I had the privilege of attending The Justice Conference here in Portland over the weekend. With the help of a handful of scholars, activists and artists, it was a great weekend that inspired, challenged, and disturbed many people. I’d like to share a few thoughts about some things that were highlights for me.
1. Burn, baby, burn!
One of the most powerful, subversive and simple acts of resistance took place during “Jesus, Bombs, and Ice Cream,” the presentation by Shane Claiborne and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. The two took our country’s priorities to task as they exposed the enormity of military spending in light of poverty, poor education, poor health, and the down spiraling economy. The two talked about the billions of dollars spent on military spending and how those dollars kill twice. The first time they kill is when they are kept from the poor and the second time is when they have created the bombs or the guns or the missiles that kill our enemies. Before a crowd of 4,000 people, Shane Claiborne burned a $100 bill. In that moment a tension filled the room and all the thousands of thoughts regarding what that $100 could do hung over us all like a blanket and silenced us. The point Shane was making was that justice is not about handing money out. Sure, fair distribution and redistribution are certainly crucial and necessary components of a just society and economic structure, but money will never replace hearts that care and are moved by the plight of a neighbor, stranger, enemy, or neighborhood in pain. That act of non-violent resistance in the face of a society that worships money and views it as the cure for all our problems illuminates another and a better story: love of neighbor and the act of humanizing those who have been dehumanized robs money of its power and changes everything. That is the kind of gospel I want to be a part of.
2. Honor. Everyone.
Last semester I wrote a paper in which I kind of called Miroslav Volf “dystopian” and disagreed with him on the scope and influence of a social trinitarian theology. Don’t tell him about that. Miroslav’s lecture on Friday night was phenomenal. Miroslav spoke on the words “Honor everyone” found in 1 Peter 2:17 and challenged everyone to imagine what that might mean. Honor goes beyond tolerance and respect. This has profound implications for interfaith dialogue, as well as how Christians must carry themselves to command honor as well.
In talking through this with my wife, I agree with her that it is easier to honor people who do not claim to follow Jesus than it is to honor people to who do profess Jesus yet fail to embrace and value all people equally. My wife and I were discussing Volf’s challenge on Friday night and questioning whether or not honoring the oppressor demeans the oppressed. You can say that in a myriad of ways, but here is an example. Does honoring people who demean and devalue women hurt my sisters?
3. The low-points…
That kind of segues into my reflection on the low-points of The Justice Conference. While I am sure there were many different traditions represented, The Justice Conference is by and large an Evangelical production. Thus, it is disturbing that a progressive Evangelical conference dedicated to the topic of justice would not turn its attention toward the tremendous split between genders in Evangelical Christianity. This was indeed the elephant in the room. More than 4000 people were gathered to talk about justice issues facing our society–and don’t get me wrong, many pressing issues were addressed along with opportunities to get involved and create change–but a pressing injustice in our own Christian culture went largely unaddressed. The problem of sexism within Christianity is no big secret. Various celebrity Christian leaders are outspoken about gender roles, and gender inequality is pervasive within Evangelical churches. This was the perfect opportunity to tell another story and present another side of Christianity. Justice is a thread that includes women as equals.
Where were the female scholars and theologians and pastors? They exist. Dr. Mimi Haddad from CBE International was in attendance and presented in the pre-conference, though it would have been great to see her in the main conference. With more than 60 presentations in pre-conference and main conference sessions only 3 dealt specifically with the topic of gender, none of which took place in the main conference. Additionally, there was nothing on the topic of sexual orientation.
As Christians getting together to talk about justice, we cannot overlook the continued injustice of theology and practice that wrongly devalues women and cements men in a role of superiority above women. This dualist sexism has no place within Christianity.
I’m deeply thankful for what The Justice Conference has done right and well. It was life giving in many ways, but was also very much a product of Evangelical Christianity in other less hopeful and life giving ways.