+ The Story Table brings pressing topics to life at everyone’s favorite conversation place: the shared table. This Story Table focused on issues of justice, and we were honored to host among our storytellers our president, students, and friends of Fuller to share personal experiences around justice. Special thanks to Tod Bolsinger, vice president and chief of leadership formation and Angela Bae, director of operations for the Fuller Leadership Platform, for their invaluable contributions to the organization and aesthetic of this story table. [If you are interested in hosting your own Story Table, we’ve prepared a guide that you might find helpful.]
Mark Labberton, President
Breon Wells, Founder and CEO of The Daniel Initiative (watch)
Gary Haugen, Founder and CEO of International Justice Mission (watch)
Teesha Hadra, MDiv Student (watch)
Inés Velasquez-McBryde, MDiv Student (watch)
Dave Evans, Lecturer and Writer of Designing Your Life (watch)
Mark Labberton: Thank you all very much for being part of this conversation. When I think about the church in the world, one of the things that I think about is that the kingdom of God is about God rightly ordering power. So much of the work of doing justice has to do with what it takes to rightly order power so that people can thrive and be fully themselves, and the world is full of the evidences of disordered power, abusive power, corrupt power.
Part of what we’re going to be talking about in this conversation is what does it take to live a life that seeks and sustains doing justice, to seek the right ordering of power for the sake of everyone in individual relationship or in a society or culture. How do you lean toward God’s passion for justice in a way that is sustainable over time?
I’ve certainly known plenty of people that have burned out somewhere along the way, and for understandable reasons, because it’s a profound work and it’s against great odds. But it makes it all the more important, I think, to try to understand what it takes. What enables a life to be able to become a sustaining center of seeking justice in community with others over time?
I’m grateful for the fact that you’ve come together in part for that conversation, and we’ll be able to share some of your own insights and stories about what it takes. What would be something that helps sustain a life of doing justice? What are stories that come to your mind that have been shaping to you, that have helped you envision and seek to practice a life of doing justice?
Breon Wells: I like how you said that it’s about this distribution of power. I think about that often in the context of the work that I do in the consulting firm that I’ve built called The Daniel Initiative, who was someone who I saw in a position of power. He used that opportunity, maximized on that opportunity to allocate that power for the kingdom.
I think it’s important that we, number one, be in the room and present. One of the things that I try to be mindful of is helping Christians, professionals, maybe those who are struggling with calling figure out the practical side of how do we take this calling, this sense of purpose, this good that I feel inside of me and take it from an internal place into an external materialized place that gives irrefutable evidence, if you will.
So there’s the stories of Daniel, the stories of Esther, of Joseph: three people who were in exile, three people who were in a community outside of their natural habitat; they were dealing in this construct of power. All of it, the unifying factor I would look at is they were grounded in the Word, first of all. They had a very centered theological underpinning.
It was from there that they were able to navigate successfully I think in the broader context with people who did not believe like they believed, with people who did not reason in that same way, with people who did not have the same definition of justice. I think that that rooted and groundedness in the word is important, because we get our philosophy on what justice is from a Christ-centered, from a kingdom-centered place. I think that that’s one of the things. It has to start there.
Gary Haugen: I think for myself I think of this notion of compassion; to engage in the work of justice, you have to actually care about it. It has to actually move you. I certainly grew up in a place that was far removed from the suffering and hurt of people who were suffering because of the abuse of power. So I couldn’t feel passionately about something that was remote, that I wasn’t close to, that there wasn’t a human connection to.
For me, it was the process of leaving a very safe world, where I was very well taken care of myself as a kid and particularly going off to college and moving to a more urban environment, where I could just visually see and encounter actual people who were suffering and hurting. In very concrete terms, that means walking to school, there were homeless people laying on the street on the way to school. You had to almost step over to get to class.
Mark: That hadn’t been your environment.
Gary: That had not been in my environment where I had a very nice stroll to my suburban high school. I had to step over some well groomed hedges maybe, but not homeless people. Then maybe taking a step to actually see or encounter them as actual human beings. That seems to allow identification with their hurt to become human for you, and I suppose just for myself that the moving close to the actual human beings who were hurting is where any kind of work of justice or activity of justice seem to begin.
Mark: Which is an interesting tie to Daniel, and Esther, and Joseph all doing the same thing, finding places of actual hurt and connection.
Teesha Hadra: It kind of reminds of me what you were saying, Gary, about living a life that pushes the limits of your empathy. I’m a Christian, and so I fancy myself this very empathetic person with an ability to care for and love other people. But then there have been moments where that has been challenged, when you are called into or your ability to empathize with a certain group of people is called into question.
I remember two moments. I remember the night that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. I had a roommate at the time; her name was Kimberly. We were both single young women living in Atlanta. We were sitting on the TV with the dogs, watching the results come in, and we both just wept when he was elected. It was just this really amazing moment.
Dave Evans: Finally, finally.
Teesha: Right, exactly. Then eight years later, I’m in a different living room, this time with my husband. It’s the 2016 election, and we are watching these results roll in. I wept again, but for a very different reason. The aftermath of that election and thinking through the numbers, the percentages of Christians who . . . the way that those numbers kind of shook out.
I was working at a church at the time, and it was a very interesting thing to go to church the next day knowing that some 75 to 80% of Christians had voted in this way that for me was hurtful. What was I going to do with my empathy there? Because I don’t get to pick and choose the people for whom I have empathy, because we’re called to this radical, all-encompassing, complete empathy.
When I think about sustaining a life where we’re willing to work in the places of injustice, I think we have to pay attention to that, the places where our empathy bumps up against something. That means, “Go there.” You better keep going to that place, because that’s the place where I think God wants to do a great work in you, but also in the people that He may have called you to.
Inés Velasquez-McBryde: When I think of how to sustain the work of justice, another question that I ask myself, how did I begin in the work of justice? How did that initiate in my own life? I think of my father. My father is from Nicaragua. I grew up in Nicaragua during the late ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and we lived in a place of injustice.
