The Justice Conference: What I Learned
This past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the Justice Conference and helping them and World Relief out with their social media coverage of the event. For those of you who weren’t able to attend, I thought I would summarize what I learned. The theme of this year’s Justice Conference was “Love Thy Neighbor” and the issues of refugees and immigration were some of the central topics that speakers focused on. There were three recurring themes that ran like threads through the entire conference - safety, privilege, and justice.
The conference opened with Pastor Salgueros reminding us that loving our neighbor is never safe, but it is what God has called us to do. When Jesus was asked by the Jewish religious leaders what the greatest commandment was, he responded by saying,
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:38-40).
Later Jenny Yang, Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy for World Relief, said that she fears national security has become the new American prosperity gospel. I am inclined to agree with her. While New Testament believers were constantly looking for new ways to reach their neighbors with the gospel, even in the face of danger, our churches today often seem to make any possible excuse for not radically loving their neighbors. When it comes to welcoming refugees and immigrants, national security is the reason I hear cited most often from those who oppose refugee resettlement.
The threat of violence from immigrants, or the likelihood that a refugee will carry out a terrorist attack is negligible, but even if the risk were much higher, the church would still be called to welcome the stranger. Scripture’s commands don’t change based on current events. Those of us who work with refugees or support refugee resettlement need to be challenging our fellow believers when they are tempted to make safety an idol.
Another thread that ran throughout the conference was the discussion of privilege. While this was primarily discussed in terms of race, it was also hinted at with regard to refugees and immigrants. I haven’t discussed privilege much on this blog (it’s a sticky topic!), but the Justice Conference helped me to realize that it is integral to discussions about how the church should respond to refugees and immigrants. I’ll try to summarize what I learned here, but in the future I plan to address this issue in more detail.
Americans, no matter what their race or social class, are among the most blessed and privileged people in the world. We live in the wealthiest nation on earth, the safest nation on earth, and enjoy rights and freedoms that many others have been denied. Our history as Americans has (understandably) resulted in most of us feeling entitled to the privileges we enjoy. When we are challenged to share our gifts and blessings with others in need (i.e. refugees), and when doing so involves a risk or inconvenience (however small) to our privileged way of life, we often act defensively.
When I advocate for more robust refugee resettlement, and for the US to do more to assist refugees around the world, I often hear this counter argument. “We should be helping homeless veterans first. We should be investing in our military first, etc.” While I think we can (and should) do those things and also welcome refugees, these comments reveal a defensive belief that to welcome refugees means that we are somehow discriminating against or neglecting Americans. But this is absolutely not the case. To welcome refugees is simply to acknowledge the tragic difference between their situation and ours, and to seek to share some of our privilege and blessings with them.
Christena Cleveland addressed this concept of privilege in her session at the Justice Conference by looking at the story of Jairus and the woman healed by Jesus who had been bleeding for twelve years (Mark 5). Jairus was a leader of the synagogue - he was important, privileged, and would have felt he had every right to Jesus’s time and attention. He must have been extremely uncomfortable and at least a little bit irritated when Jesus stopped to hear the story of the woman he had just healed. We, with our privilege and status as Americans, are a lot like Jairus, and refugees, trampled on, broken, and unwanted, are a lot like the bleeding woman. Jesus chooses to elevate the woman in this story, to stall in meeting Jairus’s need in order to focus on her. In the end Jesus still meets Jairus’s need by raising his daughter from the dead, but Jairus didn’t know how the day would end. When Jesus stopped to heal the bleeding woman and listen to her story, Jairus could only have been frustrated that this unclean woman and her needs were being treated as more important than his own.
Finally, justice, of course, was a theme running through the Justice Conference. I was encouraged by all those who attended who are also passionate about pursuing biblical justice in the world. As an advocate for refugees and immigrants in this political climate it can be easy to become discouraged, even depressed, by the setbacks and slow progress. However, I was reminded throughout the conference that pursuing justice isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s messy and complicated, and some of us may not live to see the fruits of our labor for justice. But God has called believers to be a part of ushering in his kingdom on earth, in whatever small way we can, and justice is an indispensable element of that kingdom. We will make mistakes, we will miss the mark at times, but we must never give up in our pursuit of God’s heart for justice.
If you are interested in watching all of the Justice Conference sessions for yourself, keep an eye on this page. They should be posted within the next few weeks. Also be sure to like their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter so that you will be the first to hear where the Justice Conference will be held next year. Finally, the Justice Conference hosts a podcast called Chasing Justice where they will continue to discuss some of these topics throughout the year.