Justice, Forgiveness, Restoration, and Truth-telling

This past year, we’ve spent some time talking about justice and forgiveness. The Bible shows that God loves justice (Isaiah 61:8; 16:7-8) and that Christians ought to forgive (Colossians 3:13). Yet, how forgiveness and justice relate to each other is not always obvious, as too often people (including and especially Christians) understand justice as an unnecessary part of forgiveness.

However, Rachael DenHollander, wisely argues that forgiveness that ignores justice denies who God is (and denies a bit of our worth as human beings, especially as people against whom injustice has happened). In an interview with Christianity Today, DenHollander, notes:

“I worked to get to a place where I could trust in God’s justice and call evil what it was, because God is good and holy. One of the areas where Christians don’t do well is in acknowledging the devastation of the wound. We can tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.”

I agree with DenHollander that acknowledging injustice is an important part of recognizing who God is and how things ought to be. It is only in recognizing that God loves justice that we can truly forgive. When DenHollander speaks of forgiving Larry Nassar, she says:

“It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.”

Perhaps another way of looking at justice and forgiveness is through the lens of restoration and/or truth-telling. Both justice and forgiveness are about restoring the wrongs that have been done, especially in terms of restoring relationships between humans and in relationship to God. Truth-telling is about acknowledging that it was truly evil; forgiveness can’t exist outside of that acknowledgement. Nor can any restoration of relationship happen without acknowledging that something truly horribly happened (that deserves punishment.) Or as DenHollander puts it,

“It defies the gospel of Christ when we do not call out abuse and enable abuse in our own church. Jesus Christ does not need your protection; he needs your obedience. Obedience means that you pursue justice and you stand up for the oppressed and you stand up for the victimized, and you tell the truth about the evil of sexual assault and the evil of covering it up.Obedience costs. It means that you will have to speak out against your own community. It will cost to stand up for the oppressed, and it should. If we’re not speaking out when it costs, then it doesn’t matter to us enough.”

To hear more about Rachael DenHollander’s understanding of justice and forgiveness, you can watch her presentation at Calvin College’s January Series in January 2019. You can start at minute 6 if you’d like to skip the part of how she met her husband.

Loneliness, Meaning, and Hope

The Los Angeles times recently published an article by Varun Soni, who is dean of religious life at USC, highlights some of the changes that he’s seen among students during the eleven years he’s been in that role. In the beginning, the conversations he had with students centered on “quests for meaning and purpose. [Students] were striving to translate values into action, cultivate joy and gratitude, live extraordinary lives.”

However, more recently the conversation has shifted more often from “how should I live?” to “why should I live?” As Soni, notes that students today are more likely to “grapple with hopelessness and meaninglessness. Every year, it seems, I encounter more stress, anxiety, and depression, and more students in crisis on campus.” He goes on to present the research that has also noticed this shift on campus.

Soni notes that students are often overwhelmed and lonely, and they find it difficult to know how to make friends, a trend that Jean M. Twenge, who has done a significant amount of research on the generation entering college, has also noticed.

Soni further notes that, while we sometimes consider this generation to be coddled,

the reality is they face unprecedented challenges and circumstances. They are entering a world in which many of the career paths of their parents’ generation no longer exist or have changed drastically. They face escalating tuition costs with little sense of whether their future opportunities justify the outlay. They have participated in active shooter trainings and campus lockdown drills for most of their lives.”

In this challenging context, Campus Edge and other religious communities strive to provide community and support for people who are struggling, as well as speaking hope into people’s lives. Please pray that we might do that well, as well as praying for all those who are struggling.

God’s presence is already on campus

While some might understand a campus ministry as being primarily about being God to the university campus, I’m part of a tradition that believes God is already present on campus. The task of campus ministry is then about recognizing and proclaiming how God is at work, and then coming alongside the good that God is already doing.

Paul Verhoef, a fellow Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Calgary, ruminates what this looks like in his context. Most importantly, he “has always worked with the goal of trying to achieve mutual understanding among people, he added, because this is an important part of what it means to love.”

On top of this, Verhoef highlights how important it is that the campus ministry love the university. This includes a calling “to serve, to support, and to live in a mutually supportive relationship with the university,” but it also goes further:

“Can we appreciate its work, its research and teaching focus? Can we sympathetically understand its habits and concerns – and if we at times call it to task, can this be done as someone who supports the university, who is seen by the university as a person who loves it, a person who is part of the university?”

Not only ought we to love the campus, but we also need to recognize that God is already there. As Verhoef has noted, he “has seen how God is always at work — that the Spirit of God is always moving, breathing, creating life, reconciling God’s world back to God, and doing this on the campus in Alberta.” And we, as campus ministers, ought to be looking for how and where “the Spirit of God doing good and beautiful things.” And then, as Verhoef himself notes, we can ask how we might be able to “come alongside of those places and lend support, put my shoulder behind the work being done, and work side-by-side with other staff, faculty, and students to make something beautiful happen.”

