Missio spoke with Bethany Hoang, director of International Justice Mission’s Institute for Biblical Justice, about her new book, Deepening the Soul for Justice (IVP, 2013).
TWI: Bethany, tell us a bit about your work at International Justice Mission (IJM) and its Institute for Biblical Justice.
BH: I’ve been with IJM for a little over nine years and came to IJM straight out of seminary. Working for IJM has brought together so many of my life passions. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the incredible beauty of God’s justice within IJM as an organization, within the wider justice movement, and within the body of Christ all around the world.
IJM’s Institute for Biblical Justice is best described as an “action-oriented” leadership think tank within IJM. We’re working to resource leaders of the global Church with an ever-deepening understanding of biblical justice and what justice means for all aspects of discipleship.
The Institute as it currently exists emerged out of a small group of Senior Fellows who were advising Gary Haugen (the founder of IJM) on the spiritual and theological growth and development of IJM. The Senior Fellows are Mark Labberton, Andy Crouch, Amy Sherman, Tim Dearborn, and Steve Hayner. In 2005, I was invited to those monthly conversations with the Senior Fellows and Gary (one of the greatest privileges of my life!), and then I began leading them. In time we started thinking together about what an “externally facing” institute might look like, asking how the IJM Institute can support the ways that leaders and influencers are thinking about justice, and how we can develop better resources for the justice movement. So they asked me to lead that effort along with other aspects of my work. In the last few years, as that effort has become more fully formed, I’ve stepped away from some of the work I did in my earlier years with IJM and turned my full attention to the Institute.
TWI: Your book, Deepening the Soul for Justice, is a slim volume, but it’s packed with spiritual wisdom. What prompted you to write this book?
BH: The book exists because of the Urbana Missions conference, which takes place every three years. Urbana told me they were developing a series of small books to offer as “what next?” resources to the 18,000 students who would attend. They said, “We’d like a book that explores the connection between justice and spiritual formation.” And I replied, “There are very few things that I would rather write about!”
Most of what I had been writing and thinking about with IJM centers on that very topic – the connection between justice and spiritual formation. I remember that it was in 2006 when someone first asked me if I could write about justice as a spiritual discipline. “Justice” was already becoming a more “popular” topic, and gradually more and more people began to ask how to understand the cause of justice in the context of discipleship, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual formation. I was so excited that those kinds of questions were getting asked and the desire to understand this connection seems to be growing throughout the Church more and more each year.
I call this small book a “primer,” or an introduction that explores the connection between justice and spiritual formation, and it includes all sorts of ideas and stories from IJM’s work that have been marinating in my brain and heart for many years. So the invitation to write about this as a resource for Urbana was a great opportunity for me to get those ideas down. Because it was written for a specific event, there was a short timeline to write it. It was a gift, really, that I had to do it quickly, as it helped focus my mind and writing. I am really thankful for the opportunity.
The topic is so representative of the character of IJM as an organization. A lot of people don’t know the depth of how we seek to be formed by Christ on the inside of our organization. So it was fun to be able to share more about those practices. They’ve had such a profound impact on my own life both professionally and personally and I know that’s true for the IJM staff community across the world.
TWI: Let’s turn, then, to those practices. I was really struck by your thoughts about the practice of keeping the Sabbath and its relationship to justice. IJM has a strong tradition of a kind of institutional Sabbath-keeping, a daily rhythm to work that represents a deliberate refusal to engage in “prayerless striving,” as Gary Haugen has put it. Tell us more about those practices at IJM and what they mean for the work of justice.
BH: I will never forget from my early days at IJM, Gary had gone on a sabbatical for the whole summer. When he returned, he said that he had a profound sense that God wanted to give the IJM staff more of an experience of God’s presence and power but that we weren’t yet ready to receive it. That memory shaped me powerfully. After hearing Gary say that, I remember feeling this combination of disappointment—“Wow, what would it be like to receive more of God and from God, and what would it take to be ready?”—and also a hope that there would be more of God that we could receive, and all that was required was the getting ready to receive.
Spiritual disciplines help prepare us to be ready. Dallas Willard wrote that spiritual disciplines are not about earning anything from God, but that they help to open us to receive who God is. Earning versus opening—that’s a helpful, simple way to understand what the disciplines are and what they are not. Disciplines are not about earning our way to get something from God, but rather they are a way of opening ourselves to God, to who God is, and to what more of God will show us of himself.
