There is a vibration being picked up by many leaders, signaling a growing swell of Jesus-led compassionate social activism. Many non-profits are still feeling the impact of a poor economy — an environment characterized by a moribund political system and a society increasingly known for its disparity between the haves and have-nots. But, there’s hope.
This weekend I went to Portland for the 2012 Justice Conference. Initiated last year in partnership with Kiln’s College, Christian development agency World Relief hosted a conference dedicated solely to issues of international and domestic justice. Not sure what to expect in 2011, the organizers were pleased with the turn-out of a thousand justice advocates and booked a return engagement for this year. The result was a gathering of energetic activists that quadrupled in size, making the reservation of the city’s convention center necessary to accommodate the size and complexity of this year’s proceedings.
My son and I participated in various components of the 24-hour, very memorable, program. Young and old mixed easily while exploring complex issues like trafficking, poverty, militarism, and human slavery. Conference organizers didn’t ignore the old and elevate the young as fresh innovators in the cause of global justice. Rather, they honored faithful sages like Walter Brueggeman and John Perkins, whose lives have served as steadfast sentinels of truth in the face of evangelical witness so often devoid of compassion and appropriate engagement. Worship music and poetic utterance soberly reflected on the state of the world and referenced repeatedly the themes of penitence, prayer and sacrifice. Those easily attracted to involvement in the fight against human trafficking, were reminded that poverty and lack of opportunity were the real issues that needed to be unpacked in setting the captives free. Music and art engaged all the senses in a holistic invitation to use all that we are and have in addressing the purposes of God and the restoration of God’s creation.
Although numerous national conferences have either scaled back or closed down all together, what can be learned from this growth industry of awareness and enthusiasm around the clarion call for justice? Urbana, Q, Passion and Catalyst Conferences, to name but a sampling, are all committed to the centrality of justice issues from the main stage platforms. There is visual evidence that the respondents to the invitation are predominantly young. For them the century-long battle between verbal Gospel witness and social activism is hardly pertinent, as a growing cadre of teens and 20/30-somethings find it difficult to separate the two in their drive for biblical congruence.
Buoyed by the impact of their efforts on religious persecution and Global AIDS, the largely evangelical movement is launching into some truly unknown territory. Where will this energy eventually lead us? Immigration reform, labor rights, a truly Jesus-centric approach to Middle East peace and reconciliation, gender/racial equality, and equity?
It would be easy to denigrate the escalating interest in compassionate social activism as immature and unfocused. It’d also be easy to dismiss the budding movement of energetic justice seekers as “soft-pedaling the Gospel.” But doing so would be unwise. The rise of interest in “all things justice” follows a trend line that has been developing steadily. It’s been fueled by an intensive reading of Scripture amongst the young and old alike, access to travel and technology and the perceived progress on various subjects like religious persecution and global poverty. Christian interest in these subjects isn’t new, but awareness and engagement amongst a younger movement of evangelicals is.
It’s worth paying attention.