We survived a revolution, we survived famine, and we survived war. We survived communism. We survived being held at gunpoint over one night and our lives being up for ransom. From that place of injustice though, my father always mentored me towards justice. He empowered me towards justice. Here I am, a Nicaraguan girl in the ’80s and ’90s, and I clearly remember it. He was mentoring me towards that, it was very subtle.
We were driving in his Toyota four-wheel drive up a mountain on bumpy roads, dirt roads, and we’d go into this small little hut, small house. I was 10 years old, and my English was not as good as I’m speaking right now, but he sat me down and says, “You’re going to sit down next to this nice U.S. American doctor who has come to help us, and you speak English. So you’re going to translate for him. We’re giving out medicine and medical help.”
He said, “If you don’t understand something he says, here’s a dictionary. Look it up. If you don’t know something.” If you know my father, he would always say, “If you don’t know something, look it up, and I’m going to come back and pick you up at the end of the day.” Imagine a 10-year-old just sitting there, and it started nurturing this love, this empathy, this compassion that comes from the gut towards others.
If you don’t know the narrative for a young girl in Nicaragua, for a man to empower a woman, he was amplifying my voice in ways that now I’m starting to understand. He was amplifying my voice and saying, “You have something to contribute.” I see that Jesus did the same thing. He amplified the voices in the margins.
Have you ever asked the question, why does Jesus ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” That’s a question that has annoyed me from Jesus. I want to say, “Well Jesus, he is blind. He wants to see. He wants to be healed, and he wants to see.” But Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you? Do you want me to make you well?”
That question shows that he doesn’t assume that he knows what they want. He invites the voices in the margins into a conversation; he invites them into collaboration, and he invites them to take part in their own liberation. My father did that often by disrupting the conversation and placing the odd person right in the middle of that conversation. He did it often.
It started cultivating in me a love for justice and a love for people, because a love for justice is not an issue. Injustice has a face. It has a certain cry and a certain sound. I think about that’s how it originated, so how do you sustain and you keep cultivating that? It’s entering into those margins and amplifying the voices in the margins to speak with and for and not to. My dad could have done the job, but he was speaking with and not speaking for, not speaking over, and elevating a voice that otherwise might not have taken place in that work of justice. It’s very small, very subtle.
Dave: But what would you wish for? Because it sounds lovely to engage and to involve and to authorize, which also actually comes with a certain degree of hubris because what they might say back is not only Jesus’ way for me to participate, but “no.” You can’t decide, “I’m going to save you now.” In addition to compassion, there’s also compromise, so which justice are we talking about?
A buddy of mine, Steve Garber wrote a lovely article years ago called “Proximate Justice,” which is all we’re ever going to see this side of heaven. Real justice won’t happen in our lifetimes. So how messy are you willing to be, and how compromised are you willing to be? Because you’re only going to get permission institutionally, instructionally, and from participants to a certain level, because God gave free will to all these people, and they’re not all using it the same way you are.
If you want to be impactful in justice, you have to really work through the question of compromise. Parker Palmer, a lovely Quaker and educational reformer—and as the guy that founded the Life Design Lab at Stanford, I’m apparently now an educational reformer—talks about we all have to stand in the tragic gap. The tragic gap is the space between the way things are and the way they deserve to be.
There are a lot of very different places in that gap, all the way on the prophetic edge where you’re saying, “Hey, it’s over here,” and you’re probably going to get run over and die alone. That’s pretty much the common outcome there, or you’re going on to get along. Maybe not in an illegitimate way; somebody has got to run the store, but somewhere out there you’ve got to pick where you’re going to stand and you’ve got to make peace with the picking. How do you do that?
I think if you want to learn how to compromise, you have to get really, really savvy. You have to get innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents. If anybody is the sharpest tack in the box, it’s going to be a Christian anywhere near the front lines, because you’re drowning in compromise so much and so often, you have to be artful about the circumstance. You have to be clever about the opportunity.
Sometimes you don’t do clever. You just blow right through, but it depends on where in that gap you’re supposed to be. Part of your role is to be facilitative and take this system with you, that’s one thing. If you’re out there trying to reform it dramatically, that’s another. In some ways, that’s really hard work that’s easier because it’s clearer. I feel like I’m compromising less. I think making those choices is really, really hard.
Mark: Putting those two sort of things together, on the one hand there’s compassion and empathy, which is obviously so critical. But on the other hand, as you’re saying, there’s also discernment and wisdom, which involves an ability to bring love together with particular circumstances, where we determine what are we actually able to go for on this day in this time, in this season, and so forth? It feels like part of the question that I’m wanting us to explore today is—
Dave: You’re walking away from things undone.
Mark: Yes, you’re walking away from some things undone and things that you will simply not be able to ever necessarily get to, which is a pretty—
Dave: Or so you thought at the time.
Mark: So you thought at the time, yes exactly. But to live in that tension between on the one hand having great compassion and empathy, which I hope always exceeds our ability to actually act, but yet not get paralyzed. Stay active, present, and attentive and engaged, because in wisdom, you’ve discerned the course of action that’s going to be appropriate and, one hopes, effective in whatever kind of outcome it may be.
It may not succeed, but it is still effective as a witness to the justice of God. That vortex it seems to me is where the rub comes and where people bail. You either bail and become hardened because your empathy wears out and you just become so fatigued it’s like I don’t want to have another empathetic feeling in my whole life. Or you become kind of obsessed pragmatist for as long as you can sustain that, and then when ultimately pragmatism isn’t enough, you become disillusioned, right?
This is where, I think, the crisis of the long-term work of doing justice is so difficult, because you can easily fray at both of these two sides, if not both of them. What are the spiritual practices that sustain us in the middle of that? It is the things that you’re describing. It does involve empathy. That is the spiritual practice. It does involve wisdom and discernment and the practice of trying to figure out what you can do at a given time.
For the long haul, it’s easy for those two things not to be able to be sustained, so somebody’s got to nourish that along the way. I would say one of the things that all of you have mentioned has actually been the influence of other people that is done in community. Let’s talk for a few minutes about the role of community as an element in the practice of doing justice. How does the community of others around us sustain the work?
