Whenever I see my friend Keturah—which isn’t all that often, since an international boundary bisects our friendship—we come parched for a certain kind of conversation about social justice that we can’t have anywhere else.
Both Keturah and I have worked in the sphere of human trafficking prevention for long enough to know there are certain opinions we must keep to ourselves. As social justice advocates, there are burdens we all silently bear, but can’t publicly admit out of fear that our secret will simultaneously diminish both the credibility of our work and the value of our soul.
We are too ashamed, too fearful to speak candidly. And yet, for Keturah and I, these truths need to be articulated outside of our soul-to-soul coffee dates and international Skype calls, because we don’t hear them spoken anywhere else.
We’re tired of justice.
Don’t get us wrong. It’s not justice itself that we find perturbing—it’s how we’ve come to understand and politicize it.
In my own experiences of humanitarian service from Canada to Cambodia, it seems that when it comes to justice, we often contort it to fit our own agenda. We define its dimensions according to our level of commitment to it. We speak of it to flatter ourselves, inserting “justice issues” casually but strategically into conversations—as if it gives us more buoyancy in the human struggle for worthiness. We sensationalize justice, without unpacking what it really means or looks like.
So to be honest, I’m tired of it. And so is Keturah. And so are many other social justice advocates writing grants in high-rise offices in Hanoi and rebuilding one-room hospitals in rural Haiti or searching for dignified employment options for human trafficking survivors in Houston.
But we’re also ready to shift our posture towards justice. And I think we start to do things differently by changing the conversation.
We Need Action More Than We Need Hype.
Justice has become more trendy to talk about than actively seek. Sometimes, human trafficking is used more as a flashy buzzword than it is actually understood as a social and economic crisis. Sometimes, fair trade is more about a fad than what’s ethical or right.
Justice shouldn’t be so diluted that we become deluded. We shouldn’t be satisfied with filtering justice into easily digestible, bite-sized pieces channelled through some social media outlet to appease our eroding attention spans. 140-character quotable soundbites shouldn’t be the central informant of global inequities.
It’s time to move past talking about justice, even past doing justice, to being justice. Because good intentions alone do not harness the power of justice. Without being tied to tangible and realistic action, words of unfettered idealism cannot bring about meaningful change. Instead of just being something we talk about or a job we have, justice should be a lifestyle we live; not a thing we do, but a person we are.
We Need to Get Rid of Our Savior Complex.
In seeking justice, we need to let people speak for themselves, instead of trying to “give a voice” to someone who already has one. We need to learn to let go of that insatiable desire to make a project out of “fixing” people. Perhaps justice cannot be “bestowed” on others, but is possible when we see souls, not victims.
We Need to Hold Justice Organizations Responsible When They Operate Unjustly.
Too many humanitarian workers are disillusioned by the virtuous façades shrouding corrupted strategies and poisoned motives embedded in the nonprofit world. We’re tired of nonprofit organizations performing as for-profit enterprises, emphasizing the glory and reputation of the mission before the purpose of mission itself. We’re tired of feeling like hypocrites as we discuss proposals for poverty alleviation strategies at conferences hosted in five-star hotels. We’re ready to see an end to the consistent inconsistencies of the organizations we work for.
We Need to Stop Taking Advantage of Justice Workers.
Working for justice often blurs the line between volunteering your time and getting paid fairly for it. In many organizations, a theology of martyrdom is promoted while healthy boundaries are framed as selfish acts that call workers’ level of dedication and loyalty into question.
It’s time we free ourselves from the myth that humanitarian workers possess infinite compassion and interminable zeal to help and to hope, to serve and to sacrifice. It’s time we give workers the grace to replenish their own souls and respond to their own needs without fear of judgement or ostracism.
We Need to Be Honest About The Difficulties.
Frustratingly enough, even the most impassioned convictions, the most rigorous strategies and the longest working hours don’t always lead to the anticipated outcomes. We need to allow organizations and humanitarian workers to talk about when efforts to seek justice implode. We need to speak about the struggles we’ve faced when seeking justice instead of just distracting others from seeing our flaws and fears and failures. We need to acknowledge and accept the co-existence of beauty and affliction, of victory and defeat, of joy and pain in the pursuit of justice.
We Need to Be Honest About Ourselves.
Sometimes, we use justice as an outlet to display the edited version of our ideal self. We use justice to validate our worth, feeling compelled to hide behind the virtuous veneer of a “good cause” in order to leverage our moral status.
In reality, we need to shift the conversation about changing the world toward how to change ourselves. Too often, we try to solve the problems in other countries, because we’re ashamed of the injustices permeating our own borders. We try to fix the brokenness in other people, because it’s easier than addressing the brokenness we conceal in ourselves. We need to start identifying our need to be rescued and redeemed from our own pain and dysfunctions while we’re also trying to rescue and redeem others.
Because the truth is, pursuing justice doesn’t always give the personal return on investment we want. Sometimes, we’re given deep scars and redemptive trials and fragmented suffering that doesn’t always make sense—in the moment, or possibly ever. It’s especially in those eras of disillusionment that we need to permit social justice workers to embrace their humanity before heroism. We need social justice workers who can serve lovingly, deeply and emphatically, instead of breeding a generation of dehumanized humanitarians wearing badges of honor.
With its scope of trials and triumphs, seeking justice needs to be more than an outcome, more than something we measure or conquer. It’s time justice becomes a process, something we pursue—however imperfectly—in a culture of community and grace.
[A version of this article originally ran in 2021.]