Justice in an Unjust World

South Africa houseLast May, while I was traveling around South Africa, a relatively new Christian told me the story of his salvation. He knew God was real and God was good the day God gave him a beautiful house at a price that was substantially below market value; the person who was selling it cheap had fallen on hard times and needed to get rid of it pronto.

“Isn’t it screwed up that you’re thanking God that somebody else has fallen on hard times?” I asked.

I don’t think he understood my unstated point: that a gift from God for one person should not represent injustice or hard times for another person. Even if we assume that the person who had fallen on hard times made bad decisions about their finances, can we really give God credit for our ability to, vulture-like, swoop in when the pickin’ is good?

Such logic leads to genocide.

Such logic has led to genocide, many, many times in history.



underground railroad

The first book I remember reading by myself was a biography of Harriet Tubman, an African American slave who not only escaped slavery herself but became known as “Moses” because she returned to the South over a dozen times and helped over seventy slaves escape to freedom. I was absolutely captivated by the phrase, “the Underground Railroad.” I imagined a literal railroad carved out of rock, deep underneath the earth’s surface, with poor, tattered slaves creeping along in the dark, only a candle to light their way to freedom.

Perhaps because that book represented a pivotal turning point in my education—the ability to read by myself—it also shaped my political and social consciousness. The first novel I wrote as an 11-year-old was the story of a young woman trying to help a slave escape on the Underground Railroad. As an adult, I’ve spent years of my life in graduate school, studying African history. Justice for people of color worldwide has been one of my abiding political concerns. I am bitterly aware of the privilege of my white skin, just as I’m bitterly aware of the disadvantages I face due to my gender.

(As a caveat to the conservatives who read my blog: I don’t believe the government to be a panacea to the social ills of our time. But it is obvious to me that injustice is built into the very fabric of our society, and thus into the warp and weave of every bureaucratic and religious institution and every policy that our government espouses. As a result, I don’t think we can create a solution without addressing it from a political and religious standpoint. This doesn’t mean that I believe the solution should be top-down—government forcing the people to do something that’s not in their heart to do. God, no. I HATE INSTITUTIONS. Plus, I am a firm believer in grassroots movements for social change, from the people on up. But the very point of democracy, and of grassroots change, is that at some point, we must change institutional structures as well—from governments to churches to schools. Anyway, that was a little diversion to my main subject today….)

As I’ve grown older, my concept of justice has grown increasingly complicated. I’ve come to recognize that righting the wrongs of the past so that the future can be more equitable might mean that a lot of Americans—white people, wealthy people of all colors, and, ah yes, even the educated middle-class, which includes me—will have to give up things they currently enjoy. Yes. Among many other changes, justice will definitely mean that we in the U.S. will need to give up our boats, extra cars, and expensive vacations and spend more money on groceries, on housing, on other things.

My preference, of course, is that we could right the wrongs of the past without anybody currently living having to suffer. But I’m not sure that’s possible. It’s not exactly that I believe a lot of people must lower their standards of living in order for the very most poor to be able to raise their standards of living. But I don’t think it’s possible for those of us in western nations to continue to ignore the fact that our wealth is based on our power; and our power comes at the expense of other people’s power which, ultimately, leads to their poverty. A person in India or China or Mexico who is hungry and living in a cardboard shack on the side of the hill will not say, “I demand a fair, living wage.” No, they will take what they can get, and so we continue to pay millions of workers worldwide a non-livable wage so that we can get our cheap products. “It’s better than nothing” is the basic attitude that supports our ongoing economic oppression of the global south. Of course it’s better than nothing. But it’s not enough, and we who have too much need to take Jesus’s words to heart: “The worker is worthy of his wage.”

050328_arizona_mexico_vmed_widecTo right the global wrong of structural social and economic inequality will mean a dramatic decline in the material wealth of western, developed nations. Morally speaking, we cannot continue the system of demanding cheap labor that keeps millions poor around the world just so that we can enjoy cheap products. Morally speaking, I don’t see how middle-class whites in America can ignore the fact that every day, we still enjoy the benefits of slavery—and that millions of people of color still suffer because of it. Is it such a mystery that the worst schools in the nation are also in the ghettos, which were created by systematic racism that crowded people of color into small, crappy neighborhoods so white society could keep races segregated?

To stop oppressing people, we will have to give up some of our power and some of our wealth—and that will feel like suffering to a lot of people, even if it’s really not.


 When I look at the global injustices, I quickly get bogged down with a what to do what to do panicky kind of feeling. The question I always ask is this: What is my individual responsibility to right global wrongs?

This morning, I received an email from a friend that had me asking another question about justice, one that represents a moral conundrum: What is my individual responsibility to right global wrongs when doing so may hurt another person?  

In other words, where does justice begin and end?

My friend asked me whether she should sacrifice her career by staying silent about secrets she learned in the course of historical research, secrets that would shame an old woman and that woman’s children. Not revealing those secrets kills the basis of my friend’s argument in the monograph she’s writing. Revealing them allows her to explore important women’s issues within the context of religion. She wondered if she was serving the cause of justice by staying silent, in order to be merciful to this old woman and her children? Or was she furthering misogyny by staying silent? Which was it?

ZIMBABWE-ELECTIONS/My friend is faced with a perplexing problem: two different definitions of justice, the personal (keeping somebody’s secret so that they can keep their dignity) vs. the global (advancing the cause of feminism). Which cause is more important? Many people would sacrifice one woman’s dignity in order to serve what they see as a greater cause, women’s issues or some other Big Cause. And okay, serving a Big Cause is important. But are we really serving a Big Cause if we sacrifice one person’s dignity in order to do it?

It reminds me of those old Life Boat Questions: Should we sacrifice one person’s life in order to save a million?  

This is the logic of war, and it’s the logic of most political movements that advocate for one thing or another, but it’s a logic that leaves me cold. Its foundation is an either-or fallacy that fails to look for alternatives. Is it true that somebody must be sacrificed?  

So I ask myself, Is it true that Americans must suffer a decline in living standards in order for developing nations to rise up out of the mire and muck of poverty? Or am I setting myself up with a political either-or fallacy?

My friend’s email went further. One of her friends had recently died in Zimbabwe because medicine for her cancer wasn’t available, and now my friend was wondering whether she was possibly serving the cause for justice if she spent most of her time making meals for her family, making sure they were cozy and warm with a fire at night, books, an apple pie for dessert.

She is not asking a simple question. On the surface, it may appear that she’s asking whether, instead of living a life of American comforts and domestic bliss, she shouldn’t be out there working 80-100 hours a week to get justice for Zimbabweans. And yes, she is asking that. But she’s asking so much more. The average American can’t link their daily life to the poverty of an African nation…but my friend can. Because she’s studied African history, I know she sees the many and varied links that connect the wealth of the westernized global north, including individuals like you and me, to the impoverishment of the global south, like her Zimbabwean friend who died of cancer because the medicine wasn’t available in her country.

So even more than asking whether she should be devoting her intellectual and creative career to the fight for justice, she’s wondering whether the very basis of her domestically blissful life is inherently flawed.

townshipThis is her question: If my good fortune comes at the expense of another, is it really good fortune?

If we Americans enjoy access to cheap medicine and cheap goods, and as a result, we have policies that destroy individuals, families, and nations around the world, resulting in a Zimbabwean woman’s inability to buy medicine for her cancer….can we really say we have good fortune?

I will not entertain the simplistic and foolhardy argument that Zimbabwe’s problems are Zimbabwe’s problems alone. Is Mugabe a maniac running his country into the ground? Yes. But are Zimbabwe’s problems a result of Mugabe alone? No. When you look at the history of that country, the political and other problems of Zimbabwe are directly related to colonial policies put in place first by Great Britain, then by the European settlers, and then, post-independence, exacerbated and compounded and made worse by World Bank and IMF policies. In fact, when you look at the history of every single impoverished country, they all have a symbiotic relationship with a wealthy country like ours, always to their detriment.


(P.S. This is becoming a book and I just meant to write a simple blog post on justice. Ha!)


And as to this question, “If my good fortune comes at the expense of another, is it really good fortune?”…well, I don’t have a simple answer to that either.

Back to my opening anecdote about the Christian who thanked God for his new house, even though it represented hardship for another person, and my statement that such logic has led to genocide….

Genocide_sizedWhen Americans thank God for the U.S., for the freedoms we enjoy, I wonder if we would still be so grateful if we thought about the millions of Native American who were killed so we could “get” this land? Or if we thought about the lives that are currently being destroyed because of Native American policies we created long ago, destructive policies that have never been rectified, but which were part of the very basis of our getting this land?