Dave: Sometimes at the simplest level it’s just to remind you of the truth you believe. There are so many things going on in your head and then your head and your heart try to hang out and they’re getting in an argument, and it’s messy. It’s messy, at least in mine, it’s really noisy in here. There’s stuff you don’t hear me say. But if you can have good people around you who love what you love and care for you and can remind you what the truth is.
Mark: Are there people that have been that for you, people that have really been witnesses of that kind of presence, truth-telling reminder?
Dave: Yeah, a lot.
Teesha: It’s probably a little bit sappy, but I mean my mind goes right to my husband. So different people I think have different challenges as they go about pursuing their vocation. For me it’s I have a constant voice in my head that says, “Who am I to be at this table? Who am I to have been invited to speak at that thing? Who am I to have been offered that opportunity?”
That’s the narrative that’s in here. It’s so important to have someone who is going to directly contradict those voices in your mind. That for me is, by the grace of God, my husband who I get to see and live with every single day. He reminds me that just really simple things: that I’m smart, and capable, and equipped, and called by God to do a specific and an incredible thing.
I’m getting emotional just thinking about it, because it’s such a blessing to have someone that’s willing to really tell you the truth about yourself every day and as much as you need to hear it. For some seasons you’ll need to hear it more than in others, and he never seems to tire of reminding me of the truth and I appreciate that.
Mark: It’s a wonderful story, and especially of him doing justice toward you. He’s helping you to claim what is just and true about who you really are.
Mark: Yet the tape that we all have in our heads of various kinds can make that so difficult.
Mark: It’s a wonderful gift.
Gary: I think what Dave was saying earlier today maybe about the ambition to not doubt in the dark what we saw in the light. The truth is that’s what we do constantly. That’s what we do. We’re in and out of the dark all the time, and in and out of the light all the time. In community, we can just be very helpful to one another, because in the moment I am not seeing because I’m in the dark and I can’t see it, but you can see it.
In another moment, you’re going to be in the dark but I can clearly see and I can say, “Oh no Mark, this is true.” Injustice thrives always on lies and deception on every front. Truth is the most powerful way of dispelling the darkness, and so it’s a constant struggle for what is true and what is not, about God, about the world, about me, about you, about this adversary, about this survivor, all a constant battle for what is true and what is not. In community, we can just be reminding each other and encouraging one another in what is true in a way that by ourselves we just don’t have a chance.
Breon: I think it’s interesting that you used the word community, because for me the word community is kind of transient. I was, for all intents and purposes, a third culture kid, grew up overseas as an Air Force brat, so every two or three years, we were moving to different countries, so Turkey, born in Spain, living in England.
So what that community looked like was always different, but the reason I would say my father, and both my parents were very paramount in the advice they gave me. They weren’t necessarily hands-on in micromanaging, but they were always encouraging my brother and I in every aspect to, number one, know God for ourselves, and to search then as well through the scriptures for the answers we needed.
It seemed hokey at the time. It seemed like you’re not really helping me. Little would I know, as I got into social justice, when you’re dealing in injustice, and I agree with you, Gary, it thrives on the things you brought up. I think it also thrives in worlds where there is insecurity and a lack of identity, because you’re dealing with a mixed bag of all sides are hurt, all sides are coming from this space where they’re hurt, and they’re reacting out of that space.
So how do we, at any given point, have the empathy that is needed for every side, and how do we have the patience for every side, even as we’re humans and Lord knows we’re like two steps from going off ourselves? It takes Christ. That’s the advantage that we have, it takes Christ who is the only one that could do and cause those to be inexhaustible because we don’t have the capacity.
I think that that’s part of the point that I have learned in this social justice context is the more I engage in it, it stretches my limit. But the more I learn about him, the more I actually learn about myself. The more I’m engaging in this process. One of the tragedies that I think that we see sometimes in the churches and as well in the social justice community, we have people dying way too young, because they have literally given their all to the cause, but they didn’t understand balance. They didn’t understand all that it took, that it is an emotional drain.
There is a pressure. Then you’re trying to complicate with family and make all of these things happen, back to what Gary brought up earlier, that’s why joy is the most important thing to have, because we have this optimism that when I’ve reached my limit, I serve Christ who was there for my breaking point, who was there to help continue the work in the spaces where I lacked. Because otherwise we approach this work where we see darkness all around us without the hope that it may change, that it could go somewhere, because there’s enough pain to go around. There’s enough darkness, but we serve Christ.
With my father and my mother instilling that in me of always going back to the scriptures, which is why when I look at Jesus, from even before his earthly conception, he came from a place of privilege in heaven. We all have a place of privilege, especially people of faith, we have a faith privilege. We have access to a Father that everyone else may not know that they have access to, so he takes his privilege, does not count it robbery to be counted equal with humanity, with all of our jacked up state, with our wretchedness as some of us in the community. He identifies with this.
To your point, Inés, he learned the principle of cultural sensitivity. He came where we were and took the time first to study the culture, to hear their pain, and then to prescribe something, because he understood that it matters. People will never necessarily remember everything you do for them, but they will remember how you made them feel.
He was able to come in and make you feel like you were valued despite the sins, despite the horrible nature that you had and that then opened up the audience to be more like, “I want whatever you’re selling, because you’ve tapped into a place where you said you’re concerned about me.” So it helps me in this space to learn when I go in any context to first listen, to first identify. I don’t have to agree with the culture, but I need to at least understand you.
Most people just want to be understood. They don’t want to seem like they’re crazy like they thought it was something that nobody else, you know. We all got a little bit of wretchedness in us is what I’m saying, but it’s finding that space and connecting. When we see those wins, when we see that turn, it even serves as a victory for us to keep going because we’ve seen okay, we’re not doing this for naught. We’re not just turmoiling here until by and by when Jesus comes back and makes things better. Things can actually get better now, you know.
