Injustice is systemic, and changing a system does not happen overnight.
While it can take significant time to see total success, there are accomplishments to be made on the journey. It is important to celebrate these gains, no matter how small, to avoid burnout.
Be ready to harden your heart.
This sounds counterintuitive, really, but strengthening that heart muscle is imperative when pursuing justice. The first few months of my work were spent researching different justice issues and I quickly became desensitized. Spending eight straight hours reading personal stories about human trafficking, coming to terms with the disgusting racial disparity in our nation and hearing the truth about reasons for migration are some of the ways I spent those first months on the job. I spent more than half that time being shocked, heartbroken and enraged.
And then I realized that I was accomplishing nothing. I was learning, yes, and appropriately grieving for our broken society. But if I let my emotions overwhelm me with every new piece of information about how dire the situation was then I would never be able to move beyond my feelings to work toward solutions. Deeply feeling every one of these tragedies would have taken me out of the fight just a couple of months in. A person cannot carry that much anguish around every day without collapsing under the weight.
Pursuing justice requires us to harden ourselves to the realities of this world, letting in only enough of the heartache so that we are inspired to act.
Mental peace may be difficult to access.
Since joining the fight for justice I have been largely unable to keep my thoughts from spinning like a hamster wheel. I have learned so much in a relatively short amount of time that I do believe my brain has reached capacity on what I can spend mental energy on. Many of us already involved in justice work focus on everything from climate change to gender-based violence and prison reform in my agency—with many, many pit stops along the way. This information can alter the way we see the world and make it more difficult to find peace within the daily choices we make.
While munching on a piece of chocolate, I cannot help but think about how the cocoa industry has completely tainted these delicious little morsels with labor trafficking. While shopping for affordable clothes, you can’t help to think about the price paid by garment factory workers working 20 hours a day.
When pursuing justice becomes a priority in your life and you learn how intersectional every issue is, you begin to see injustice everywhere you look. Justice work requires self-care, and finding opportunities to disengage may look different and be more difficult to come by than originally anticipated. Find community and invest in your personal relationships, spend time doing things that bring you joy. Do whatever it takes to restore your mind and energy.
You may have to sacrifice relationships.
Inevitably, justice is politicized. And although something like human decency should not be a partisan issue, I found out very quickly how wrong that seems to be. As you become entrenched in your pursuit of justice, there will without a doubt be someone (or many) that are not charmed by your cause. When you have essentially given your life to a cause, you do not take too kindly to harsh or mean-spirited criticism of your work and beliefs. Lines are drawn in your relationships simply because of a difference in opinions.
At times like these, remember who you are. Remember what brought you to the fight to begin with. Approach every interaction with compassion and love, even in the most difficult circumstances. And do not allow anyone to take away your power to do good.
No matter how challenging the endeavor has made things on occasion, pursuing justice has brought me closer to the heart of God than ever before. I can rest in knowing that pursuing justice is an opportunity to live out Scripture. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) It may not be easy, quick, fun or comfortable, but it is essential. And no matter how difficult, the fight for what is right is always worth it.