Seeking Justice from a Kingdom Perspective: A Conversation with IJM@UMN
The following reflection is based on an interview given by Mara Whiteaker and Laura Price with Tina Penttila, Marissa Otto, and Lara Erdmann, three officers of the University of Minnesota’s chapter of International Justice Mission.
Can you tell us a little bit about International Justice Mission?
Tina: International Justice Mission, or IJM, is a global organization that works to end human trafficking and violence against the poor. Started in 1997 by Gary Haugen, IJM has nineteen field offices and is one of the largest anti-human trafficking organizations in the world. IJM recognizes that, in many parts of the world, people experiencing poverty do not receive justice in the same way that other citizens do. Whether it be because of corrupt police forces, unjust laws, or systems that are not equipped to serve everyone equally, people living in poverty are more likely to be abused and are at a higher risk for experiencing violence. IJM's goal is to partner with the local justice systems and organizations in order to create holistic and long lasting change. IJM focuses on six injustices: sex trafficking, labor trafficking, police abuse of power, domestic violence, land grabbing, and citizenship rights abuse. They fight these injustices by rescuing victims and supporting them through aftercare and counseling, and working with police, court officials, lawyers, and the governments to prosecute the criminals and to support the various aspects of justice systems. Our student group, International Justice Mission at UMN, works to support IJM, to educate our fellow students about the issues that they fight (with a specific focus on human trafficking), and to provide opportunities for students to advocate in the Twin Cities, across the country, and around the world.
What role does faith play in motivating you to work for justice?
Tina: We see a constant pattern in our society, where people who are poor, people who are disadvantaged, people who from minority backgrounds are suffering a lot more injustice. But justice should be for everyone. That’s why the call for justice is such a huge part of my faith. The verse I always go to is from Micah and it says, “The Lord requires us to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” That word “require” for me is huge: seeking justice is not just something that’s recommended, it's something that we are required to do. And I think that should make us as Christians sincerely passionate about any ways that we can pursue justice.
Lara: Even before I was a believer, I was really passionate about justice. I probably wouldn't have phrased it like that, but I grew up wanting to learn more about other people's life experiences and trying to figure out how I could use my time and the resources that I had to help others. So then when I became a believer, it was kind of like becoming Spiderman: it was like I was bitten by a radioactive spider and everything became enhanced, which is kind of how life with Jesus is. So in coming to know Christ, I was able to understand what true justice actually looks like, because anything that's claiming to be justice that's apart from the Father is just a counterfeit. We have a Father, we have a God who sits on the throne of justice; that's who He is and we can't define justice apart from Him.
Marissa: For me, I can’t separate the idea of justice from my belief that everyone is made in the image of God. If you really think about that, and really consider that that means--that no matter who somebody is or what they've done, they have inherent dignity and they have inherent value because God created them in His own image—then you can really see the importance of fighting for basic human rights for everyone. I am horrified that we treat people so poorly who are made in the image of our creator, and that motivates me to pursue justice for everyone and want to see equity for everyone no matter who they are or where we think they come. Everyone deserves to have basic human rights and to be treated like human beings. It's our job to recognize the humanity of all the people in the world: they are people so they deserve to be treated as such. To be honest, before coming to understand what it means for every person to be made in the image and likeness of God, I was one of the people who thought that if you're living in poverty then it's probably your fault, you probably screwed up and now you're just too lazy to get out of that situation. But now of course, I have realized how hateful I was, and how hypocritical and judgmental. I was not viewing people as people. Before I had a Christian perspective I quite frankly didn't understand that no matter what situation in life people are in, they deserved to live a life with basic dignity and basic human rights.
Working for true justice is a complex mission; how do you (or IJM as an organization) navigate those practical and ideological complexities?