Inés: The word listening is a spiritual practice that we need in the work of justice, and also I think the other word is teachability. When you think who are those people in community who have helped me, I think of past failures. I think of the brave mentors who have come to me and said, “Hey, what you said at staff meeting was awesome, was so right. The way you said it was awful. Could you find a better way to say the same thing in a way that edifies and doesn’t destroy somebody else?”
I think about the darkness that I bring sometimes even to the table and my desire for justice. It’s so collaborative; it’s so communal to even find the teachability. If I’m not willing to be corrected and lovingly rebuked and exhorted, I’m not ready to be a disciple for the long-term.
I might sprint short-term, but the marathon work of justice means to go long-term. If it took death for me to be reconciled with God, it’s actually the death of me to be reconciled with each other and especially in the work of justice, especially when you’re crossing margins and borders and ideologies.
It’s going to have to take the death of me to ask, “Can you help me understand why this behavior? What is the value behind the way you do it? Why my way is not the best way, and how to say things where you edify someone else?” I could be so wrong in my rightness. So as a leader I must continue to be a teachable disciple, a humble disciple willing to be corrected, willing to be lovingly exhorted as well.
Dave: We’re getting to the place where you can call each other on your stuff.
Inés: Yes, right.
Dave: First of all, that also means the long and the deep work of justice, because frankly you’re only getting called on your stuff, you’re only doing the bad stuff along with the good stuff. The dark side is not trying to take over doing the right thing better, because you care too much, right? Either out of fear or out of love, but I’m driving too hard.
The moment when I need to be called on my stuff is not probably my most teachable moment. So if you have a chance to call me on my stuff and pull me back, you’re going to have to be a real trusted partner. Which means, if you want to build a community of people that could call you on your stuff, you’re going to put in the time because you need to develop trust with them at a level where they can pull that call. I have a couple of people in my life who can do that. It turns out that when you’ve earned that trust, you don’t need to call real hard. It’s just, “Dave . . . ”
Breon: With the look.
Dave: But another thing we can give people, Mark, your question, what can we give it to them? Support and call and reminders and all that, but also another thing we can do for each other is borrow, because you worry you’re not up to it and you worry you’re not up to it because you’re right, because you’re not.
We’re profoundly finite. You’re going to bang into the end of that finitude. Back to the metaphor of the tragic gap, Parker Palmer will say that once you find where to stand in the tragic gap, would you take that place you just had a stake out somewhere between the way things are and the way they deserve to be, then we know what’s going to happen there he will say, which is you’re going to get your heart broken. We don’t know when, we don’t know how it will happen, but we know it’s going to happen.
That’s a guarantee. That’s not the issue. The issue is, which way? You have two ways. You mentioned this earlier. You can either have your heart broken hard and it shatters into a million pieces and you spend the rest of your time finding who to blame, or how to pick up the pieces, or it breaks you open and which makes you bigger.
One of the ways I think we can help each other break open rather than break apart is when you’re at that edge, borrow. One of the ways I struggle with justice work is am I even doing it? I sleep with a woman who spends all her time solving homelessness. I spend all my time helping elite students do better. Who’s first in line through the Pearly Gates? I keep on I’m with her.
Now what I’m doing is I believe there’s been a couple of centuries of criminal negligence in higher education abandoning their formative responsibility as opposed to just loading you up with cognitive content and leaving you a shell. Don’t get me started. I’m trying to freaking fix that, but I’m doing this at this elite place called Stanford University with mostly wealthier people.
It’s not a prep school. I mean almost 80% of the students are on financial aid, but nonetheless, they’re probably going to be okay with a Stanford degree. I’m hoping for a sense they trickle down to social reform through higher education. If Stanford doesn’t, maybe we should do it too. Eventually it goes all the way up to the culture. Will I receive that? I don’t know.
So I worry about whether or not I’m doing the right thing. Am I just mailing it in? Telling myself a nice Christian reformative story when frankly I just get to work in a nice place and do cool stuff, and I don’t know and I lose heart. When I lose heart, my wife and I have a deal and she of course also loses heart because it’s really tough work. It’s not going anywhere. It’s getting worse. We say, “Borrow my faith.”
Fortunately, we’re not usually both down at the same time. She’s struggling I go, “Borrow mine.” I don’t say, “You can do this. Don’t forget.” That’s all asking stuff that’s in you to come to the surface, and sometimes you don’t have it. The best thing I can do is loan you mine, just say, “Borrow mine.” Don’t even ask yourself to answer the question is it worth it?
I actually currently know that it is, you just depend on my answer because right now you don’t ask you about that question. Just ask me about that question. You can talk to you later. We should borrow from each other more. If you’re going to be at the edge of justice, I mean, you’re going to lose heart long enough that if you keep asking yourself the question, you’ll get a bad answer.
Gary: I think this question of how do you do it for the long haul, in my experience, you will eventually in whatever the long haul is, you will arrive at should we say Dave has just the utterly unsatisfying results, because it’s a foreign world and so much of the injustice is just infuriatingly not addressed, the heartache of it. That can start to become this enormous burden, a crashing weight to carry.
For me and the IJM team, I think substantially it has been getting really clear right upfront about who’s ultimately responsible for the outcome of this struggle for justice? That must be God, because I can’t do this. A pragmatic example, I remember we did this undercover investigation in Cambodia, found this place where there were just hundreds of these kids who were just on open sale to foreign pedophiles and sex tourists. We had, in our undercover operation, developed these videos of 47 kids under the age of 14 in the middle of a transaction of being sold.
So now we’re trying to gear up for this operation to actually rescue them out with the authorities. We have the faces and the names. We know these kids. Now, who’s ultimately going to be responsible for the success of this operation to do that? Now, you try to do all the responsible, wise, smart things yourself that you are responsible for, but my goodness, you are completely confronting, if you’ve never done this before, at the end of the day, you are not going to have all 147 of those kids.
But you’re out and free and in a good place where they can find restoration, but you’re going to have in your mind’s eye the names and pictures of all those that you did not rescue. I can remember, in many respects, that has been the most painful part of the struggle is getting very, very close to those who are hurting. Not an abstract way, but in a human way and then realize I could not succeed. I failed in bringing that about.
I think the thing that has made it possible to get up the next day and keep at it has actually been directing that argument and objection to God and to say, “You’re the one who’s supposed to made these kids, to love these kids, to find it intolerable that they’re being abused the way they are. I’m willing and able to go wherever you send me to do it, I can do it. But at the end of the day, you have got to get these kids out of this situation or stop these men from committing these abuses.”
Because if we are to carry that actual burden for the ultimate outcome, as you have experienced yourself, as completely unsustainable, and yet part of it, I think that brings people into the struggle for justice, is a sense of responsibility, right? But if you don’t at some point unload that thing to the actual God of justice, you’re going to get crashed. In a community, you can help each other with that I think so much more.
Dave: Gary, how do you actually let it go, not just know you should and actually get the solace and the relief of it?
Gary: I don’t know. Different people have different ways of doing that. Some people are not able to and leave the work. There’s weeping and there is argument. I found that for myself to have just a really full-on argument, but it’s with God.
Dave: God, right.
Gary: It’s a psalmist kind of—
Dave: Come quicker.
Gary: Yeah, and you said this.
Gary: And why it’s meant, but I can also remember particularly in response to these kids, because I think we rescued like 39 of the 47 kids or something on that particular operation, and feeling just so overwhelmed about the eight kids or however many they were that were gone. We’ll never know what happened to them, but what we know is that they’re not safe.
I remember this moment where the ones that we had been able to get out of that place and were in a wonderful place of restoration, where they were almost appearing before me saying, “What, am I not enough? Was my deliverance not enough for you? You need more than just me?” There was just something about God I think direct the attention to, in some way, take the measure of the goodness and the dignity of a single human being.
That truly, if God had permitted me, to have an experience that could release any one single eternal human being from a place of horrific brutality and darkness, really that’s a pretty miraculous and wonderful thing. I think God inviting me to at least trust Him as one must without which they cannot do, but also fully take the weight of the glory of the miracle He allowed of you to participate in, rather than just rush past it for what have you done for me lately?
Dave: Which I might dwell on these things.
Breon: I don’t have, like him, the answer to the question. I think one thing that I am learning is to reevaluate consistently my expectations. Instead of manage my expectations, I really like reevaluating because I think all too often, I sometimes look at the win is only as sad as we eradicate this totally. Therefore, what I don’t do is appreciate the small wins, rejoice sometimes in the small wins that get there.
From a personal space, real quick, one of the relationships that I thank God for in these past two years has been actually with Mark Roberts in this campus. The most unlikely pairing. Mark Roberts is an older white male, and I’m a younger African American male, and we have lunch once a month to kind of one, decompress. It’s therapeutic. It’s good sound therapy, because we’re both busy schedules, running around I guess call ourselves trying to save the world.
When we get together, we’re not trying to solve all the world’s problems. We’re literally reflecting on the good things that have happened, but then also, in some cases, building bridges. I use Mark as a specific example, because 70 or 80% of our conversation, as we looked back, happened to be about race.
Again, two most unlikely people and most people believe that I fall relatively liberal and some people believe he falls relatively conservative, and yet we sit there, but we’re able to have honest dialogue. As you said earlier, we’re able to fully have conversation that’s not politically correct, that’s not coded. I can say how I feel on a certain situation, and there’s the safe space there that whether I agree with what he just said, and even in my mind I’m like, “That’s the craziest thing I have heard,” it’s a safe space and he feels that comfortability to share and likewise with me.
For me, that measure in the long run of social justice is a win. Every time we’re able to get together once a month, even if he’s not the ones in Capitol Hill or he’s not the ones in the institutions of power, the point was this was dialogue that unfortunately, we’re trying to get to in the broader body of Christ, where we can talk about some of these painful situations.
Right now, today I’m learning to rejoice in the fact that I have someone who we don’t always see eye to eye. We may not think alike, but we were able to have competent, mature, healing conversation towards something. As I reevaluate my expectations, I’m learning to not just count the win as we have eradicated. We saved everybody, and that’s just even with salvation, God’s heart is open for all.
His hand is very long to save, but the reality is everyone is not going to take that gift. He cries at every gift that’s there, but there’s only for so much. Again, there’s a part that when we reevaluate our expectations of how we improve ourselves. It helps in the longevity, because otherwise you run rugged. I’ll put this plug out there.
Eric Garner was someone who passed away as a result of interactions with police in New York City. His daughter was 27, Erica Garner, and had since taken up the fight of social justice. She just passed away today, but part of the thing was the weight of the work. Every time there was a news report about some sort of police interaction, she was probably internalizing that from a very particular space. She’s not only doing the work. She’s carrying it with her home, and so she died of a heart attack.
This is a 27-year-old who had a lot of potential and promise. We could name a number of pastors, we could name a number of social justice people who because they don’t take the time to one, yes live in a balanced way, but also rejoice at the small winnings. It takes an emotional toll and then they find that they’re not here for the long haul.
Gary: One of my favorite passage of scripture that I encountered fairly early on and I’m so grateful for in the early days of IJM is that passage in Luke I think it’s chapter 5 where it says something like, “And all the more the multitude sought out Jesus for his teaching and his healing.”
Gary: You would think, it would then say,“And therefore, Jesus got super, super busy teaching and healing.” But it says, as you would know, “But Jesus went away to a deserted place to pray.”
Breon: Yes, to pray.
Gary: I was like, wow that’s so helpful, because if you start to become a little bit effective actually in the justice work, you’re just going to have greater demand for that, and it’s going to press upon you. It was so helpful to me that Jesus himself, that’s precisely when he said, “Oh, you know what I need in this moment where there’s more press for what it is I can actually bring to bear, I need more time to be alone with my heavenly Father.”
That was like very, very helpful, because it’s so counterintuitive because it’s not that Jesus didn’t want to tell more of the teaching of truth, that he didn’t actually want to heal more of the people. There’s that passion and yearning out of love for all that, but there was something about a deeper wisdom that says, but I will need to regroup with my Father alone.