Reading the book of Daniel

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by how much I’ve appreciated looking at the first part of the book of Daniel. As much as I love the Bible, I associate the stories of Daniel with Sunday school stories that tended towards primarily encouraging us to be good moral people. Such a simplistic understanding of the stories (and the Bible) doesn’t fit with the complexity of real life today.

Yet the conversations we’ve had in our studies and the commentaries we’ve been using have been encouraging. Both commentaries (Wendy L. Widder’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel and John Goldingay’s Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone) have challenged us. I’ve been convicted about how much culture (and empire) can form us. I’ve also been comforted by how God continues to be present in our lives.

First, some words of conviction. Goldingay, in speaking of Daniel 3 and the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego notes that

“Their unwillingness to live by other people’s conventions and expectations raised questions about those conventions and expectations. It’s one of the ways in which Jewish people have fulfilled their vocation to draw the rest of the world away from its usual assumptions about religion and life.” John Goldingay, Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone, 20.

Widder, in talking about how Daniel 3 might apply to our lives today, highlights how idols are not always as obvious as the one that appeared in that chapter. Bowing down to the idols of today can happen in very subtle ways:

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, facing my computer screen with outstretched hands, I wonder if I am bowing before the god of prestige. When I lie prostrate on the couch during primetime, it occurs to me that the god of entertainment and leisure might have taken up residence in my living room. In the glow of the refrigerator as I partake of unnecessary and even unhealthful calories, I realize I might be fellowshipping with the god of gluttony. . . Perhaps the most pervasive idol is human autonomy – the right to do what we want, how we want, when we want, with whomever we want. If something makes us happy, we are entitled to it. If something makes us unhappy, we are entitled to get rid of it. Human autonomy is the god of gods, and we worship it fervently.” Wendy L. Widder, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel, 81.

While I found the story to be convicting, I also found it encouraging. Surprisingly enough, the encouragement is not because on account of how, in the book of Daniel, it appears that God always shows up and rescues those who follow God. In fact, the rest of the Bible (and even the situation of the Israelites in Daniel who have been carried off to a foreign land) indicates that God does not always rescue people. Instead, God is present with those who follow God.

We, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are invited to follow God, not simply because “the God we serve is able to deliver us” but “even if God does not.” (Daniel 3:17-18). As much as I sometimes want a God who will simply and always intervene in my life to deliver me, I know that this doesn’t reflect reality. Deep down, I’d also rather follow a God who does not simply follow my whims but instead is present in the midst of the complexity and suffering in life.

CRC Statement on Mass Shootings

During our Lenten Communion services, Rev. Betsy Aho led us in a lament on the existence of the phrase ‘another mass shooting.’ How can we not be upset when so many continue to be killed and hurt?

In light of several recent shootings, I am thankful that the Christian Reformed Church, which is the denomination that supports Campus Edge, recently put out a statement on mass shootings.

The following are some highlights of that statement:

“As Christian Reformed people, we grieve this loss of life. We grieve the hatred and extremism behind these acts of violence. We, as God’s church and society, grieve that we’ve been unable to put a stop to mass shootings

What these shootings have in common is a fuel of false narratives that the gunmen were allowed to feed on. They were hearing stories about, connecting with communities that support, and believing in the idea that some people are less human than others, and that these “others’” lives are worth less. As long as this fuel is allowed to continue, senseless deaths will continue.

White supremacist acts of terror have been committed in the United States from its earliest days, at the hands of those most often radicalized on the margins or in secret. Today, these ideas have come into the mainstream, and have been espoused and amplified by people in leadership, even in the highest elected offices.  

Words matter. Using dehumanizing and hateful speech when referring to immigrants, refugees, and people of color, fuels and affirms violent actions against them. And these words, especially when they come from people in leadership positions, greatly displease our God.

The document continues by providing biblical basis for their condemnation of racism, as well as condemnation for those, especially authority figures, who do not use their influence to do good to all people, especially those most vulnerable. We are encouraged to do something since “we know that words can fuel and affirm violent actions.” So the statement calls on all members of the CRC to “take an active stance against false narratives. We ask them to stand up against racism and acts of white supremacy. We ask them to speak up against words of misogyny and of hatred toward immigrants. We ask them to be proactively anti-racist, proactively anti-sexist, and to proactively promote the dignity of all people.”

We, too, at Campus Edge, encourage everyone to:

  • “pray for the president and prime minister of our respective countries, our elected officials, and those with the most resources and political influence, that they will use their positions of power to promote the dignity of all people, particularly people of color, immigrant communities, and women targeted by these shootings
  • pray for those who are grieving following incident of mass shootings and violence
  • pray for Latina/o, people of color, and immigrant pastors and congregants of the CRC who may be feeling overwhelming fear and grief at this time
  • pray for people of color, immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable and marginalized people who are too often the targets of hate speech and violence fueled by false narratives in society
  • pray that the individuals, who have been radicalized or are at risk of being radicalized by hateful rhetoric, would learn truth and find community with truth-tellers
  • lament the ways in which the church (and Christians) have not only been silent about these false narratives but has, at times, used them to oppress others
  • speak up from our individual places of influence when we notice hate-filled speech and white supremacist beliefs being shared around us
  • extend an act of kindness or encouraging word to your colleagues, neighbors, fellow church members, and friends that are Latina/o, immigrants, and/or people of color.”

Help for when faith shifts

At Campus Edge we strive to be a welcoming place for those who are struggling with faith, especially those who aren’t sure if they’re able to continue to believe what they used to believe about God, church, and faith. If you’re connected to MSU and struggling with faith, we’d be honored to have you connect to us, either to meet others who’ve undergone the challenging journey connecting to faith shifting or simply to be able to share your own journey and struggles with someone who is committed to listening and encouraging you.

We’d also like to share resources with you in the midst of the struggles. Alongside of the series we did on faith shifting a number of years ago, we post resources periodically on this blog. The Well recently posted an article with suggestions for things you can do when your faith no longer feels familiar. The author, Jen Zamzow, noted that while we might expect our faith to shift at certain transitions in our lives, sometimes it happens unexpectedly, and “change is harder when it sneaks up on us.”

In those times, she gives the following suggestions of things to keep in mind “when we need our faith but it no longer feels familiar to us:”

  1. Be patient with yourself. Zamzow especially warns that “when we push too quickly for resolution without taking time to figure out whether this is even how we should resolve things, we end with simplistic answers that don’t even address the questions that we desperately need to ask.” After all, “faith is not about having everything figured out; it’s about doing the hard work of asking the difficult questions. Faith is not pretending to have all the right answers; it’s about trusting that the answers are there when we don’t see them.”
  2. See the opportunity. Zamzow notes that “it’s when we ask why we should pursue a life of faith that we are most likely to find a faith that connects with our deepest selves, a faith that is real and meaningful.”
  3. Be gentle with yourself. Zamzow notes that “We cannot force ourselves to believe something through sheer will; that’s not how belief works. And guilting or shaming ourselves or others into holding onto particular beliefs about God does little more than further our depression and despair. It is not how we foster deep, authentic faith; it’s how we end up overwhelmed, anxious, or angry at God.”

Tips for having difficult conversations

As a follow-up from our winter study on difficult conversations, the Network from the Christian Reformed Church provides a list of helpful resources for engaging in difficult conversations. They highlight Richard Mouw’s book, Uncommon Decency, as well as the Colossian Forum, and a number of different blog posts and websites. For those truly interested in engaging in difficult conversations, the Network post is a great resource.

Unexpected Encouragement

While we always hope that people are encouraged and challenged by the questions we provide at pub theology, it’s not always clear how the questions will be received. Nor is it always clear how the Spirit is present in the direction that our answers go. Yet, sometimes it’s fairly obvious that God is at work.

Earlier this spring, we started pub theology with a simple question: what do people notice about you? People reflected a bit: for many, it had to do with their physical appearance, for others, it was a specific emotion. But it felt like a hard question to answer because many of us weren’t sure what people noticed or even whether we liked what people seemed to notice. Spontaneously, one person started sharing what they noticed about another, and soon everyone heard about the good we saw in each other: one person’s courage and strength, another’s gracious presence, another person’s joy and enthusiasm. The question thus prompted a brief time of encouragement where we could recognize the unique gifts that each of us brings to our relationships and how we appreciate each other’s presence.

Why have the hard conversations?

At the recent Christian Reformed Campus ministry association conference we talked about a lot of hard things: racism, abuse of power, and sexuality (and all in one day!). It hadn’t really occurred to me that people might perceive this as strange until one person asked me why we were focusing on all these things and another wondered if we’d planned in a drink at the end of the day (pub locations were indeed made public).

The hard conversations were framed by worship and by sharing with each other about how we [campus ministers and students] were doing. That, I hope, helped place the conversations in the right perspective, even as I believe that the conversations were still hard and could potentially have caused people distress and anxiety. I hope and pray that people are still positively working through what we talked about. After all, we have these conversations together because we all need to see how faith relates to all areas of our lives, including and especially the hard things.

Furthermore, I believe these are areas “where a lot of pain and distress has happened and continues to happen,” and so “I’d like to do all I can to be equipped to know best how to bring the hope of Christ to those [who] are hurting.”