A friend recently asked me to answer some questions for a seminary class on missions. The questions were all about how justice and missions "complement and complicate" each other. At his prompting, I'll share my musings with all of you. As you read, please keep in mind that I can speak only from my own experience; every missionary has his or her own story to tell. And I will continue to pursue answers to these questions as my experience as a missionary evolves and my understanding of God grows. (I would just like to start out by saying that we don’t really talk about justice on the mission field! I realized that as I sat down to answer these questions – we don’t discuss how justice affects our work. I’m not sure if it’s good, bad, or indifferent, but my life as a missionary tends to be a lot more practical than theoretical or theological.)
What role has justice played in your missions experience? I’m going to borrow Tim Keller’s definition as my working definition of justice (from Generous Justice): “Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.”
I would say that justice is the motivator of my missions work. I believe that God calls us to practice mishpat, to take care of those whom society has marginalized, those whose governments oppress them, those who are struggling to meet their daily basic needs, the widow, the orphan. Out of obedience to God, then, and out of love for God and for God’s people, I work in the Dominican Republic. I have seen injustice and felt called by God to serve and love in a way that works to rectify that injustice. We throw around the word “justice” so lightly in the Christian sub-culture, but as a missionary, I didn’t find myself engaged in many theological conversations about justice with my fellow missionaries. We are more concerned with the practical, day-to-day living out of both mishpat and tzadeqah, and for me that requires thinking more about love than justice. After all, we seek justice for all people because God loves all people. And I think tzadeqah ultimately means living in a way that honors and loves my neighbor as myself.
What are some challenges you have had around justice issues? The biggest challenge overall that I see in missions around justice is the challenge of sustainability. As a foreigner in the Dominican Republic, the challenge is essentially for me to work myself out of a job – to practice mishpat until the Dominicans as a nation, especially their government, practices tzadeqah. Maybe this will never happen; maybe tzadeqah comes only with Christ’s second coming. Creating sustainable missions requires equipping nationals, working with local infrastructure, and more. It means avoiding handouts – yes, there are occasions when I give money or food to meet someone’s immediate physical need, but not in isolation. Some of the best models I’ve seen are when missions organizations partner with local churches so that the churches are the actual givers, remaining in contact with the recipients and helping them to become self-sufficient. Creating a community that is thriving but relies on donations is not true justice.
As a missionary, another challenge I face is in making decisions about my own lifestyle. I have to come to grips with what it means that I was born in the United States, in a suburban middle class family, am a college graduate working on a master’s degree – that I have plenty. So what does that mean for my life on the mission field? How do I choose to live? It is sometimes difficult to balance living among poverty, wanting to live the way my neighbors do, and living in a way that is sustainable long-term for me emotionally and psychologically. There are some things that I don’t need, but they make my life and my work much easier – internet in my home, an inverter for consistent electricity, screens on my windows. If I choose to have those, is that against tzadeqah because my neighbors can’t afford them? Or is it ok because it enables me to serve as well as I can?
Another huge challenge around justice issues is the overwhelming need. How can we strive for justice and fairness when the task seems so daunting? Even where I work, I can only do such a little bit. Around the world, in the Dominican Republic, in the United States – such inequality exists that it can be discouraging to put what seems like is one drop of water into the ocean.
How has justice aided the mission work you do? Justice, and having a Biblical view of justice, helps me to be more compassionate. It requires me to look at those around me through God’s eyes and seek out those who are cast aside. Sometimes it’s hard for me to disentangle justice and compassion, but I think they go hand-in-hand. I see injustice, I respond with compassion, in a way that promotes justice. I think justice also helps unite missionaries. We have a common goal, which usually makes it easier to negotiate our differences. Even if we disagree on how to conduct a particular aspect of ministry, we can respect the other’s work in faith that that person is obeying God’s particular call to an injustice.
What do you see as the goal of your mission work? As cliché as it might sound, the goal of my mission work is to glorify God and make his name known. My second goal, which often seems more accessible or measurable to me, is to love others well. I want every child I work with each day to leave school knowing that God loves her. I want to live in a way that shows God’s love to my neighbors, my coworkers, and my fellow missionaries. As it pertains to justice, my goal is to equip Dominicans and Haitians to teach to their fullest potential so that I am no longer needed. (Not that I am needed now – I am blessed to work for an organization that is largely nationally run and self-sufficient.)