Breon: Yeah, I love that text.
Mark: I do think that work of justice lays up into the great problems and challenges of being human on the one hand, the reality of our finitude, which none of us have ever liked from the early pages of the Bible, we scream against finitude. We try to do everything possible to sort of somehow try to escape that.
The other major theme is just the problem with evil, which is going to ultimately require nothing less than the death of the son of God. Suddenly when we’re now saying we’re going to pursue the work of justice, we’re pursuing something which is this central human crisis and we’re going to want it now, not in a finitude way, I mean in a finitude bound way that we pursue, when in fact it’s going to require ultimately eternity to make all things right.
Yet we don’t want to give up either on the reality of the problem of evil and call it anything other than what it is, or step away from it, nor to think that somehow because I can do everything, I can’t do anything, and then give up far too early, instead of actually staying long in the saddle. It just strikes me how much this work of justice really does require, I think, a spiritual formation that is also just overtly theological, that remembers actually the core crisis and the unbelievable entailments that involve every aspect of our own personal lives and of the society’s and the world’s and cultures that we’re a part of.
One of the most fundamental limitations of being human mainly, as simple as it is, we’re finite. We’re really just here for a season, for a short season. We are dust. Some of us are dustier than others, and that is going to be our eventual outcome as well. In the middle of that period, we hold onto these two things.
It just strikes me how much, therefore, the value of history helps us remember these things, in addition to the teachings clearly of scripture, the value of the church as a community that helps us remember the things that are vivid and concrete examples of ordinary people and ordinary places that did finite things, that in that moment changed reality for somebody in a good direction.
Gary: Especially this comment about history I found just personally that’s so helpful to actually get to know the lives of people who were just the heroic icons of the struggle for justice, which as a young person of course you admire and you almost wish you could be like them. Then you read what their lives were actually like, it’s like, “Nope, don’t want to have to do that.”
It’s just a recalibrating of what you said of like what are we really stepping into, and the recalibration of expectations and what does being faithful actually look like and feel like? The very evil that would take Jesus to the cross, how lightly is that going to treat me as I decide to step in to confront it? That’s super helpful.
Breon: The other thing that sticks out to me in the scripture is Jesus’ empowering ability. We assume that he was waiting to empower them so that after he left, they could take over. I think of the scripture where it says he basically breathed into them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” get this hour, while he’s there. He didn’t die the next day. He’s still there.
In every teachable moment, he was teaching his team not just how to support him, but how to, in some ways, work with him and carry on the mission before he left. I think that sometimes as leaders, I know I can get into this of taking on too much. Jethro, Moses’ father, said, “Hey, you’re doing this great work, but listen, you need to find you 70 men to help you. You need to empower and impart now.”
I think sometimes as leaders, we wait until too late to do it. We wait till we get it right and we get it together. Sometimes some of the people who follow me have actually been benefited from seeing me in closed spaces messing up. They’ve seen at least they’re in the room when I fail miserably. While it’s a hurt to my pride, it’s a hurt to the notch, it was a learning experience for them that actually taught them your leadership role doesn’t start when I’m dead and gone.
I think that that’s part of why I get hope in when Jesus uses or when the scripture uses this terminology of you are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, or when he says in Psalms 24, “This is the generation of them that seek him,” because we are always looking for the next, who’s the next one person, and I think we’ve missed it.
It’s a generation of people who all come together with different pieces of the puzzle, to lead together, because otherwise, we have found, I believe in our context, that people don’t mind you leading. They’ll say, “You go out there and fight that thing for us,” but if they don’t ever have stake in the game, if we’re not giving them along the way stake in the game saying, “Come on. Here’s how you help,” then we’re not only wearing ourselves thin, but we’re robbing them of the opportunity to actually be able to move this thing forward.
Because this movement when we got into it, it wasn’t about us, right? We were comfortable where we were. We had our privilege. The whole thing was to get these other people to take ownership in a way where they’re driving this ship collaboratively together with us so that the movement goes forward.
Dave: The limitations seems huge in justice work. You’re just up against it all the time. I remember earlier in the conversation when we were talking about the heartache and the pain of it, and then you went lament, and we all agreed, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” You named what we knew but couldn’t articulate, and lament comes out of limit.
Dave: Yeah, see? There she goes again. My guess is you have something to say about that.
Dave: I mean, what’s your experience of it and running into this not able to, or can’t get past, or that which on occasion causes lament? That may be, how often are we learning the spiritual practice of lamentation? How many Bible studies on lamentations have you all had? Okay, we kind of dropped that, but that’s part of the bigger story of limit. I just have an intuitive sense you have some experience with limit and have learned some things.
Inés: Thank you for asking. My mother lost her life in the middle of doing justice work. She was coming from Nicaragua to the United States to meet and speak, different with my father. Different churches were bringing aid to Nicaragua, and her airplane crashed in the Mountains of Honduras before the plane landed.
I was supposed to be on that plane, but two or three days before, she changed the plans and my brother and I did not get on that plane. I was 11 years old, my brother was eight. I’ve always thought I’ve gone back and forth with the question, why was she taken so early? God, why did you take her? She was doing your work. How dare you? She was doing your work. How could you take her from me also?
Inés: Then I’ve also asked the question, why did I live? Why did I stay? Even that lament in the midst of justice work, she was a humanitarian. She was a Spanish diplomat in Nicaragua and she served the people. That lament, I was able to ask, why did God give me life? Particularly, why did I not get on that plane?
I’ve had other people communally speak into that lament. This is the darkest day of my life, October 21st, 1989 when she was taken, and to realize that I could continue the work that she began, that she was encouraging. She had this with me principle, my father also always took me with them. Jesus did this all the time, the “with-me” principle.
They weren’t waiting till they died to teach me about justice. They were always taking me, and I was never too young. I was 10 when he sat me down next to this doctor to translate, but that lament of course I could take it in so many ways, that lament became a fuel and it became a fire. It became the space for God to speak tenderly into me, not just because of a personal wound, but what was she doing and how could I take her legacy?
