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.

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.”

Why don’t we talk about racism?

As part of our study at Campus Edge on difficult conversations, we talked about racism. It was an important topic as part of recognizing how God cares about justice and because not caring about racism takes away from our witness to who God is. During our discussion, one of the questions that came up is why we tend not to talk about racism in Christian circles. Part of the challenge is that many of us avoid difficult conversations in general, so that means we avoid most conversations that bring too closely into focus our identity, our feelings, and whether we are good enough.

Yet, part of the challenge is that it’s hard to believe that good church folk might be racist. Our actions, such as giving to the poor and advocating for justice, show that we strive to live out our love for God and our neighbor; why would anyone accuse us of racism? As Carolyn B. Helsel notes:

If we are generally good people who feed and clothe the homeless and give our money to the poor, it can feel as if we are being unjustly accused of racism when the rest of our behavior shows our moral intentions. Unfortunately, great harm comes to others not simply by our intentions, but by our inattentions. . . Separating intention from inattention means that if we say something that inadvertently hurts someone else, we do not need to get defensive. Instead, we can say, “I’m so sorry. I did not realize what that would sound like or feel like for you.”

Despite our best intentions, we are still sinners. Social science has shown that we tend to like people who are familiar to us and whom we understand, which means we tend to avoid people of different cultures (and even avoid making space for others’ differences). As Christena Cleveland puts it: “our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.” Furthermore, when we’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to put others down; in other words, we do our best to disassociate with people who might be considered ‘losers.’ For more on this, I recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ.

I confess that we at Campus Edge haven’t done a great job of acknowledging racism. Campus Edge’s vision focuses on creating community and integrating faith and intellect; we especially want to be there for people who are struggling with faith. It’s not immediately obvious how the question of racism fits in; yet, that might be because we’ve been ignoring how racism (or other -isms) make a community less welcoming and less supportive. Furthermore, when people use the Bible to support racism or even use one’s good intentions or faith to be indifferent to another person’s troubles and/or unique gifts, how can one not struggle with faith?

We’re working on this at Campus Edge. Pray that we might do a better job of caring about those around us who have been struggling in ways that we haven’t seen or acknowledged. I pray, too, that more people would have the courage to have about difficult conversations, especially connected to racism, justice, sexuality, and spirituality.