I’m not trying to make an argument of “poor noble savage” against “rich greedy white capitalists.” I’m simply pointing out that it was wrong to kill millions of Native Americans 200 years ago, and that it is wrong that we still have policies that continue to impoverish millions of Native Americans by offering inferior education on the reservations and allowing the cycle of welfare to keep generations in its grip. It was wrong to enslave Africans 200 years ago, and it was wrong to create race-based ghettos a hundred years ago, and it’s wrong that we make only half-hearted efforts to change the situation today.

Is it really God acting on our behalf to give us a cheap house, cheap goods, cheap food, cheap cars…when millions of people worldwide work hard 50 or 60 hours a week to give us those cheap goods and cheap food and cheap cars but yet they still live in shacks and fail to have enough money to feed themselves and their families?

I’m full-circle back to the either-or fallacy: to change the system, to bring justice to millions worldwide, means some of us who have never suffered will have to suffer.


2-GodThe Old Testament disturbs me because it shows a God who would encourage his people, the Israelites, to commit genocide, and then “give them” the land they had just vacated through murder and mayhem.

I’ve never understood the logic of this kind of justice.


This is the same God my friend was thanking when he said God had given him a cheap house.

This is the same God that Americans thank for giving them this land, despite the millions of lives that were sacrificed as a result.

This is the same God that Afrikaners thanked when they went to war to take land from Xhosas, Zulu, the Khoisan.

This is the same God that Mormons thanked when they came to Utah and massacred American-Indians and then took the land as theirs.

And is this the same God we continue to thank for our good fortune as Americans….? Is it really good fortune if it comes at the expense of millions of people worldwide? I would like to believe in a good and loving God but I can’t believe in the “good and loving” God that many American Christians define as being on their side and helping them get the things they both want and need….not when it comes at the expense of other people. Either that’s a fucked up God or those people are sadly, sadly mistaken—they call it “God” when it’s really injustice operating in their favor. (Ah, here we are, back to my either-or fallacy….Is there a third option?)


Daily, my emotional level is kept on a low simmer as I contemplate the multiple ways that American culture, lifestyle, and politics perpetuates poverty around the world. I feel overwhelmed every time I go to the grocery store and realize that, no matter what, shopping means that I’m participating in global oppression.

I realize I must eat, and that the grocery store is my only option as long as I live here….

Where does an individual begin, if he or she wants to right wrongs that exist on a global scale and that we all participate in?

And what does an individual like my friend do when they realize that it’s wrong to expose one woman’s shame in order to change a global injustice?

I wish I had an answer.

Comments 4

  1. Jess

    P.S. Really, it should go without saying but I feel I must: Yes, I love my country. But that doesn’t mean I have to ignore the truth.

  2. Kim Gibson

    Hey Jessica,

    I was just looking around on the internet and thought I would read your blog. I have to say that I have struggled with the same questions about living in American luxury, when most people living in the world are living in utter poverty. As you know, there are literally millions of children who didn’t eat today nor did they have clean water to drink. It is trully heart breaking. At 9:30 in the evening, I certainly don’t have the mental energy to digest all that was mentioned in your blog, nor can I allow myself to think about it too much…what a luxury.

    I say I live in luxury. I am certainly not wealthy by American standerds, but I have seen other parts of the world, as you have, where I am insanely rich. I will never forget when I bought my house. I had been looking all summer and went to Costa Rica in July. There I saw families living in shacks and shanties built on the banks of a riverbed that often flooded. Their homes did not provide any real shelter from the elements and they lived very hard lives. I came home and found a house. Closed on it in September. I can remember being sick, just sick as I would pull out of my garage on the way to work in the morning. Did I really need this just for me? I have 2 fully functioning bathrooms for 1 person. I think it was months before I allowed myself to enjoy my house, or perhaps, before the memories of the poverty I saw slipped farther into the back of my mind. Even today, I often question the necessity of the “stuff” that I have. I am thankful and try to keep my “stuff” in perspective. It is nothing more than that and I try to hold loosely to it. Can I do that with a clear conscience? Be thankful for affordable goods produced by underpaid, poor laborers in other parts of the world with hungry children? The answer, I guess, should be no…but I still buy those products when I need them.

