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When one of the authors met little Kunthy and Chanda in Cambodia, they were 11-and 12-year-old girls living as children should live – going to school, playing, laughing. They were free. But only months earlier, these young girls were living as chattel, kept prisoner by the adults in their lives who profited from their daily rape.
The girls were beaten if they tried to go outside of the brothel in which they were held. They were beaten if they cried while men were having their way with them. To help the customers feel they were getting the most out of the cash they had forked over, the traffickers injected Kunthy and Chanda with narcotics, blunting their resistance and their tears.
Kunthy and Chanda are just two out of millions whose lives have been forcefully and fraudulently converted into a commodity sold to the highest bidder. While their mothers participated in a one-time exchange of money when they sold their daughters into sexual slavery, the traffickers were able to sell and use the girls’ bodies virtually without limit.
The hero impulse runs deep, particularly for those of us who have grown up within American culture.
Sadly, you don’t have to crack a history book to know what slavery is like. Very much alive and festering today, slavery is one of the deep wrongs of the world that needs to be set right. The people of Israel and the prophets of the Old Testament cried out to God to address the injustices of the world. God came to set things right in a more powerful way than the prophets and the nation of Israel could have imagined; the holy and faithful God of Israel put his love into action as he came himself. In the person of Jesus Christ, God entered fully into this broken world and in the midst of the brokenness and injustice showed what holiness, faithful loving-kindness, and righteousness look like. God in Christ demonstrated the full extent of his hesed and his righteousness when he gave his life to condemn evil. Through the saving work of Christ on the cross, God condemned every injustice that has kept God’s world and God’s people from God’s shalom. Through Christ’s victory over sin and evil, God set and is setting all things right.
RESISTING THE HERO IMPULSE
But hearing a story like that of Kunthy and Chanda, we are quickly reminded of how pervasively corrupt the world continues to be. We hear the call to move toward the darkness, and we want to grieve for specific people who are suffering; we are committed to lamenting the existence of slavery and all the injustice and unrighteousness in this world. But what more can we do as we wait for God in Christ to make all things new? What more should we do?
One thing is clear: Jesus is not calling us to be justice heroes. We recognize that part of our draw to the justice calling is the hope that we might be heroes, and we’ve met scores of well-meaning Jesus followers who have this same hope. We are constantly asking “What can I do?” but the deep reality many of us need to admit to ourselves is that no list of possible “action-steps” will satisfy us short of the opportunity to show up, in person, on a rescue mission. Until we get the chance to feel a brothel door being kicked down with our own feet, witness the police rushing in and hug the little girls as we usher them to safety while their slave masters are taken to jail, we will not be satisfied with any other response so long as our hero-impulse goes unchecked. While some of the people reading this will be the ones to go with local authorities in countries across the world and rescue victims of violence or will play a tangible role in a survivor’s road to healing, most of us will not, and our call to justice is no less strong and resounding than the call upon frontline justice professionals. And none of us are heroes.
We are not the ones who ultimately set things right.
We need to admit the hero impulse to ourselves if we’re going to be able to move beyond it and step wholeheartedly into the unique ways that God has created each of us to respond to the justice calling. But the hero impulse runs deep, particularly for those of us who have grown up within American culture. From a young age, our imaginations are shaped by heroes like Superman or Spider-Man, who fight for truth and justice. We can’t help but admit the quickening pulse we felt as we heard the wisdom whispered by Peter Parker’s uncle from beyond the grave: “With great power comes great responsibility.” While there’s nothing overtly wrong with these superhero callings to truth, justice and power wielded with responsibility, our response to God’s calling in Jesus Christ to truth, justice and power will not ultimately make us heroes. Our calling is even better. We are called to be saints.
On the surface, asserting we’re called to seek justice as saints might sound even more preposterous than saying we want to be heroes, summoning up as it does all manner of negative connotations in terms of self righteousness. But in and through Jesus Christ, the calling to be saints is truly not about self-perfection or being better than others, and neither is it a pipe dream you’ll futilely spend your life trying to attain. Through the saving love of God in Christ, each of us has been adopted into the family of God (Romans 8:14–17; Galatians 3:26–29). This means that you are already a saint, because all of us who follow Jesus are already part of God’s holy and much-loved people. Throughout the New Testament – in Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians through Revelation – we read over and again that we are God’s holy people in Christ Jesus, holy and dearly loved (Philemon 1:1; Colossians 3:12).
As saints, we don’t just occasionally fight for truth and justice. By the grace of God, we live the way of truth, justice and righteousness. As saints, we don’t need to rely on our own powers, our own strength, or our own impeccable timing to save the day – lest the victim go unsaved, the train crash proceed unimpeded or the evil mastermind reign victorious. We do not need to feel the weight of saving the world on our shoulders because we are not the ones who save. We are not the ones who ultimately set things right. Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ is the one who has set, is setting and will set all things right. And we get to join him.
The saving love of God in Christ has already set all things right, “for God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19–20). This good news means that through Christ humanity has been reconciled to God. It means that through Christ all the broken things of the world have been overcome. We are still waiting for the fullness of Christ’s work to be revealed; this world will one day be made new and will finally reflect God’s justice and righteousness. But the work of setting things right nonetheless rests safely and securely with Christ.
As we respond to the justice calling today, we do so not as heroes operating alone, driven by a passion for justice and relying on our own faltering good intentions as we draw on our own strength in an attempt to set things right. Instead we seek justice together as beloved saints. We are God’s reconciled and holy people – empowered by Christ and the Holy Spirit, rooted in Christ’s victory over sin and evil, and ignited by God’s passion for justice, incarnate in his Son.
Kunthy and Chanda are living testimonies to the work of redemption and restoration that God desires to bring to all of creation through Jesus Christ. While I remember their laughter and joy as I met them in the security of their aftercare home, I also carry with me the reality that their bodies will always bear the memory of the injustice they were made to suffer: the beatings, the scars from narcotics forced into their veins and the nightmare of watching money exchange hands as they were thrust into the arms of strangers. But these wounds and scars are not the final word. Kunthy and Chanda have new lives.
OUR OWN TRANSFORMATION
The freedom Jesus offers girls like Kunthy and Chanda isn’t limited to literal, physical freedom. Jesus offers freedom for tangled and broken spirits, as well as hearts, minds and bodies. Through his transforming power, Jesus offers freedom from all forms of sin and evil. And the truth is, those of us who desire to seek justice also need to experience for ourselves the freedom and transformation that come in and through Jesus Christ. Each of us needs to be set right with God. Each of us needs to receive the gift of salvation, becoming a part of the family of God.
In The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, Mark Labberton explains the critical truth that we can’t change the world without changing the heart. Citing Martin Luther King Jr., Labberton says, “Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus to keep commandments but said to be born again.” Nicodemus’ whole being needed changing. Throughout the biblical story, we see that God has always cared about righteousness and justice. But we have also seen God’s people consistently fail in this pursuit. In Jesus, we can finally receive the transformation we need to live as the beloved saints of God, set apart by the love, justice and righteousness that God gives us in and through Christ.
As we look at the needs of the world more closely and take steps toward darkness in faith, we need the transforming love of Jesus in our lives so that we can be set free to live with righteousness and love with justice. We need the transforming love of Jesus in this world so that our pursuit of justice depends not on ourselves but on the saving work of God, who in Christ sets all things right.
Bethany Hanke Hoang is founding director and adviser to the International Justice Mission Institute for Biblical Justice, and Kristen Deede Johnson teaches theology and Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary. This article is excerpted from their book The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance (Brazos 2016).
Photo: Death to the Stock Photo