The Common Good

'Change the World of Some:' Thoughts from The 2013 Justice Conference

While everyone was blowing up the Twittersphere decrying the injustices of the Oscars, as movies like Argo walked away with Best Picture honors, I was sitting in a Philadelphia hotel lobby trying to chew on everything I’d heard and seen at this year’s Justice Conference.

The two-day event brought together more than 5,000 people to promote dialogue around justice related issues, like poverty and human trafficking; featured internationally acclaimed speakers such as Gary Haugen, Shane Claiborne, and Eugene Cho; and exhibited hundreds of humanitarian organizations.

While there is certainly more thinking and processing to be done, here are four things that stood out:

1. Most of the time we don’t really know what ‘justice’ means.

I remember waiting in line for my morning coffee fix on Saturday morning before the conference started, and a woman who was part of a neighboring gymnastics conference asked me what the whole Justice Conference thing was about. She had seen all of the name tags and thought Justice was a band.

I stumbled on my words as I tried to explain to her what we were gathered for and realized that when we use words like love, justice, peace, and grace, we usually don’t have a solid, unified idea as to what we’re talking about. Most of us think about punitive or retributive justice — getting what you deserve when you do something wrong — but I wasn’t really even aware that there’s a distinction between that kind of justice and what some call primary justice, which is a more restorative form of justice.

2. The work of justice is a marathon — not a sprint.

As Gary Haugen and Eugene Cho elaborated in their large group sessions, we need to be committed to the work of justice for the long haul. We don’t need one hit wonders; rather, we need people who are willing to faithfully love through mundane monotony.

3. Justice is not an end in itself. It needs to point to Something.

Eugene Cho warned us that it’s possible to make justice idolatry, which is why we need to shut up, listen, pray, and read the scriptures to connect with God. The work of justice is more than a fad laden with hip shirts — it’s a central part of the heart of God.

The people over at International Justice Mission have taken that idea seriously: they start each day with a half hour of silent prayer, work for a couple of hours, and do it again at 11. As president Gary Haugen mentioned, “If the work of justice is God’s work, why do it without talking to God about it?”

4. “We can’t change the whole world, but we can impact the world of some. You can make a difference. Do what you can and do it well.” – Eugene Cho

Most of us in the millennial generation are pretty well acquainted with the Internet. Therefore, lots of us are well aware of the injustices that plague today’s world. The Internet’s global connectivity, along with many other technological advancements, has given our generation a cognizance of the world’s problems that generations before us haven’t had. While there have certainly been pioneers of justice in generations past, there hasn’t been a wide-scale interest in justice, which seems to be happening with millennials.

Unfortunately, this heightened awareness has also brought with it an idealistic desire to save the world — to end all of its problems — and I’m certainly no exception.

But it’s obviously not possible for one person to solve all of the world’s problems, which is why, for the most part, we need to rethink strategy and success in carrying out the work of justice. Instead of sinking into cynicism with the realization that we’re not the savior of the world, we need to focus more on impacting individuals and actual people on a micro scale. A group of people doing their individual parts and serving people can change the world.

Neighborhood Film Company demonstrated that approach well, not only telling stories and making films for nonprofit and for profit companies, but providing jobs and mentorships for adults in recovery through the process of filmmaking.

Overall, it was a fruitful weekend, full of encouragement, conviction, and deep thought. We’ll be putting up a few more stories and posts from this year’s conference.

Brandon Hook is the Online Assistant at Sojourners.

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