This week marks time when the 2013 Justice Conference comes to Philadelphia. If you have time, come for a visit and see what many of the well-known advocates for justice have to say ( and say hi to us at Global Trauma Recovery Institute/Biblical Seminary located at #237 in the exhibit hall). At our church, one of the adult Sunday School classes has been considering What God thinks about justice. I had the pleasure of leading it this Sunday as we explored the matter of injustice within our own walls. You see, too often we think about injustice as an “over there” problem. But wherever humans exist, injustice does also.
Gregory of Nyssa says that injustice is rooted in…greed. Greed propels us to take what is not rightfully our own. While outright theft is one form of greed, so also is being unwilling to speak up when others are being mistreated (we don’t want to give up our comfort and power).
Sensitivity to Injustice?
In today’s class, we considered those in our midst that might have less of a voice, thereby being more vulnerable to systemic injustice. Some of the populations named included children, women, ethnic/language/ideological minorities, singles, single parents, technologically dis-advantaged individuals, lower socioeconomic status individuals, same-sex orientation individuals, etc. In small groups, we considered how we might sensitize ourselves to the potential for systemic sin inside the church. Across all groups, the main answer was given that relationships must be formed with “the other” if we are going to learn of latent forms of injustice. There is little that will help us outside of learning through relationship.
However, there are times when we are in proximity to injustice and we turn a blind eye to it. How does this happen? Over time, we lose our sensitivity and begin to accept the dominant paradigm. If you want an excellent description of this process, I encourage you to read The Eye of the Leopard, by Henning Mankell. The main character, Lars Hakansson, arrives in Zambia as a young man. He is shocked and embarrassed by the overt racism by white farm owners who mistreat their “employees” and imagine that Africa would fall apart without their superior work wisdom and work ethic. But over the next 18 years he finds himself owning a farm and being in charge of 200 employees and their families. As the book progresses, he ends up becoming as paranoid as those who have lived their entire lives in Zambia. To be fair, both Black and white Africans help perpetuate the division. Lars tries to shed the “bwana” moniker (akin to “our father” in Swahili). Once he accepts the position, Lars imagines he will be different. He will build schools. He will treat others with dignity. He will raise salaries. Despite keeping these promises, the social fabric continues to fray and Lars starts to sound like the other racist owners.
Only in the end does Lars come to realize the truth,
A White man can never help Africans develop their own country from a superior position, he thinks. From below, from inside, one can contribute to expertise and new working patterns. But never as a bwana. Never as someone who holds all power in his hands.
Being in a system that promotes a dominant group’s power and maintains another group subservient will inevitably rub off on you if you try to work within the current system’s power structures. The challenge is this: if you don’t work in the current system, you probably can’t get much accomplished and will have little voice against “the machine.” If you do try to work within the accepted power structures, you will likely have some positive effect, even as you yourself may become accepting to some of the injustices.