Justice as a Lifestyle
It’s a well-worn cliché to say that young people are passionate about justice – but what does that really mean? Matt Valler believes that while campaigns, lifestyle choices and fundraising events are of some value, we’ll never truly see the world change until justice becomes our way of life.
It’s 2005. A Sunday afternoon, around 4pm. I’m watching the TV, slightly taken aback by Snoop Dogg’s untameable ego as he goads a crowd to chant his name. The line-up on this sunny summer afternoon is pretty good: Coldplay, U2, Snow Patrol, even Sir Paul is making an appearance. There’s no doubt this is a big
moment, not just for music but for people all round the country; maybe even for people around the world. Yet as the crowd lovingly respond to the Dogg’s relentless pre-watershed quest for identity a question creeps up on me unawares, and doesn’t go away: are we’re really all gonna Make Poverty History?
I’d not long got back from a sleepover event with the youth group from the church where I was Youth Pastor. We’d all shared a 24hr fast together before leading the Sunday morning service, raising awareness of poverty issues and raising money to help tackle them. Now as this group of teenagers relaxed with full bellies
and a deep hope that change was possible, in Scotland a group of the world’s most powerful leaders were gathering, with aid, debt relief and trade justice firmly on the agenda. We waited with bated breath.
And as we waited, I wondered. Could this all-day gig and a week-long meeting really deliver
everything we dreamed it would? And what would happen to my young people’s faith in change if we failed?
It’s now six years on and as I write there are around 10 million people facing starvation in the Horn of Africa. The Millennium Development Goals – the eight commitments made by rich-country governments in 2000 to halve poverty by 2015 – are seriously offtrack. And even after the herculean campaigning efforts of what is now known as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, only 20% of the world’s unjust debt has been cancelled and the rules governing how poor countries qualify for debt relief are in desperate need of reform.
Several of the young people from that sleepover are currently on a short-term trip to serve a community in Uganda. They will discover first hand that we haven’t make poverty history.
Not yet anyway.
Justice for the long-haul
As youth workers we instinctively understand that real change takes a long time; we know that great youth work is sustainable and rigged for the long voyage of the day-by-day journey. Helping young people to understand that tackling injustice is a long-term pursuit feels much more difficult. Teenage life is all about the immediate! The latest fashions, the latest crush, gadgets and music are ‘in’ this month but ‘out’ the next. How can we empower young people to grab the possibility of a different world with both hands and live a different way, when it may take years before they see the benefits?
We’ve had some strategies for this. And they’ve been good. But they’ve also not been enough. We need something more.
This is where we approach an aspect of the poverty or injustice problem we can solve. If we can change this particular government policy or raise enough money to tackle that particular issue then we can bring about a real impact on people’s lives. We might not have actually made poverty history in 2005 but that campaign was a huge success – an epic success! Hundreds of thousands of people stood together to make some noise about the reality of poverty in our world and to call on world leaders to end it. It was a completely inspiring movement, some huge achievements were made. Aid was increased and more money for debt cancellation was earmarked.
But the mega-campaign very rarely lasts for the longterm. It’s a really good way of getting people excited about the possibility of change and of coming together to achieve it. But it’s not the kind of thing you can do everyday.
The ethical lifestyle
Ethical living is in vogue. We can go to any bookshop and find something to help us build a lifestyle that treads more lightly on the planet, protects the rights of workers, and generally helps us to be kinder people. Making different choices each day does have an impact over time. Really though, it’s more about living with integrity; finding a way to walk that makes sense in a world torn by the tension of extreme poverty and extreme
There’s a huge need for us to live a different way, but actions alone aren’t the answer. It’s like going on a diet. There’s no shortage of plans you can use. That’s not the reason people find it hard to eat healthy. Something has to happen within us that makes us want to change.
The justice moment
We’ve got quite good at making space for justice ‘moments’ in our youth work. It might be that we run a fundraising event, or have a justice-themed week, or even that we do a series on justice. These can really connect with young people, refocusing us on a world of need and giving us the chance to make space for God to challenge us and inspire us to do something.
Yet if justice only gets included as an interesting extra, however meaningful those ‘moments’ are, it will never find its way into our young people’s DNA as they pursue their faith journey. Most of us would never talk about worship as an addon, nor prayer, nor Bible study. Why do we think that seeking justice is any less an integral part of everyday faith?
We need to rediscover a bigger gospel.
A different story
Here’s a diagram that has really helped me think through the gospel story that we tell ourselves and our young people.
This is the gospel story with which I grew up. It basically says: ‘Matt, God made you and loves you, but your life and your relationships are broken by sin. So God wants to bring you back into relationship with Him through Jesus.’ So I responded to that amazing invitation and my life began to be transformed. The story goes on: ‘Now Matt, you need some other people around you to help to keep this new-found relationship with God strong, so here is a church that you can be part of. Oh, and don’t forget there’s a world out there.’ Every so often we’d do some hit-and-run endeavour to tell the people in the ‘world’ that they can have this relationship with God as well.
Now parts of this story are wonderful. It’s had a big impact on my life. But I came to realise that there is something bigger going on.
This is the gospel story that I’ve come to realise is more faithful to the Bible’s story: ‘God made and loves the whole world, yet the whole world is broken by sin and needs to be recreated. This recreation is Jesus’ mission; so into that broken world He calls a community of people, the church, to be His hands and feet. And Matt, He calls you to be part of that community.’
