Gathering under the vision of impacting a generation for justice, the third annual Justice Conference convened this weekend in Los Angeles. Filling the beautiful and historic Orpheum Theater and simulcast around the country, this gathering brought organizations, activist, business leaders, and students together to encourage one another to soldier on in their fight for the vulnerable and oppressed. Conference speakers consistently offered a solid and ordered definition for justice. Defining it as right relationship with self, others, and creation which is rooted in scripture, core to the gospel, and at the heart of God. The application of justice was more varied. Ranging from largely apolitical issues like trafficking and the exploitation of women to the explicit political advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform. Same-sex marriage, abortion, and persecution of Christians around the world were left for "those other conferences."
In a pre-conference session, Justice Conference founder Ken Wytsma offered a refreshingly biblical and philosophical understanding of justice. He noted the distinction between primary justice, when things are as they ought, and restorative justice, when things are brought back to how things ought to be. Highlighting the words of Jeremiah concerning justice, Ken warned against rejecting the term social justice, "Just because we don't like how the social justice has been use doesn't mean we can just hate and reject the phrase. People misuse the word love too."
After nearly a half dozen speakers spoke on a variety of issues Eugene Cho, pastor of the self-described "multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual" Quest Church in Seattle, offered a word of warning to those doing "the work of justice." Eugene asks, "The question isn't just do we do justice, but how we do justice? Are we open to the idea that justice must do us…cause if not, we are just peddling things. If we are not pointing people to the gospel or the savior named of Jesus we are elevating our own savior complexes."
Bethany Hoang, from the International Justice Mission articulated the important connection between prayer and the fight for victims of abuse. She told the story of how the prayers of thousands of people led to the rescue of over 500 slaves from a brick factory in Southeast Asia.
However, the conference did not limit itself to safe non-political issues. Immigration reform was a dominant theme throughout the conference. This should not be a surprise since World Relief, the primary sponsor of the event, has taken a lead role in advocating for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington DC. Jenny Yang, World Relief's Vice President of Advocacy and Policy, highlighted many of the passages in the Bible that speak about the migration of individuals. While it was not explicitly articulated it seemed the use of biblical passages was meant to imply that because lots of biblical characters like Abraham and Jesus were immigrants at one time and we need comprehensive immigration reform.
The most outrageous statements came from Sojourner's Jim Wallis who declared his fondness for the "nones." These "nones" are supposedly comprised of the "spiritual, but not religious" who have rejected church over its lack of support for issues like immigration reform. Therefore, Wallis notes, "This issue is not about politics, [immigration reform] will actually bring people back to Jesus Christ." He went on to stress the urgency in passing comprehensive immigration reform before the summer recess. Stating that he had been told privately by Republican members of Congress that the only reason it had not passed the House was because of fear.
Another prominent issue featured at the Justice Conference was the death penalty and mass incarceration of young black men. Bryan Stevenson spoke powerfully about working to free people from death row. The stories all noted the mental state and tragic circumstances of clients that he worked with over the years. A poignant speaker, it was easy to get caught up in the injustice these men on death row faced growing up, but the acts of violence that earned them their seat on death row was never mentioned. It seemed lost on the audience that they were demanding justice for victims of abuse and exploitation and simultaneously decrying the system that imprisons those who abuse and exploit.
While there was a general appeal to address the issue of poverty and exploitation at a global level, there were only two nations singled out for special attention. A panel discussion led by Lynn Hybels featured Pastor Marcel Serubungo from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sami Awad from Palestine. Pastor Serubungo spoke about pastors who were working for reconciliation in DRC where ethnic and tribal conflict has led to the death of millions of people. The pastors have made their churches models of reconciliation where different tribes are all worshiping Jesus together. Sami Awad, spoke briefly about visiting the Jewish concentration camps in Auschwitz and learning firsthand about the experience of the Jews under the Nazis and how that played into the current conflict.
Considering the center-Left bent of many of the speakers it was notable that there was no mention of LGBT issues. Not surprising however, was the absence of any talk on abortion or Christian persecution. This fits a concerning trend, which has been noted on numerous occasions, that young Evangelicals are desperate to "move beyond" the "culture war" issues of abortion, marriage, and religious liberty. The Justice Conference has routinely avoided those issues and it is no surprise that it has become one of the largest international conferences of its kind. The foundations of human flourishing, and civilization for that matter, are the sanctity of life, the family, and religious liberty and therefore demand a place at the table whenever social justice is discussed. By ignoring these issues the Justice Conference is missing an opportunity to train a generation of justice advocates to strike at the root of injustice. Maybe next year.