It’s hard for me to read Christian books on social justice. I love the content and the biblical accuracy of what they present, but I’ve consistently found myself struggling with guilt, compassion fatigue, and despair (that there are SO many problems, how can I solve them?) in my attempts to study social justice in recent years.
A few years ago, I listened to a sermon by Gary Haugen and then read his book, Good News About Injustice. Gary Haugen is one of my heroes to this day. You can listen to the sermon here. I decided all of our church small groups would read and discuss Haugen’s book Just Courage as a way of propelling us as a church into the realm of Jesus-centered social justice. It didn’t have the result I had hoped.
While I love both of Gary’s books and I definitely recommend them, the consistent response I got from people in my church had to do with the guilt the book made them feel and the question of if we were attempting to add a “work” onto the saving grace of Jesus.
Anytime we become aware of social justice issues, there is going to be an element of guilt. But this is a different type of guilt than wondering if you are really a Christian because you aren’t loving the poor enough. This in and of itself is a pretty complex topic, as the Bible is very clear in its commands for us to love the poor (as well as its commands to do a bunch of other things!), but it’s also very clear that we are saved by grace alone and not by works. (And to be clear, Gary never tells anyone they aren’t Christians because they aren’t loving the poor enough, I’m just relaying the reaction some in my church were having.)
Since that time, I have gone to Haiti twice, our church now supports World Relief‘s work in Haiti, and I started a grassroots collection of local churches and businesses in Lansing called Lansing for Haiti, which has raised over $37,000 since the earthquake. Our big fundraiser each year is our 5K run on the anniversary of the earthquake; by far the most exhausting day and two weeks of my year.
I met my friend Ken Wytsma on my first trip to Haiti. Ken is a stud in general, but especially when it comes to social justice, and always having a pack of Starbucks Via handy. Ken is the founder of the Justice Conference and invited me to come out to Portland last year to attend the conference. This is when I realized compassion fatigue was a significant issue I was dealing with. Just coming off the Lansing for Haiti 5K planning, I remember telling Ken I was a little “justiced out” and that I would need to decline his invitation.
Fast-forward a year and I am super excited to be attending next week’s Justice Conference in Philadelphia (you should go too, or attend a local simulcast). One of the reasons I want to attend is to ask experts how to avoid compassion fatigue and how to teach on justice without inducing legalistic-based guilt. As a great appetizer to this conference, I had the privilege of reading Ken’s brand new book Pursuing Justice.
Pursuing Justice not only gives tons of inspiration, practical ways to do justice effectively, and effectively unpacks the crystal clear biblical texts on God’s command to love the poor and seek justice (check out Jeremiah 22:13-16 and Matthew 25:31-46 for a small sampling), it also lays out wisdom and guidance along the way to keep a healthy perspective on justice and to avoid burnout. Here are my favorites:
- Ken pushes us to a “wider view” of justice. Social justice is the entire glass mosaic, we are each just a small piece of glass within it. Trying to be the entire picture is what exhausted my spirit. I can’t solve every injustice and I can’t make the world perfect. That is overwhelming. I can be a piece of glass though.
- Ken offers a third motivation beyond ethical and religious and that is that pursuing justice is personal and it fulfills our deepest longings. I’ve been leaving this one out and focusing on the “should’s” “have to’s” and “need to’s”. It’s much more freeing to simply live how we are wired by God to live, and to enjoy the fruit of this lifestyle.
- Justice will look different based on each person’s context, gifting, and relationships. There’s no formula or perfect way of doing it.
- Acting justly is a part of knowing God and walking in his commands, not all of it. Don’t swing to either extreme of the pendulum that it is how to be saved or that it doesn’t matter at all.
- Give yourself permission to attempt good things without the tyranny of perfection.
- “We can become triumphalist in our justice efforts, thinking we can literally fix the world and solve all its problems. We overestimate our own significance, while at the same time underestimating how intractable sin and some issues of injustice really are.” -Page 256
- “It’s not about one-time actions, but about our calling. It’s not about single events, but about a lifetime of faithfulness.” –Page 272
- “In pursuing justice, we don’t need…a list of wrongs to right, but a hunger for the joy that comes in giving. Not simply a cause, but a calling to live and die for bigger things.” -Page 297
- “Changing the world” doesn’t mean you will change the entire world. Small changes are still changes! We can’t fix the world, but we can certainly change it.
I highly recommend reading Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma. For some it will be the catalyst and biblical wake-up call you need to get involved in the pursuit of justice, something central to the heart of our God. For others, it will provide handles to justice, giving you practical ways to get involved in making changes in the world. And for others, like me, it will give you perspective. It will give you permission to be small, to be one piece of glass, yet realizing that our God is huge and that he can use our smallness to accomplish beautiful things for his purposes.
An online article from Ken Wytsma, asking “Can We Really Change the World?”
Short videos and more info at the Pursuing Justice‘s official landing page
- Ep. 69: Pastor Jack and Becky Sytsema on being in a mixed orientation marriage and how the Church should treat LGBTQ+ people - August 8, 2022
- Ep. 68: Thoughts on Hillsong Exposed, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, & Willow Creek - July 19, 2022
- The Flip Side Ep. 67: Jack Sytsema shares about being a gay / same sex attracted pastor in a mixed orientation marriage - June 25, 2022