Social Justice is Boring
I hate to break it to you, but social justice is boring.
The emotional cataclysm you feel at that Christian conference as the band plays the same four chords over and over might only happen once or twice if you decide to pursue a career in justice work. The steely resolve you are forming as you commit yourself to following Jesus to the ends of the earth will probably be useful, but usually not because of a dangerous encounter with a hostile government agent. Instead, you’ll need it to break the simmering tension with your spouse or to gin up the courage to apologize to a co-worker.
If you pursue a life of ministry, you will get to do exciting things and see spiritual wonders every now and then. But mostly, you’ll face the same struggles you have now, just with less air conditioning.
If you work in the West and keep some material comforts as you advocate on behalf of the poor, expect a lot of paperwork and meetings.
We like to tell stories about powerful encounters and lives changed. But most of those stories only happen after years spent studying the language, gaining trust, and learning from locals. Mind-blowing statistics about lives changed represent a long period of time and lots of grueling effort.
Daring raids will sometimes rescue slaves, big rallies might galvanize a social movement, and powerful sermons can lead to many decisions for Christ. However, to ensure that people remain safe, movements endure, and disciples grow in their faith, you have to build institutions–preferably institutions that are self-sustaining.
Many poor people don’t need a one-time infusion of goodwill–they need stable social structures so they can carry out business, move around safely, and get help when they need it.
“Empowering the poor” is becoming a sexier concept in development work nowadays, but it remains just as messy as it has always been. It’s not easy to convey the day-in, day-out work of institution-building from a distance in a newsletter, and it certainly won’t show up in gripping viral videos. Working together to build such institutions is tedious and takes far more work than just giving stuff away, but few other paths lead to sustainable change.
There are groups out there that promise to do amazing things in very short periods of time. A few of them actually get good things done, but most don’t leave any sort of lasting impact. And some leave a bad impact by sowing distrust. If you jump in expecting immediate fulfillment and great results, you’ll either end up doing work that is harmful in the long run, or you’ll be consistently disappointed with your lack of conference-worthy stories.
You might say, “Gee, full-time social justice work sounds like any other kind of work, only for less money in more dangerous places.” Well, you’re right! The good news is that you don’t need to be particularly adventurous or skilled to do the work of justice and mercy. If you’re good at doing the same thing over and over again and patiently waiting to see results, you have what it takes to be a missionary or a full-time advocate wherever you are.
This slow-and-steady concept also means that we can reassess how we think about support. If missionaries aren’t heroes looking for a pedestal to stand on as much as they are stewards of power looking to build sustainable institutions, then they need friends and partners who are just as steady and faithful as they are. Those of us who live on donations are not the singular fulcrums upon which social change tips; we are shaped and supported by an army of people whose daily lives help eke out the steady change that leads to flourishing.
But one aspect of the typical social justice mindset that is realistic is the opposition. Whether it’s spiritual oppression from Satan or social oppression from those who benefit from injustice, there is always real pushback whenever God’s people are proclaiming the truth in love.
This is one area where serious preparation is always necessary. However, just as David’s fight with Goliath was preceded by years in the wilderness guarding sheep (hardly a thrill-a-minute sort of job), preparing for the spiritual battles of establishing justice requires daily repetition of the same spiritual disciplines that any other Christian would practice.
Anyone can–and should–participate in “changing the world” by loving others and sacrificing resources for the sake of the poor and the lost.
The best way to do this involves faithfully persevering in one particular field (whether as a full-time worker or a part-time partner) and build reliable institutions that propagate mercy, proclaim the truth, and guard the dignity of people who might otherwise suffer injustice.
It may seem boring, but in a culture that fetishizes novelty, few things are as revolutionary and worthwhile as steady discipline in doing good.
Matthew Loftus lives in South Sudan, where he teaches and practices Family Medicine. He’s a columnist for Christianity Today and is a regular contributor at Christ and Pop Culture and Mere Orthodoxy. Visit his family’s website at MatthewAndMaggie.org to learn more about his work. Follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus.