Best-of Deep Justice interviews

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Mar 6, 2008

According to Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams in Wikinomics, “There are always more smart people outside your enterprise boundaries than there are inside.” [Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (New York : Portfolio, 2006), 45.] In the midst of our own journey towards understanding justice at Fuller’s Center for Youth and Family Ministry, we couldn’t agree more. One of the highlights of our recent justice research has been interviews we’ve conducted with entrepreneurial thinkers, youth workers, and justice leaders around the country.

We have compiled memorable excerpts from the full-text interviews available in our new book, Deep Justice in a Broken World.

Jim Wallis on defining justice [Jim Wallis is President and Executive Director of Sojourners/Call to Renewal and the author of several books, including The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. ]
What’s the difference between charity and justice?

Charity is just dealing with the symptoms of problems—feeding people, housing people, and clothing the naked. But William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, used to say that we can’t keep picking up bodies at the bottom of the mountain and not climb the hill and see who or what is throwing them off the edge. Justice climbs the hill and tries to stop folks from stepping off the cliff.

Dr. Glen Stassen on motivating youth toward Deep Justice [Glen Stassen is a Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context and other books on justice and peacemaking.]
What would you say to a youth worker who feels like justice is a step beyond what a sixteen year-old can do?

Kids care about injustice; they are struggling for some independence themselves, and struggling against being excluded, and they have a passion about injustice. The best group in a church to begin with in starting a program to mentor kids who have needs, or to help feed the hungry, or to do visits and engage in conversation with recipients of injustice, is youth. They’re not set in their ways and their ideologies, and they care.

Dr. William (“Bill”) Pannell on the “Real Jesus” and Justice [Dr. William (“Bill”) Pannell was the first African-American to serve on the Board of Trustees at Fuller Theological Seminary before joining its faculty in 1974, and currently serves as special assistant to Fuller’s President and Senior Professor of preaching.]
Bill, why are we so prone to accept a mere caricature of Jesus instead of the full Jesus?

Our view of Jesus is largely shaped by how and where we’ve been raised. In much of America, the reigning ideology about personhood is private and individualistic, so we tend to see Jesus through the same individualistic lenses. Underlying much of this narrow view of Jesus is a misunderstanding of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. Those who emphasize Jesus as “my personal Savior” tend to focus on his divinity, and the way he offers us a path to heaven when we die. They tend to think of Jesus as standing against the world instead of actually working in it.

On the other end of the spectrum, those who underemphasize Jesus’ divinity and focus only on his humanity view Him as a great moral example and a great teacher who wants radical social change, but they miss out on His offer of salvation. Either extreme is an exercise in negative self-definition because we come to define ourselves by what we’re not instead of what we are; we are who we are because we are not what they are.

What’s the relationship between the Kingdom and the church?

The Christian community is a visible expression of Jesus’ new order, and justice must reign in it if it is to be authentic. Anyone who asks what the Kingdom of God looks like ought to be invited over to the church.

Dr. John Perkins on the Gospel and Deep Justice [Dr. John Perkins is the founder of Mendenhall Ministries, Voice of Calvary Ministries, Harambee Christian Family Center, and the co-founder and chair of the Christian Community Development Association. As an international civil rights leader, he’s written nine books including A Quiet Revolution, Let Justice Roll Down, and With Justice for All.]

What advice would you give a youth worker who’s been emphasizing one half of the gospel but now wants to help his or her kids and ministry both love God and love others?

Fundamentally, we have to understand that all people are created in God’s image. That gives us all equal dignity before God. I don’t see how you can accept that other humans are created in God’s image with inherited dignity and then exploit them. Once we view others as created in God’s image, we won’t want them to live without Him, and we won’t want them to live in unjust social structures. So we’re going to want to embody both halves of the gospel.

Dr. Tony Campolo on becoming Kingdom people [Dr. Tony Campolo is the founder of the School for Social Change at Eastern University, as well as being a renowned speaker and author.]
What would you say to someone who thinks the key to helping kids become kingdom people is to teach them more scripture?

Well, my answer is that the concept of praxis must be at work. By praxis, I mean the combination of scriptural reflection in the context of social action. Reading scripture divorced from actual experience will not do it. Nor will involvement with justice work without Biblical reflection.

Real change happens when people are put to work, and in the context of working, look over passages of scripture and are asked to discuss, “In light of what you’ve seen and what you’ve done as you’ve worked among the poor, what do you think this passage of scripture that we are studying has to say about what you have just seen; what you have just experienced; and what you have just done?” It’s reflection in the context of action, rather than reflection without action.

What do we do in youth ministry that hinders this feedback loop in which scripture informs our justice work, and our justice work informs our understanding of scripture?

I think youth pastors are sometimes afraid and unable to recognize that there needs to be structural change in order for there to be social justice. It’s not enough to work on the micro level. When youth ministers go to a third world country, it is important for them to see the ways the political, social, and economic structures on the macro level create and maintain poverty. If all they do is see things on the micro level, they will fail to grasp the real causes of poverty. Doing micro-projects is very good, and gives people an opportunity to see the pain and suffering of people. To understand and see the social forces that create that poverty is very, very important. In most cases, young people very seldomly grasp the macro situation.

Efrem Smith on Kingdom love that busts racial barriers [Efrem Smith is the senior pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, co-author of The Hip Hop Church, and the author of Raising Up Young Heroes.]
How do you feel when someone says to you, “When I look at you, I don’t see your skin color?”

I don’t feel like I’m in an authentic dialogue. We live in a racialized society and if someone has the natural ability to see, they see that I’m an African-American. But I know what people are trying to say when they say that. They’re trying to say, “I’m attempting to live a life where skin color is not a barrier for me,” and I respect that desire.

What about when you face the other extreme and people look at you as a Black man and attribute everything about you to your race or ethnicity?

To say you don’t see skin color is unhealthy, but to attribute everything to skin color is just as unhealthy. I think multiple ethnicities, cultures, and languages are opportunities to see the creative power of our loving God. At the same time, if everything is attributed to race or ethnicity, then we build stereotypes by believing, “All White people think like this,” or “All Black people are like this.” Those stereotypes begin to fuel prejudice.

I think we need to teach the Bible as the most multicultural piece of literature that exists. When we read Matthew 1 and the genealogy of Jesus, we can’t help but conclude that Jesus walked the earth as a multicultural human being. When we read of Jesus’ travels, we have to ask ourselves why Jesus went through Samariain John 4 and what that means for us today. When we read the second chapter of Acts and the day of Pentecost, or Revelation 7 and its vision of a multitude of every tribe and language in heaven, we have to wrestle with its implications for us as kingdom followers.

Lina Thompson on having real conversations about race [Lina Thompson is the National Director for Training and Capacity for World Vision’s youth programs in the United States and an adjunct faculty member in Fuller Seminary’s Urban Youth Ministry Certificate program.]
How do we get over our fears about race?

I think that the degree to which we have meaningful relationships with people who are different ethnically and culturally is the degree to which meaningful conversations about race can take place. I cannot limit myself to people just like me.

What mistakes do youth workers tend to make in talking about race?

I think we’re often not very well informed. We’re not taking the time to do our own theological, personal reflection. If you haven’t spent time dealing with your own racism, then you can’t pretend to be able to walk with kids through it.

Anthony Flynn on how our checkbooks can be tools for justice [Anthony Flynn was formerly Associate Pastor of New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and is currently CFO for Urban Youth Workers Institute in Southern California.]
What type of impact do our choices about money have on the kids in our ministries?

I believe that the best sermon that we can possibly preach is how we live our lives. As youth workers, we have the chance to be at least somewhat transparent with our students about why and how we make the financial choices that we do. For instance, as we’re wrestling with the choice of whether we should buy a house, we can invite them into what it means to have a mortgage and home insurance and all those other fun expenses.

For many of the kids we reach out to, we are the closest thing to Jesus that they see. We’re the walking, living, breathing example of Jesus that they identify with. So if they see us making mistakes with our money, they are more likely to mimic those mistakes in their own choices. When they see us making Kingdom choices with our checkbooks, hopefully they will too.

Rudy Carrasco on using our ministry budgets to further justice [Rudolpho (“Rudy”) Carrasco is the Executive Director of Pasadena’s Harambee Christian Family Center.]
What difference should it make to us that according to Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus’ presence is in the poor?

It should make a huge difference. In fact, that passage is one of the most important sections of scripture in my life. It’s so dramatic, and even offensive. I’m glad Jesus said it and I didn’t. Now I can just read the Bible and tell folks that’s what your Lord and Savior says. For many youth ministries, the justice starting point is simply to take a few weeks and reflect on the fact that Jesus’ presence is in the poor. He doesn’t give us any wiggle room.

Besides economic power, what other types of power do the poor lack?

There are so many types of power that the poor lack, but one major one is they lack connections and access. And even if they somehow end up making some connections and gaining some access, they often don’t know what to do with those networks.

Youth ministries need to do a little bit of investigative research and learn what people really need. I’ll tell you one thing that most folks need: help getting a job. If youth ministries could use their money to help the unemployed gain jobs, that would definitely increase their power.

Alexie Torres-Fleming on moving beyond classism toward justice [Alexie Torres-Fleming is the founder and Executive Director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice located in the South Bronx, New York.]
From a Kingdom justice perspective, what mistakes do youth workers in middle and upper class communities make when it comes to seeking justice for all classes?

I’ve observed that middle and upper class youth ministries who want to “empower” the poor often forget that people in poor communities are already empowered and that they do not need or require the assistance of their well-to-do counterparts to empower them. My poor brothers and sisters have the talents, skills and ideas necessary to challenge the structures of injustice that benefit from their oppression.

I think folks from middle and upper class communities need to stop doing what they think needs to be done in poor communities and start listening to those closest to the problem. The poor know what changes need to be made in their communities. We need to start trusting their analysis and then have the courage to take action.

As you’ve seen youth workers lead their ministries into deep justice, what separates those who ‘get it’ from those who don’t?

Those who ‘get it’ don’t assume that the goal is to make all of us middle class. The work of the church is not to make people middle class. When I turn to the Acts of the Apostles and I read what the early church did to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, nowhere does it say that they were working with them to make them wealthier.

Shane Claiborne on reconsidering “Who is my neighbor?” [Shane Claiborne is a speaker, author of The Irresistible Revolution, and founder of the Simple Way community in Philadelphia.]]As you have spent time with the poor in Philadelphia, in other cities in the U.S., as well as in countries like India and Iraq, what have you learned about the causes of poverty, and how we as kingdom people should therefore respond?

Mother Teresa said so well, “Poverty is not created by God, but by you and I because we haven’t figured out how to love.” It’s clear in scripture that God never intends for people to be poor, but that our ignorance and our indifference allow poverty to continue. I think in God’s eyes it’s an absolutely heartbreaking reality that there are people on the streets while other folks have extra bedrooms in their houses. That there are kids starving while others have extra food in their cupboards. Our justice work flows from a real love of God and of neighbor that recognizes that these blessings of God are too good to keep for ourselves. God created enough stuff for all of us, but when we take more than our share and insulate ourselves from our neighbors, it creates poverty.

Jesus could have said, “Love your neighbor as much as I love you,” or “Love your neighbor a whole bunch,” but He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Grounding our love for others in our love for ourselves is so essential because it’s so important to know that we are loved. We all deeply long to know that we are loved. We try to prove that we are lovable in so many heart-wrenching ways. We try to fill our longing for love with stuff and with addictions and with forms of love and intimacy that are unsatisfying. In the middle of that, if we hear that whisper that we are loved, it fills us with love and compassion for other people because just like us, they are created in the image of God.

Action Points:
  1. Which sentences or images stand out to you from these interview excerpts? What makes them stand out to you?

  2. Are there any of these ideas that cause you to question how you’ve been doing service and justice work in your ministries? Why do you think that is?

  3. What would it look like for your ministry to embrace a few ideas from these excerpts? What would your ministry gain? What would your ministry lose?

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Photo by Artem Kovalev

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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