I will never forget her last words. She said, “Obey your grandmother, and take care of your brother.” Take care. That’s a deep word: take care of another. You don’t forget last words. You don’t forget last kisses. I don’t forget Jesus’ last words, “All authority, go to all people, teaching them to obey all things, and I will be with you always.” That’s a command for all followers, and those last words invite me into a conversation to go take care of others. Who is my brother? Who is my sister?
Breon: Preach, lady.
Inés: Deep words. Deep words. Deep words of justice have come out of my deepest lament, particularly because my mother was doing that work and I have had prophetic words spoken to me that you are continuing that legacy. How do we as followers of Jesus continue that legacy? What did he teach us when he was with us, but also what are we supposed to carry over and until Jesus comes back? How do we not give up hope?
I’ve been wanting to ask you that, Gary, how do you not give up hope in the face of such injustice and such evil? Lament, I guess could be that. I think you answered my question. I was thinking of it and you said, “I go to the Lord and I just say, ‘You are supposed to do this.’”
But I think we feel it so deeply because God is a just God, you say so in your book, and we are image bearers of a just God, so we feel that injustice deeply and we live in that tension, the now and the not yet. Lament should play an important role. Listening to the lament, listening to the lament of the world and listening, how do we respond to that lament? It’s very visceral for me.
Teesha: I feel like the words of the Psalms give so much voice to the things that we are talking about, because in this season part of my rule of life is reading a Psalm and then another passage either from the Old or New Testament every day. Many, many of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament. In the same Psalm, you can give voice to this is unfair. This is painful. This sucks. You can also cry out to God for vengeance, I mean, in this really raw, angry ways.
Teesha: There are Psalms that talk about, hey will you dash their children against the rocks? Will you break their teeth? There’s just this gut-centered and gut-rooted pain and cry of anger that is voice in the Psalms that has been really transformational for me to say out loud, to give over to God, but at the same time that you are saying those things, you also get to acknowledge God as rescuer and as in control.
Inés: That’s good.
Teesha: There’s something about doing both of those together that for me has been very powerful. I find that as I’m reading the Psalms, a particular person or situation by the Holy Spirit comes to mind, and that’s the thing that I’m praying about as I’m reading that Psalm. There’s this interesting, I can’t explain it. It’s just this spiritual connection to those people or that issue or that thing that happened as I’m interceding on their behalf, and as I’m just crying out like, “This is not right. How long?”
Inés: How long, yeah?
Teesha: How long?
Inés: How long, oh Lord?
Teesha: How long, oh Lord? But man, when you get to the end of many of the Psalms, there’s just unfettered praise and acknowledgement that God is in control, that He’s the only one, the only one that is going to make everything whole, and is going to bring peace and is going to reconcile us to Him and us to one another.
It’s not that at the end of praying that everything is better, right? Everything is not cleaned up at the end, but you know that you know that you know that you know that God’s got it in hand. That’s really kind of the most important thing I think for me as I’ve been listening to everyone has been saying, I just have been reminded of the effect of praying the Psalms every day.
Dave: Let me raise the bar here. I’ve got a question.
Teesha: Oh, will you?
Dave: Yeah. Something I’m really struggling with and we’re snuggling right up to it, so I’m going to ask you guys for some help.
Dave: Here’s the deal; I have to set this up a little bit. A guy named Jean Vanier founded an organization called L’Arche, both in Canada and in France who care for mentally disabled people. They do amazing, wonderful work. There’s a story when Vanier is speaking with a possible donor who comes in and visits him in his office.
While they’re meeting in the office, one of the residents of this particular facility who is mentally less sufficient than the people in the room comes in and chats them a little bit, and brings him something and then leaves. Just in that very brief encounter demonstrates that he is differently-abled than the people in the room.
The donor visitor says, “Oh gosh, that’s just so sad.” Jean says to him, “You don’t understand,” and goes into this explanation that ends with this phrase that Vanier uses, which is, “You must learn not merely to accept reality, and really to embrace reality. You must learn to love reality exactly as it is,” because see, your sadness at his disablement prevents you from seeing what’s really going on. You’re incapable of being fully present to what’s happening here and to the glory of God that’s actually resident in this form.
You’re trying to fix it and not love it, and then he says we’ve come to realize that you can’t just accept reality, because if I’m going to be a Christian person, if I’m going to participate with the God who is always before us, the only place that happens is in reality. If I want to see God, then I have to be in reality. I have to be brutally, fully in reality.
In fact, because that is where I do see God, I have come to love reality because everywhere else I want to go, all that magical thinking like all that what I had in mind instead stuff, God never shows up there. I have become so attracted to being where God is, I’d rather be in reality than in any place. My wife and I say all the time, love reality or don’t even go there.
This goes back to kenosis theologically, so Jesus did not hold the equality with God a thing to be grasped. He had it. He didn’t hold it. His less than fullness of expression stands on the wall of Jerusalem and weeps “oh the Jerusalem had you known at the time of your visitation,” he failed in his assignment. We keep correcting all that because post-resurrection, we know how the story comes in.
Hey, I think he would have been okay with people hearing him. If we complete the sufferings of Christ, something evangelicals don’t talk about much, not because he was insufficient on the cross, but because that invitation to kenosis, to letting yourself go, continues in the incarnation we still are, which will happen if you love reality. Then it’s really painful.
My question is, are you making any progress on loving the reality that causes the pain, because more of God is in that? I’m not anywhere near the turn on that corner. When I almost had to shut down after nine years of work, we almost shut down the lab I run. We had kind of a near death experience, and I got to the place where I was ready to set it down. I was going to get the plane on the ground, get the people out before they all got killed, and nobody was hurt and it would have been gone, staying on the ground.
I was not okay with it, sort of fixed it, but this pain in the face of reality? Apparently, He thinks it’s a good idea, in fact a necessary thing that we encounter this limitation, this lament. God isn’t just in the lemonade business. That I feel like a part of the idea, are you okay with that? Because it kind of ticks me off.
