I grew up in a world that cried out for justice. In the divided community of 80’s and 90’s Northern Ireland conflicting parties cried out for justice for the outrages of British rule and the denial of civil rights and on the other the Protestant call for Republican terrorists and politicians to be punished for their part in the Troubles. On each side of the discussion there was pain and freedom and a history of mistrust that the other side even cared about that pain. To one the powers of justice, courts and police were a place of solace, a protectorate and to the other they were branded the tools of an oppressive foreign state. Who was right? Nobody and everybody, it was amongst the most complex of things; and all the time echoing through both communities, from the Holy book that both held so dear, was a cry for the people to follow justice and justice alone and yet justice for seemed to lead even greater conflict.
The situation in Northern Ireland and the subsequent peace process has shown one thing; that those who seek justice sign up for sacrifice. For justice to come to both sides of the community in Northern Ireland both sides would have to sacrifice, compromise must be reached, power shared and bridges built and as small steps were taken the saplings of justice began to spring up in our wee country.
The Bible’s call to justice reads so simple and yet in the harsh realities of life with its conflicts and disparate communities its complexity is astounding. The web that is woven by a minutes consideration of justice issues in Northern Ireland seems too complex to unravel never mind the issues of the entire planet. It would be all too easy to become intimidated and demoralised by the huge problem of untangling that web but in order to live (see Deuteronomy 16:20) we must persevere, we must hope, we must press on.
A few years ago I crossed the border from Thailand into Cambodia. Dr Ben and I flew into Bangkok, spent the night at some friends house in British Town and the next day caught the bus from Lumpini Park to the border. The bus is run by the Holiday Palace Casino, built on Cambodian soil as a playground for the wealthier Thai’s, for whom gambling is illegal in their home country.
As the bus pulled into the border town of Aranyaprathet I was reminiscing about the last time I crossed that border. We had been in Cambodia with a teaching team in August 2008 and as we crossed back into Thailand to begin our return journey we had gone through the ritual of paying a local man to carry our bags across the border. Your bags will more often that not arrive 45 minutes after you do. I was sat in the sun waiting for our bags as the others searched for some lunch. As I sat I noticed an older western man walking through the crowd. The first thing I noticed was his gut, hanging out from below his shirt, perspiration glistening in the sunlight as he strode through the crowd. He passed me by and twenty metres further up the street was approached by two small Cambodian girls, their naturally dark hair highlighted blonde by the effects of malnutrition. They reached up and offered the man a parasol to shield him from the sun in return for some small price. Without missing a beat the man lifted his left hand and pushed one of the girls faces so hard that she fell to the ground from where she leapt up and ran away.
Everything in me was filled with anger. I stood to my feet without realising it, hands clenched into fists and eyes full of rage. As I contemplated avenging the girls abuse by repaying the man in kind I was interrupted by the arrival of our bags and the man walked off to get his visa and enter Cambodia. In that situation, as I stood by and watched the mistreatment of the defenceless, what was the right response? My initial thoughts of violence against the man would have been of no use to anyone, I would have ended up in Thai prison which by all accounts is no holiday camp and the problem would not have been solved. The lasting impression which that moment has had on me has been huge. The injustice of that fleeting event has set me on a personal journey of questioning the impact for justice or injustice that my life and its style are having on others.
The church has always had a huge part to play in the realm of social justice. In the past there have been great figures of social change that were driven by their belief in the justice of God. People like William Wilberforce, Dr Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa are amongst the most famous of the saints who fit this box. From the beginnings of the Church comment has been made of the Christian practice of justice, at times the commentary has been positive sometimes to the negative. The Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate wrote of the atheist (i.e. not believing in the traditional Roman deities) Christians (whom he refers to as ‘impious Galileans’) as a people who “support not only their own poor but ours as well.” In recent times the internet is brimming with commentary (rightly or wrongly) from non-Church goers on the Christian hypocrisy of great wealth, in a world of great poverty. No matter the direction of praise or criticism the issue of a Christian philosophy of social justice has been on the agenda of the faith since the infancy of the church. It seems as history has passed the church has oscillated between the extremes of this issue.
Perhaps today in the age of instant critique via the blogosphere Christian justice has come under even more scrutiny. At times it is hidden behind its more emotive cousins of sexuality, creation/evolution and religious slogans on buses but the issue of justice is always up for discussion. Youth organisations like Soul Survivor have augmented their summer festivals with social action projects. Youth mission organisations are sending greater numbers of young people to the third world to build schools, paint orphanages and teach English. Christian bands are recording justice songs and promoting charitable organisations. Prophetic voices of people like Shane Claiborne are echoing loud across the Church and calling out for action for the poor. Justice is very much on the agenda.
The problem that I have had is that I feel as if my role in justice is either an Everest too big for me to conceive or negotiate or justice is patronised in a token purchase of fair trade tea during lent. Few of us (particularly myself) feel as if we are getting it right, we are either over awed by the expansiveness of the task or in our naivety it is reduced to the pocket sized chocolate bar or a retweet.
The more I think about it the more I realise that justice is as much in the moment as it is in the large international arena. Either way it involves some giving up of our own comfort. Those who have called justice from the darkness of oppression have taken massive personal risk, made huge personal sacrifice and have been unafraid to get dirty. Whether they are marching on parliament or speaking to packed rallies, they call out change by making a sacrifice of their own comfort because enough was enough. It is the same for us in our own little moments and decisions, the justice decision often means sacrifice, we buy fairly, we give up a little of our own perceived rights in order to give rights to others. Unravelling justice in a world built on the injustices of overdriven greed, spanning hundreds of years.
It fascinates me that the God of justice that we worship. Looks at the injustice of sin and makes it right by taking the punishment in Jesus for our blame. He takes the burden of our injustice upon himself and creates a space for justice to spring up from new ground. He makes the first move. What a challenge to those who claim the name of Christ. When we see injustice, make the first move. Stand in the gap and call justice into being. The call is complicated and messy and will take a lot of ingenuity and patience but maybe, just maybe we can make a difference to a few people’s lives. Wouldn’t that be incredible? Imagine if we made a difference to the many.
It appears to me though that justice should pervade every part of our lives. It is a key tenet of our faith and so should be resourced and taught on and served with as great energy as any other part of our morality and yet I know as someone who has been involved leading a community of people that it has not been high on my agenda and is often replaced by other more comfortable topics.