    As far as God’s role in this. Those are difficult questions to answer. I do believe to whom much is given, much is required. I don’t know how to make sense of it all. All I know is that I have been blessed. I believe that with all God has given me, I am called to bless othere to meet their needs. To give time, service, money, open my home…whatever is required to meet the needs I see around me. I thnk that is how the God I know intends it to work. The problem is, I am often doing what I want instead what I should. If every American, Christian, whoever would give, move to alleviate the suffering around them, justice would exist. We would have nothing to blog about on this subject. I guess that would be the grassroots effort you spoke of. Now, I have the responsibility of praying, seeking and evaluating if I am truly doing what I should with that which God has given me.

    Hard to talk about this subject in a few lines. I could probably go on and on, but I better call it quits. Nice chatting with you!

  3. Erik

    Three aspects of in/justice have fascinated and frustrated me in recent years.

    The first is the strong tendency of one injustice to lead to another (less easily avoided) injustice. The slave owner soon comes to rely on slaves, and eventually becomes unable to survive on their own without slaves. More and more, their very life becomes dependent on injustice. Lies, thievery, even adultery seem to become weirdly self-propagating. I think that principle works on the level of a society too, not just individuals.

    The second characteristic is intertwining of maturity and justice. Earlier in my life, I couldn’t conceive of apologizing for (what seemed to me to be) minor hurts I inflicted on others. Now I have a lot more practice apologizing. With more maturity I realize it hurts a lot less to make the small things right than to eventually have to deal with a big problem. I also take some of my own hurts less seriously, realizing the one who hurt me is too immature to realize they did so, and too immature to do the work of making things right. My confrontations of wrongdoing have also become less harsh as I’ve realized that the depths of a person’s maturity is the limit of their ability to deal with the depths of their wrongs (or even realize the depths of their wrongs). Like that first principle, I think societies also have maturity levels; they can only deal with the wrongs they’ve done at the level of moral maturity they’ve acheived.

    The third (and in some ways most tragic) characteristic of injustice is the high hidden cost to the one doing wrong. My children cannot imagine that there is a hidden cost to screaming at each other and kicking and clawing over a toy that will probably be boring to them in six months; I look at my own sibling relationships and see that the cost of mere words can be very high indeed. My children can’t understand at all, even when I tell them my story. The fargin’ TOY is their whole universe, for the moment. Still, I hope my story sticks with them and allows them to acheive at least that maturity at an earlier age than I reached it.

    I think your friend was right, to avoid telling her story for the time being. I don’t think it was right because an individual has as much right to dignity as a society has to justice; I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to weigh such a complex matter. Instead, I think that if she waits, this woman who would otherwise be humiliated may find the ability to tell the story herself. In the end, that will be a far more powerful force for justice than any scholarly monograph could ever hope to acheive.

  4. Jess

    Thanks, guys, for commenting.

    I’ve always admired the Christian singer Rich Mullins. He told his manager never to tell him how much money he made. He had his manager dole out a salary of $20,000/year because, he said, that was the working man’s salary in the late 80s and 90s (before Mullins died) and he didn’t believe he should live a lifestyle that they couldn’t life. The rest of the money was given to charities that Mullins believed in.

    Interestingly, this is what ethicist Peter Singer (vilified by most religious folks) also advocates. In “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/singermag.html), he claims that American families should buy only what they need and donate the rest to charities. The average American family, he says, can live on about $40,000 a year, adjusted to less or more depending on the region you live in. If a family makes $60,000, they should be giving $20,000 annually for charity. He says that there is a direct link between choosing to go out to dinner and paying $100 for it and failing to send that $100 to a charity in a developing nation, which can pay for food & schooling for one child with that money, and probably save that child’s life.

    He correctly points out that Americans have an inflated sense of what we NEED. We really only need good shelter, sufficient food, transportation, and perhaps a bare modicum for entertainment.

    Singer is controversial and I am sure that we can poke holes in his argument or in other ethical arguments he makes that I disagree with. But I’m talking about THIS ethical argument. And in my mind, the fundamental principle he suggests is, to me, fairly sound. If those of us in the western world lived only on what we NEED and donated the rest, we could change the world.

    I’ve had classes read Singer’s essay in the past and it never fails to provoke a heated discussion of the ideas. Most people dislike his solution immensely. But you’ll notice that his solution calls for a VOLUNTARY giving up of this part of your salary, not a government or other entity relieving you of your excess salary.

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