Tina: The work of IJM addresses a very complex problem and they realize their work is not a quick fix. IJM proclaims that their mission is “To protect the poor from violence by rescuing victims, bringing the criminals to justice, restoring survivors to safety and strength, and helping local law enforcement build a safe future that lasts.” But they also know that there is no easy way to stop injustices such as sex trafficking or to stop police abuse of power; those are incredibly complex issues. That's why IJM is not an organization that comes and just works with just a small section of the problem; while they do partner with aftercare systems and organizations that work with only the courts, IJM itself has an overarching aspect to it that is working for holistic change and holistic justice.
Marissa: One thing that helps make this work effective is that IJM is staffed by people who understand the culture they're working with. The international field offices are staffed by people from those countries, which means that it isn’t just white Americans coming into the countries and saying, “We know what to do!” The white saviour complex is so dangerous in this context because it says, “We know what's best for you because we come from developed countries and we’re going into this poor country, so obviously we are here to save you.” Instead, IJM understands that we, mainly white Americans, don't know what to do in a different culture, we don’t know the best things to do to help. Instead, their mindset is about equipping people to fight this fight. And that mindset comes from a lot of prayer, from listening first to others.
Tina: That posture of listening is important to the IJM chapter at the University of Minnesota, too, especially in listening to the international students involved in this work. As a group, we try to be intentional about having relationships not just around the world but within the United States and within the Twin Cities as well by getting connected with the organizations in our communities. We realize that not all of the issues that IJM addresses are present in the Twin Cities but sex trafficking is, labor trafficking is, domestic violence is. We are engaging ourselves and our members in our own communities because it's not just that we have to go help “those kids in Africa,” we also have to go help people who are right around us.
How can individuals and small groups of people get involved in the fight for justice for the poor?
Marissa: It can be a daunting task to all of a sudden just come into this work and learn that there are over 40 million people in slavery in our world, and think to yourself, “What am I supposed to do about that?” For a singular person or a small group it can be very daunting and it can feel like there's nowhere to go from there. But there are a few tangible steps that even individuals can take to pursue justice for all. First, money helps: we live in a capitalist world, and you just gotta do what you gotta do. Also advocating and educating people is huge. As Christians, we have the opportunity to address these issues in our churches and get our entire congregations educated and involved in the work. As individuals we feel like we don't have a lot of impact, but then we can tell this one other person, then they tell one other person—and when you multiply that to a whole church congregation then the impact can be really significant. Another way to help is by continuing your own education and being intentional about finding out how you're contributing to injustices, choosing practices like ethical consumption that help to address ways that our everyday lives perpetuate injustices, such as forced labor in the fashion industry. It’s important to remember that big systemic change comes from individuals in the first place. We have to start somewhere. If you feel like you can't do much as an individual or as a small group, then just start talking to other people, because that's how changes and shifts in the way that our society functions really happen. So don’t give up.
How does this faith-based idea of justice differ from other conceptions of justice in the modern, secular world?
Lara: Through growing in faith, I have also come to realize that justice doesn't need to be political. In fact, it shouldn’t be political. Before I was a believer I leaned very, very, very far left and as soon as I became a believer, for some reason I had this idea that if I'm a Christian now I need to be very politically conservative. Since then, a few years have passed and I've realized how limiting and wrong it is to try to match a Christian perspective to the political spectrum, which is a very flawed human system. I’ve had to take a step back and realize that as believers we have to pull ourselves away from a strictly political worldview and instead have a Kingdom perspective. Yes, we need to engage in the political sphere and use politics and use government to make changes that are needed, but we need to not see people as something that we need to try to manipulate through politicizing justice.
Marissa: Obviously IJM is pursuing justice for people through legal systems here on earth, and I believe that through the power of the Lord and through this work that this can happen. But at the same time I also think it is crucial to remember that we also do live in a broken world. So even while we're pursuing justice, worldly justice isn't actually the end game. We can trust that even when justice isn't served here on earth that God will serve ultimate justice. This is especially important to remember in our current cultural moment because everyone wants to see physical, real, earthly justice; we want to see justice now, and while that isn't a bad thing, we do have to remember that this is in God's hands. He is the one who is serving justice eternally, whether or not we're able to get it here on earth.