Mark: It’s a huge, huge, huge question here. It does remind me the season in conversations with Gary and IJM about what it meant to love the perpetrator and just seek the welfare of the perpetrator and not just the victim. How is that project, would you say, unfolding for you, because it’s been directly related to the other example that?
Gary: I don’t think we are called to love evil in that sense.
Gary: God hates evil. He hates violence, abuse, and so I think we rightly enter into His anger and sorrow over sin that is hurting other people. It is true that in the nature of our work, we are up close all the time with the perpetrators of vicious, horrific evil, people who rape and torture, and even enjoy doing it, and enslave other people.
You get really close up to it, of course it evokes anger towards the people who are committing those abuses, especially if you love at all the people who are being abused, the closer you are towards them, the more furious it makes you. So, it has been this struggle to how do you rightly hold anger and outrage that God will deal with the brutality, while at the same time understand that the one who’s committing the abuse at all times retains the image of God.
I think the thing that has helped us, me and I think my colleagues, I’ll never forget the time I went with one of my colleagues to make an arrest of a man, in Guatemala, who was living near the dump area, in a very poor circumstance, but over time had raped all of his daughters as they had reached puberty. They also knew this about their coming of age that it would mean that they would be raped by their father. The most terrible circumstance.
We are going to go conduct an arrest operation of a man who has committed these sexual assaults against his own daughters in a serial fashion and toward others in the neighborhood, and he’s a violent person. Because we also then have gotten to know these girls so well and the hurt and the trauma and the terror that is unspeakable that you would just want to incinerate this man out of your rage.
But I’ll never forget the way my colleague, Pablo, after the arrest was made and we had taken him out to the police station and this serial rapist and incredibly violent man is handcuffed, his arms are around his back. He’s sitting in this little chair at this desk and he’s going through what is now the process of accountability, through with the criminal justice process. You couldn’t see it, but you could almost feel the weight of all of the just darkness and evil that this man had become and had lived.
The compassion and gentleness and dignity with which Pablo, my colleague, interacts with him because he knows it has been no triumph of this man that he has become this, that he was not born for this, was not made for this. All that is crashing in upon his spirit and has already devastated him that he would be in this place where he knows that he is this horror to himself and to his own daughters and to others.
To see the way Pablo nevertheless treated him with dignity, and prayed for this restraint, because it was good to restrain him. It was doing him no favors to allow him to continue to abuse others, and that this would be an opportunity for repentance for him, for amendment of life, for actually even to dream about redemption for him. To see the way Pablo retained that hope and that witness for him, that was the scandal of the gospel at work.
Mark: That’s living into reality.
Teesha: Yeah. Has it kicked up a notch enough for you?
Dave: My wife would say Christianity is not for sissies.
Breon: Right, right.
Teesha: That’s good.
Dave: You talk about piety, I’ve got that piety story too. It’s not doing the same thing a little less sinfully. That’s not the gospel.
Dave: If you’re just going to pay attention, if you’re on the hairy edge of homelessness or violence, you clearly see it. If you’re on the corner of Euclid and Colorado Street and you’ve got your eyes open, you’re gonna see it. It’s a little different, it’s a little more subtle. But to see and to keep coming back is harder. There’s a lot of pain in that.
Teesha: But even the seeing, how do we create a people who see, do you know? That shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s such a simple thing. I just think about I guess that’s really the question that needs—
Dave: There should be a formation-centered seminary that. . .
Teesha: No, no, no. I think that that’s just the question. I love the way that you framed it. How do we create a people who see?
Inés: I think we say to another when we disagree, especially when we have to disagree agreeably, I guess we see differently. I was just talking with a good friend of mine, one of my best friends. I call him my brother from another mother, a white male ally and advocate in my life, a friend, a good friend.
I said, “You and I see the multitudes. We see the multitude and we feel that compassion.” It says that Jesus saw the multitudes. He suffered with them because he saw that they were mutilated and lacerated and abated. He saw the multitudes, and it’s very easy for me to see the vulnerable, the hurting, the hopeless and the helpless.
I’m starting to realize that others may not see that, especially the work of justice, even racial reconciliation now at this time in the United States. When I speak with my white brother and ally, we have found that it was hard for us to love those who don’t see the same way. When you don’t see the multitudes with compassion, especially when we were talking about issues that are pertinent to immigration or racial reconciliation, we don’t see.
I asked him, “Who are you having trouble loving right now?” He said, “The white supremacists. I have a hard time loving the white supremacists.” I thought maybe we just need to see that they’re blind in a different way. They too are blind and deaf and crippled. Can we have compassion?
How do we come to that side and have compassion and not forget that they’re made in the image of God, that we would not grow self-righteous and say, “well I see, but you are blind” when I am blind too and I need my eyes saved. Maybe they’re blind. Maybe we can get saved together. How do we love the blind and the deaf? But it is hard because when the rubber meets the road, and I am coming as an immigrant, as a foreigner, as a female, as a minority, an ethnic minority, I don’t feel safety sometimes, when we’re talking about safety and trust in relationship.
Dave: Yeah, because you’re not.
Inés: Right, so I don’t know are you friend or foe when I come up? I don’t know and this work of reconciliation can bring up fear. There’s a wall in front of me, and so how do we become friends? Have we forgotten that we are familia? We’re on the same team? Have we forgotten that we are familia and that we are children of God and there’s one Father and one God, one baptism? But it can become hard when I don’t see him as my brother and when I don’t see the white supremacist as my sister. That’s just raw and real for me when I feel unsettled.
Mark: Let me just say. I think we need to draw this conversation formally to a close. We’re at the end of what is really an abrupt ending to a conversation that needs to go on much longer, because of the kinds of issues we’re addressing. Let me just say a huge thank you to each of you for your willingness to participate in this. It’s been a gift to hear the conversation and to listen to what each of you shared, so thank you very, very much for what you’ve each given and for the gift that it is.
Dave: And they all said. . .