Justice, Politics and the Cross
On Tuesday night, an event was held in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the founding of the International Justice Mission. IJM is a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation and other forms of violent oppression. Its lawyers, investigators and aftercare professionals work with local governments to ensure victim rescue, to prosecute perpetrators, and to strengthen the community and civic factors that promote functioning public justice systems.
During the event, I thought of the late Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. Contrary to the Hitchens thesis that "religion poisons everything," the work of IJM and its president, Gary Haugen, is guided by a commitment to justice grounded on a deep Christian faith. The IJM staff begin each day with prayer and draw inspiration from the work of the great Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. They hold close to their hearts the commandment of Isaiah: "Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."
In a 2009 profile in The New Yorker, Samantha Power wrote, "Haugen knows that the mission's religious identity is discomfiting to non-Christians, but he says that he doesn't have the strength to do the work without a religious foundation. 'I don't know how to do it another way,' he told me."
The reason he doesn't know how to do it any other way is that what stands at the center of Haugen's worldview is the belief that men and women are created equal in worth, in the image of God. Mr. Haugen and his colleagues believe in a human nature, which demands human rights. And they know, too, that the claims of human dignity are universal. Human worth is not determined by nationality, and the responsibility to care for human dignity is not bounded by borders.
I had the work of IJM in mind in a recent piece I wrote for Commentary magazine's "Contentions" blog, in which I argued that a pre-election advertisement narrated by former Governor Mike Huckabee ventured into dangerous territory. (The ad argued that our stands on three issues in particular—abortion, same sex marriage, and religious liberty—will be "recorded in eternity" and are primus inter pares for Christians.)
"It's not at all clear to me," I wrote, "that a vote against the same-sex marriage initiative in Maryland has more eternal significance than our policies on genocide, world hunger, sexual trafficking, slavery, religious persecution in Islamic and Communist nations, and malaria and global AIDS."
My point isn't that Mike Huckabee's set of issues aren't important; it's that I don't have confidence that we know the mind of God well enough to declare which legislative votes or particular initiatives matter most to Him.
Organizations like IJM remind us that the priorities of the Kingdom are broad, not narrow, and they can be shared among people of different backgrounds, parties, and ideologies. The commands of the Psalmist—"Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked"—are not the exclusive purview of those on the left or the right or the center.
Christianity, by its very nature, stands in judgment of every ideology and is beholden to none. Which is probably what you would expect from a religion whose founder refused to lead anything remotely resembling a political movement and whose most sacred symbol, the cross, is an emblem of agony and humiliation that is the antithesis of earthly power and victory.
In a city devoted to politics, in the aftermath of an intense and fractious election, that isn't a bad thing to be reminded of.
Peter Wehner served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, and headed George W. Bush's Office of Strategic Initiatives. He co-authored City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era with Michael Gerson, and Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism with Arthur C. Brooks. Presently he is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and writes frequently for Commentary.