Kara Powell drives a minivan, is a soccer mom, and lives in the suburbs. Just the average Christian woman. But several years ago, as a college pastor, she realized that her short-term mission work wasn't having the long-term impact she hoped—either on the students or on the locals who hosted her groups. As a result, she started to study Scripture and to do research. "I realized that the ways I'd been going about trying to minister to others was well-intentioned but shallow, and not really helping anyone over the long run," says Kara. She shares much of her passion for living a life of justice in her work as Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute and Assistant Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is also author of a number of books on justice, such as Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, and Deep Ministry in a Shallow World (all Zondervan Youth Specialties).
We caught up with Kara to find out why justice is such an important part of the Christian faith, how we can live out that spiritual discipline daily, and how even suburbanites can make a difference in the world.
Why is justice important for Christians to understand and practice?
It's important because it's about righting wrongs and restoring the holistic peace that all of God's people were created to have. Look at how often justice is referred to in the Bible. Scripture says that "I, the Lord, love justice." It's such a part of who God is and what God intends for people.
Jim Wallis from Sojourners says if we really understood that every person is made in God's image then we couldn't stand what was happening in Darfur, for instance, because the kids in Darfur are just as much made in God's image as our own kids. So as we pursue justice, we're being obedient to God, we see more of God and the way God's gifted us, and it allows us to see God in other people.
It feels as if justice has become so politicized though.
It does. Some people think that justice is just a liberal agenda. But if you consider yourself a Bible-believing Christian, it becomes hard to read Scripture and not have a real appreciation for justice. Jesus took care of people's spiritual as well as their physical, social, and emotional needs. He healed people and offered them salvation.
What many of us have done in evangelicalism is have an either/or approach to justice. There are churches that are focused more exclusively on evangelism, and then there are those focused more on relief and tangible aid. Jesus did both.
We tend to focus on the Jesus who makes us most comfortable—the Jesus who heals or the Jesus who offers salvation or the Jesus of peace or the Jesus of joy or the Jesus of freedom. And the reality is that Jesus is all of those. Don't limit Jesus by just understanding one slice of him.
People talk about justice and compassion. What's the difference?
Compassion is giving a glass of cold water to someone who's thirsty. Justice is figuring out why that person couldn't get their own glass of cold water, helping them get their own glass of cold water, and then creating systems so that they can give other people glasses of cold water. So compassion is an important first step, but justice is much more systemic.
Justice seems more difficult!
Yeah. Justice is a whole lot harder than compassion and our service work. It takes more time. Service and compassion work are good. It's just that they often aren't long term and don't have the same effect of really bringing freedom that justice can.
That must be why pursuing a life of justice is a spiritual discipline.
Absolutely. It's a journey, a continual growing process in which God works within you, shaping you into the person he created you to be—one who is like Jesus.
How has Scripture motivated you to become a person of justice?
I've been influenced by understanding the Greek word dikaiosune that we've tended to translate as righteousness in the New Testament. That's a valid translation, but it also includes God's justice. In America we think of that righteousness as an individual making good behavioral choices. "Don't drink; don't chew; don't go with those who do" kind of thing. But if you look at Matthew 6:33, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," you can legitimately put the word justice in for that word. In Matthew 5:6, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." When you insert the word justice for righteousness you're able to understand even more of God's heart for justice.
So putting feet to those words means …
It's about how you respond to people. Walking into Starbucks, I gave a homeless person some peanuts I had in my purse—that's compassion. Real justice would have been me talking to him and getting him to a job placement center for people who are homeless. But that's not always realistic unless you have a schedule that gives you that kind of freedom.
It sounds like we have a free pass, then, if we're too busy to pursue real justice!
Not at all! Look, every dollar you spend is a justice decision. How are the chocolate, coffee, and clothes that we consume made? Much of it is created by people forced into systems of injustice—child labor, unfair labor practices and wages. Every day you can fund and support systems that offer hope and a gospel freedom to people.
I'm still on a journey on this. My family and I are in the middle of a kitchen remodel, which brings up all sorts of justice questions about purchases and workers. I'm not sure I've made all the right decisions, to be honest, but at least my husband and I are having that conversation with each other and with our good friends. The tile we buy (or don't buy), the size of fridge we purchase, and even the way we envision the space are all justice decisions.
When should you go the extra mile and when is it okay just to give a bag of peanuts?
Gosh, that's such a good question. I'd say it boils down to the Holy Spirit speaking to you. For example, when I saw that man at Starbucks this morning, I was late to a meeting. But I felt like the Holy Spirit convicted me and said, Kara, see what you have in your purse. So I did that and was able to give him at least something.
I don't think God calls every person to go be Shane Claiborne, who lives in a Christian community and makes his own clothes—living a radical justice lifestyle. I don't think justice means that every single person should move to places where there's extreme poverty and depravation. But it means in the midst of even a suburban life, we must face the hard questions with those who know us well and can wrestle through what God's answer for us is.
So rather than feeling overwhelmed by what you can't do, look for what you can do.
How do we learn to incorporate justice into our daily lives?
There's a lot in the suburbs that prevents us from really understanding a) the effects of our decisions, and b) people who are living without. So it's a lot easier to be isolated. Make the effort to build a relationship with someone who's in poverty. There's something about putting a name and a face with poverty that changes how you feel about poverty.
Do a study in Scripture about justice. Look up all the uses of the word justice and see how God speaks to you through that.
Pray about one way you can give your money in a radical way.
Pick up a book on justice—anything written by John Perkins or Shane Claiborne. There's also a great book, When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert, Steve Corbett, and John Perkins. And then think of a person with whom you can have a justice dialogue.
How important is community to justice?
Just like all things in the Christian life, it's theoretically possible to be a follower of Jesus by yourself, but it's a lot harder, a lot less joyful. Being in community, you ask the hard questions, try to pin down answers that relate to you as well as your friends, and then celebrate together what God is doing.
My husband and I are trying to figure out what the radical middle looks like. We've started meeting monthly with friends to read books on justice and kingdom living and to talk about what it means to practice it. We've tried to hold each other accountable for goals that we set, because we know we can't do it alone and we don't want to feel guilty because we're not moving to Africa, nor do we want to feel complacent because at least we sponsor a Compassion kid.
So it's about saying "yes" to issues where people are not being treated as though they are God's creations—wherever and whatever those issues may be—versus saying "it's not my business" or "it has nothing to do with me"?
Yes. There's injustice everywhere. Being a person of justice means we listen to the Holy Spirit prompting us to be aware, we ask God to show us what we need to do or say, and then we follow God's leading. That's the heart of God. As believers, then, that needs to become our hearts as well.