justice within and without

Over the weekend of the 2nd and 3rd of November I attended The Justice Conference. In this post I want to share some thoughts and reflections about that conference. The Justice Conference is run and sponsored by Tear Fund. The aim that I found on their website “is to educate, inspire and connect this generation for the vulnerable and oppressed.” The conference is run in various countries across the world. From the beginning I felt that the targeting of the conference missed the mark slightly. It felt like a solid idea of who the conference goers were hadn’t been identified well and therefore the content wasn’t pitched to who was actually in the room. I am not quite sure what the founders have in mind when they say ‘this generation’ as that can be interpreted in different ways. There was quite a large age range at the conference although it appeared (my visual guess here) that there were more people over 40 than under, attending. I found the use of ‘justice’ language interesting too, I hadn’t really had cause to reflect on this but using the language of ‘justice’ seems a bit disconnected and not quite relevant nowadays. It was something that church was talking much more about 15 or so years ago.

I’d love to hear your opinions of this – do you still hear the development and community work of the church described as ‘justice’?

Of course working with communities to promote development, growth and freedom from poverty and oppression are always important work but the language around it has changed over the years.

The Justice Conference did a great job of making the conference about more than just the ‘teaching times’. They assembled a collection of incredible musicians, poets and artists. Joel Mckerrow presented his incredibly moving and inspiring poetry and Aro provided beautiful music. Spoken word poet Rosy Keane presented a challenging piece entitled ‘my mother left the church because the pastor was a sexist’. It was all brilliant and added to the atmosphere and I could attempt (and fail) to describe them for you, but it is probably better you look them up for yourself.

I could have happily listened to McKerrow, Keane and Aro for a day and gone home happy, challenged and inspired. But the programme was very full.
I found the main keynote sessions were too full. They were packed with more than one speaker an artist and a worshipful singing time. The speakers were mostly very good but they left the audience with a lot of think about and it was a bit too much to reflect on all at once. The MCs could have managed this a bit better with a bit more silence between the speakers rather than having to fill the transitions with their own (sometimes unnecessary) banter.

The tone of the conference was inspirational rather than practical. I came away thinking yes I agree but what do I do? I wasn’t particularly challenged by the content – although it was subtitled ‘all things new’ there wasn’t much new in this conference. That may say more about my conference attendance over the last 20 years (yes conference junkie here!) than anything about this conference, however. The fault I think was in the targeting, the conference was just pitched in the wrong place. It felt like they were to justify or convince people that there is a faith mandate to be involved in issues of oppression, injustice and the environment. While there has been a bit of push back from some evangelicals about this lately I think overall most people are onboard with this idea. Definitely those who attended the conference didn’t need convincing!

People who are willing to give up most of their weekend to attend a conference are already invested, their primary question is but what can I do. They are looking for personal inspiration, rather than to be convinced of the need or the theological basis of meeting those needs. Ruby Duncan identified this well on the Saturday night panel. She described how there are different layers to social justice work, we can work at the level of befriending a neighbour, we can work at the layer of setting up a not-for-profit to focus on a particular issue, we can also work at the policy level, and everything in-between. I think traditionally local churches have tended to place most emphasis on the befriend a neighbour level of community work and it was refreshing to have other layers highlighted and included. The conference included many of these different layers in the talks available. Some may have found this variety good but I felt that it lead to a degree of superficiality that too much was being covered and there was no opportunity to go deeper. The workshops could have been an opportunity to do this but although advertised as workshops they were just more people up front talking, about another diverse range of topics. When something is advertised as a workshop I assume participation and some degree of reflective learning or activities not just more talking.

The biggest problem about The Justice Conference was that until Mick Duncan spoke at the very end it was completely focused on justice ‘out there’. This created an us and them mentality that failed to address problems within us and within the church. We cannot have a ‘justice conference’ without looking inward and addressing issues of justice within the church, otherwise we are in danger of hypocrisy. Simple things make strong statements, for example of the keynote speakers at the conference the overwhelming majority were white males. There was one woman keynote, and only two keynote speaker of colour. What does that say about justice within the church and within justice organisations? This created an us and them language of helpers and helped, that I became increasingly uncomfortable with as the conference went on. Language is important in development work, it can be disempowering or empowering. There was a lot of disempowering language used at this conference even the simple act of identifying people as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘needing help’ expresses privilege, and identifies others as needing our help, in what can be a negative and unhelpful labelling.

If we cast our eyes inward and look at some of the justice issues for the church in NZ, the use of money, struggles around inclusivity, the role of women, domestic violence, cultural stratification, we realise that we are just as in need of ‘justice’ as those in our communities. This humble acknowledgement may help to disassemble the power assumptions and bring us to a place where we can work together with our communities rather than staying in the mindset ‘that we are bringing justice’ to our community. It turns our language into one of partnership instead of helpers (powerful) and helped (powerless).

Before we begin to address ‘justice’ out there we need to look at ourselves, we need to look within the church and address our own justice issues and then maybe we will then with humility be able to address our language and truly empower others.

After all if we believe that God is making all things new, that starts with myself, and with my local church as well as my community and the wider world. Are we open to the challenge of that making new within our comfort zones?

Did you go to the justice conference? What did you think?

What do you think is the major justice issue for the church in NZ?

I’d love to hear from you,

Christina

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