So to connect this to justice: The work of justice can be incredibly overwhelming and crushing. When you actually consider the work to be done—to face what is broken in our world—well, sometimes there really aren’t words to describe the pain, the sadness, the darkness, and just how wrong things can be. In our work at IJM, we are determined to make sure we aren’t abstracting justice and injustice, but looking at the realities on the personal level. Handling individual cases, day by day, we are constantly faced with the individual, personal reality of what injustice means, what human beings are wielding upon each other, and how injustice wreaks havoc on, for instance, a little girl who is locked in a brothel or a woman who has had all of her property taken from her or an entire family who is trapped in slavery. To wade into that reality is to bring something into your own life that can be utterly crushing. But the Scriptures teach us that even the darkest injustice isn’t meant to be a crushing load. It’s a load that Jesus carries, not us. And so, for us to move into the crushing reality of injustice with hope, with joy, and with strength—that only comes when we enter it with Jesus. We can only enter with Jesus when we have opened ourselves to his presence and to what he has to give us, and that “opening” of ourselves is what spiritual disciplines enable us to do.
TWI: You also show how a disregard for the Sabbath and the failure to keep the Sabbath is often at the root of unjust practices in common life. I think for many, “keeping the Sabbath” sounds a bit antiquated, but you argue compellingly from Scripture that the Sabbath is vital to living a just life and to the just ordering of life.
BH: It’s worth exploring, much more deeply than we can do here, what the implications are of not keeping the Sabbath. For the people of Israel, there were very clear consequences. It wasn’t only about their individual relationships with God; it was about how others were being treated as well, which had community-wide effects.
Many biblical scholars have noted how the Sabbath commandment functions like a bridge between the first set of commandments that center on loving God and the second set that deal with loving your neighbor. The commandment about the Sabbath is a critical bridge between the two great commandments that Jesus identifies. It matters to both.
The Sabbath has such deep implications for our life with God and for our life with each other. It exposes our idolatry and the hardship we bring upon ourselves when we turn away from God, whether actively or passively. There’s certainly active rebellion and there’s also the passive choosing of distractions. I think about this a lot in my own life: the daily choices I make, what I’m putting in front of me, what I am choosing to settle my mind and my heart on, and so on. It might be very good things that we distract ourselves with — nothing harmful to others, in other words. But if it’s not what is primary or first in terms of how God is inviting us to order our hearts and our lives, if we are not setting these secondary or tertiary things aside for a time – in this case, doing what the Sabbath rest commands and invites us to do – there’s a lot lost. I think sometimes what’s lost is more than we realize.
TWI: Your day-to-day work with IJM involves you quite actively in the work of justice. Yet you say that justice and the work of justice is something that every person in Christ is called to do because it’s part of God’s work. For people that might not travel the globe to infiltrate brothels or rescue slaves, what might that engagement with justice look like for a computer programmer or retail clerk?
BH: I think it’s so important to remember that the vast majority of people who are engaging in justice today, who are helping to make a difference by creating momentum and awareness and providing resources to the frontlines, who are driving this movement to help people know that there is slavery, and who are making sure that resources are going to the right place–most of those people aren’t ever going to meet people trapped in slavery, much less be the person to rescue them. Sometimes we get distracted by wanting to be the people who show up to do the rescue. So, yes, we can gain the right skills to have the opportunity to be the right person in the midst of a rescue operation, but if you look at justice movements throughout history, particularly the anti-slavery movement, they were led by people who never got to meet the people on whose behalf they were advocating.
Then as now, it really matters where our money goes and what our government representatives hear from us about what issues should be on their table. Certainly prayer, disciplines, Bible studies and book groups matter very much also. And it matters how our churches engage on these issues, and how we are taking that message out of our church walls and into society. It will certainly affect the way people understand Christians, and the calling of Christians, which is important to be more fully representing Christ, and it is also part of being the salt and leaven, bringing the heart of God into the world, and showing who God is by involving people in the battle for justice in our day.
So, really, the burden is on each person to choose to step closer to real issues of injustice, and to do this more and more every day. I knew in seminary that I wasn’t going to be an attorney on the front lines leading rescue operations. My call was to the church, but I didn’t know what that meant. So I had to step closer to the issues and see them more clearly, learning the stories, staying there with the issues and the stories even when I got uncomfortable and it all seemed too overwhelming and too burdensome. I kept moving closer and kept asking God to show me his call on my life in regards to justice. Little by little, for me, it became clearer. But that’s still a prayer I pray today nine years into my work with IJM. You don’t actually arrive; your vision just expands. You don’t get to a place where you say, “This is what I do,” because there’s always so much more to join as God leads us deeper and deeper into the Kingdom and the justice that He is bringing.
This is where the role of community is so important. It’s in community that we discover our callings. Especially for something as big and overwhelming as “justice,” we discover more of who we are and how we can be involved through conversations with others. Community is where we work out our gifts and callings and discover how they can be involved in the wider movement.
TWI: I suppose too that an action list like that might also stifle imaginations. This gets back to your point about how what’s primary is our relationship to God, hearing God’s voice, and tuning our hearts to his heart in the cause of justice, and less about “doing things” first.
BH: Yes, the ideas that people can come up with will be so much better than anything I can come up with for them, because God knows them better than they know themselves, and their communities know them better than I do. There’s so much life and creativity to be had in asking the question “What can I do?”