This gospel story doesn’t minimise the importance of my personal repentance. Because to really be a part of the recreative community of Jesus I’m going to need God to help me sort my life out. Importantly though, it doesn’t make my repentance the story – it’s not all about me! This mission is about taking on the deep brokenness of the world – the injustice, the poverty and the oppression of lives lived under threat, whether from political reprisal or personal abuse. If I want to be part of it I’ve got to respond to Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow Him. His nail-pierced hand is outstretched to me, welcoming me on the journey if I’ve got the guts to grasp it and follow Him.
If we give young people a gospel story that – however wonderful – is ultimately all about ‘me and God’ we’ll never empower a generation of radical disciples who can change the world. But if the gospel invitation itself is to join Jesus in His world-changing revolution of love and justice, then anything is possible.
‘Go and make disciples’
Changing our story isn’t just about giving young people a bigger gospel. Re-framing how we think about our faith widens our vision and gives us a reason to stick at justice that goes beyond our ability to make an impact; it’s essential to the narrative of our faith. Things need to get even deeper than that though.
Because unless we can help young people become the kind of people who act for justice again and again then all the creative campaigns and innovative lifestyle changes in the world won’t help them stick it out for the long-haul. Unless something happens at a deep level then the outward lifestyle change will fall at the earliest hurdles.
The real question is: how do we make disciples?
This is a question that has troubled me for years. I can’t claim to have cracked it – just as I haven’t cracked how to be a disciple myself! Here, though, is an approach to Christian formation that I think can help us to join a few more dots in young people’s lives - between their faith, their everyday life, and the reality of poverty and injustice in the world. It’s an approach that builds on the wisdom of others and is offered in the spirit of conversation...
Imagine a hypothetical young person that we’ll call Tim, on a hypothetical day that we’ll call Tuesday. Tim is 15. He wakes up, grabs some breakfast and heads to school. He hangs out with some mates for the late afternoon, and then comes back home for the evening. He is a very ordinary guy.
Except Tim’s day is full of small actions that add up. His shower is cool and quick to save energy. He gets to school on his bike rather than in a car. At lunchtime his friends join him to lobby the school cafeteria to stock more fairtrade food. His afternoon art class enables him to create a powerful image exposing the grip of consumerism on his world. After school he pings an email to his MP to call for the protection of basic human rights. On the way to his friend’s house he buys a Big Issue from Pete, one of the homeless guys from his town. And on the way back he forfeits a coffee and text-donates the money he’s saved.
Tim is just an ordinary guy with a connection to his world. None of these actions are particularly startling. But the picture of a life lived this way is! What makes Tim live like this?
The other things that Tim did that Tuesday are interesting. He went without breakfast because he is spending a week eating only rice and beans (like a large chunk of the world). It’s an act of solidarity but it’s also acting as a window on Tim’s soul, helping him reflect on his desire to consume. He laced up his second-hand shoes before school, purchased as part of a six-month fast from buying new clothes. Each time he dresses he remembers those for whom his wardrobe would be considered luxurious. As he walks about his school he acknowledges the lure of luxury in the pursuit of identity. He resolves to find his elsewhere.
Following Jesus has changed Tim’s perspective on the world and given him a holy mission of transformation to get involved in. But it has also affected his values. Jesus was deeply aware of His social context; Tim seeks to be aware of his. Jesus was a friend to the broken and the marginalised; Tim is crossing divides in his community. Jesus was radically generous; Tim is learning to give till it hurts. The things that matter most to Tim are changing. He has apprenticed himself to Jesus and is becoming more like his Master.
Tim is hypothetical because I’ve never met a young person quite like this. Yet I catch glimpses of this approach to discipleship in many young people I meet. Bold dreamers who aren’t just activists, but who are taking faltering steps to master the art of praxis: a life lived and reflected upon and then lived some more.
Discipleship is not just about actions, and it’s not just about values. There’s a point at which values and actions begin to reinforce each other in a virtuous circle. Talking about values without giving people anything to do about them ends up being way too abstract. Giving people a to-do list without talking about the values that underpin them ends up with a legalistic to-do list that is completely unsustainable. When actions reinforce values, which give meaning to actions, which interpret values – a powerful ongoing spiral is created which can change lifestyle.
This praxis brings rhythms into our lives. There is a time for action and a time for reflection; a time for revolution and a time for rest. More than that, building habits of action and habits of reflection in tandem create patterns of character development: the key to discipleship; to making Jesus-loving justice-living sustainable for the long haul.
If we can inspire rhythms of generosity in our young people’s lives, curate rhythms of counter-consumer contentment - rhythms of advocacy and of engagement - then maybe we will make seeking justice a truly embedded feature of faith and empower deep disciples for the long-haul.
Perhaps then we will have prepared them for a lifetime of making poverty history.
Matt Valler is part of Tearfund’s Youth & Emerging Generation team. He is working on an exciting and innovative resource to equip young people to develop justice-focussed lifestyle rhythms. To find out more visit www.tearfund.org/rhythms
Youthwork presents a round-up of some of the best justice-focused youth resources available.
A great page on the prayer-stimulating organisation’s website on rhythms of prayer: http://uk.24-7prayer.com/prayer-rhythms/
For rethinking and changing your lifestyle the Breathe network have got a really fresh approach; co-founder Mark Powley’s book Consumer Detox is recommended reading. www.breathenetwork.org
Tearfund’s six-week course (or four weeks for students) is an interactive look at justice issues, that ‘helps make sense of faith and life in response to local and global poverty’. www.tearfund.org/makesense
Brand new resources from Soul Action which launched this summer, helping young people to respond to human trafficking. The strapline is ‘use your freedom so that others can Live Free’. www.soulaction.org
Christian Aid’s resource features penetrating questions to help start discussion around different poverty issues. www.christianaid.org.uk/resources/youth