Interview: A Human Rights Activist's Journey From Unbelief to Faith

A leading human rights activist has shared her long journey from unbelief to faith in her book Good God, Lousy World, and Me, chronicling the search for a loving God amidst cases of genocide, rape, sex trafficking and slavery, which at one point led her to call herself a "twisted, pissed-off, betrayed, former Christian."

Holly Burkhalter serves as the vice president of Government Relations & Advocacy of International Justice Mission, a human rights agency with a commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ. She has worked for various organizations throughout her 34-year career as an activist, including Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, and today is a respected expert on human rights who witnesses before Congress.

Her Good God, Lousy World, and Me, The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith book explores both the cases of extreme abuse around the world and personal tragedy that led her to abandon her belief in God, as well as her continued search for answers in the face of suffering, and her eventual journey back to faith.

Below is an edited version of a phone interview The Christian Post had with Burkhalter on Friday:

CP: Has society improved in the last couple of hundred years when it comes to human rights?

Burkhalter:  Right, "is the arc of history bending toward justice," as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. It would be hard for me to compare the world in my lifetime with what came before. I would say the Holocaust was the lowest point in human history, for my way of thinking, because of the enormity of the loss, and the complete unwillingness of other governments to stop it.

I do think that the arc of history does bend slowly toward justice. The modern human rights movement is based on intentional standards on how people ought to be treated, which is very important. Now, governments agreeing to those standards is not the same thing as governments adhering to those standards. But I think there is an increasingly shared understanding of what is just not acceptable.

I think in international public understanding, something extraordinary has occurred. That thinking is very different from 1914, and it is even different from 1980, when no one paid attention, except possibly Human Rights Watch, where I worked at the time, when gas was used against the Kurds.

What I believe is that what really needs to happen is for thought-leaders, for informed and moral public citizens in all countries to demand that the promises made by those who hold power be honored in action.

CP: In your book, you pose questions about the seeming randomness of human suffering, in particular why some children are subjected to extreme abuse, while others are not. Has anything been able to provide you with an acceptable perspective on this question?

Burkhalter:  Finding an acceptable perspective is something we should search for as opposed to a definitive answer, because there isn't one, for me as a Christian.

But a perspective that allows me to know that God is good and sovereign, while simultaneously seeing that the world is a mess, and that my kids are safe while some other mom's kids are not. I was reading some of the sermons of a theologian named Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian from the '50s, and his perspective was very much formed in the culture of the Holocaust. His perspective on this question of randomness, and why some suffer while others do not. He did not have an answer and he made it clear in his writings that there wasn't one, but what his strong belief was that we are to act and respond as if those who suffer are our own.

Both my girls are adopted, we adopted them from Asia as babies, one is Vietnamese, the other is Chinese.

I saw this undercover footage that my organization, the Intentional Justice Mission, had taken in brothels in Cambodia. They were selling little girls as young as five.  My kid was five at the time. And the girls being sold in Cambodia were actually Vietnamese. That's why I got this horrible sense that these kids look like my daughter and this could be my daughter. I think it was God working in my heart, but it certainly was God working in my career because I resolved at that moment that I wanted to come work for IJM.  I wasn't a Christian at the time. I had been in that field forever, but seeing that image of that five-year-old girl being offered to provide sexual services was really the thing that just trashed my heart. I had seen it all, but that image – that's when I thought, "Well I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm going to do something."

I think that those experiences are God given because the closer we get to the world of suffering, the closer we get to what our Lord and Savior wants us to do in this world, which is to seek justice and rescue the oppressed.

CP: How do those without a belief in God who work in this field manage to deal with what they experience?

Burkhalter:  I would not have wanted to leave the impression that only Christians can do this work. That is not my belief, I think that's wrong. I would hope that the movement against injustice would be for all of us. For every person of good will.

For him (an undercover investigator mentioned in the book), he could not do the work. He could not do what he does without believing that God has something else in mind for those little ones, the ones that we didn't get, and that no one will get. And I understand that belief because it is my own.

There are thousands and thousands of great and good people doing good work around the world who are confronted daily with horrible suffering and mass death, and absolutely, one does not have to be a Christian, and many are not.

I would say though, that is incumbent upon organizations who are employing individuals who go out there and face the worst that life has to offer, that they take care of them, and they take care of their emotional health, if it's appropriate their spiritual health.  But I will tell you that everybody, Christian or non-Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever – people who are serving traumatized individuals, they are themselves highly vulnerable, they are almost certain to be affected by it very negatively.

It is secondary trauma, and it is an epidemic among those who serve, whether it is photographers, news media who are in the midst of horrible attacks, or whether it's someone who works for Doctors without Borders and is watching tiny children die from diarrhea in refugee camps, they are highly vulnerable – and organizations including mine must be very attentive to the safety of their hearts and minds.

CP: How has technology and information changed the human rights field?

Burkhalter:  We have a lot of supporters of International Justice Mission who are very passionate about abolishing modern day slavery. We do find that people didn't know, but once they do know, they want to do something about it.

I would say that the incredible information explosion has brought more of the world's suffering to the attention of ordinary folk. My concern is that what might be very discouraging is when you hear about atrocities and starvation and horror, and you have no way to do anything about it. And that is dispiriting and leads to cynicism and emotional fatigue. But we see in cases of horrible things like the tsunami, or like the earthquake in Haiti, or the Katrina hurricane in New Orleans, that when people see something that they can do to help, there is an outpouring.

I think it's the job of organizations like mine and many others, of churches, synagogues and thought leaders, our elected policy makers to inform concerned citizens with ways that they can actively make the world a better place. Because I think they will respond with generosity and passion.

CP: Will we ever see a serious reduction of human rights abuses around the world, and what changes need to happen for that?

Burkhalter:  I do believe that the future will be better than the past, and that's not just an expression of my faith.

Governments have a sovereign obligation to protect people's rights. We (IJM) help them learn how to do that. We represent the victims, and we walk alongside local governments, including the police, and we help them secure relief for victims, and that means pulling little girls out of prostitution, getting widows their land back, but it also means bringing perpetrators of violence and sexual assault to justice in courts of law.

Essentially, this is a crime of greed. People are in this to make money. And as the likelihood that they are going to go to jail increases, the crime really does go down. We've seen it in the Philippines, we've seen it in Cambodia, we've seen it in India.

There are plenty of problems in Cambodia, but this problem, because the government made a decision, very much encouraged by the U.S. government, the government of Cambodia decided that they just didn't want to be the pedophile capital of the world, and they changed that.

Good God, Lousy World, and Me: The Improbable Journey of a Human Rights Activist from Unbelief to Faith published by Convergent Books goes on sale on Oct. 15, 2013, and will be available for purchase online and elsewhere.