Here’s a significant turning point in the perspective of a missionary at the recent Global Episcopal Mission Conference in Puerto Rico, organized by the Global Episcopal Mission Network:
Justice was the focus of one of the small-group discussions, this one scheduled after a presentation by Episcopal Migration Ministry staff about Christian and church responses to the current migration crises around the world. The theme scripture was the familiar verse from the prophet Micah: ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6.8).
A question we addressed in the small group was, ‘Well, how do we do justice in the various mission activities we’re involved in?’ Among us was a missionary at work in Majority World country. Let’s call him Tad, and I’m not identifying the country where he works.
‘What is it you’re doing in your country?’ Tad was asked.
‘I teach English to adults who have never learned it,’ he replied.
‘How does your mission work relate to justice?’ someone asked Tad.
‘Well, I’m not sure how it relates to justice,’ he replied. ‘I’ve not usually thought of it in terms of justice. But now that I think about it more, I realize it may be related. The country where I work has a strong system of economic classes, with a few wealthy and powerful people and families controlling everything from the top, then a small middle class, and the bulk of people quite poor at the bottom. One of the ways the powerful have kept the poor down is by depriving them of education, including access to the English language. So I realize that teaching English actually does have a justice dimension. I’m providing the poor with access to a tool that provides access to a wider world, where they can leverage English to provide more for themselves and their families. It also changes power dynamics in the society – not hugely at first, but over time it might make a real difference.’
Tad didn’t stop there. Asking the justice question prompted more reflection: ‘Also, the education system where I work is very top-down, with rote teaching and rote learning. People are expected to memorize and reproduce what they’ve memorized on examinations. I teach in a collaborative way, inviting students into interactions where their thoughts are valued as contributing to the learning process. So I realize that’s also justice work, because in my teaching style I’m sharing power, and by sharing power I’m empowering those who haven’t had much power. They’ll take those patterns into society with them. And that’s making the situation more just.’
Or words to that effect. I wasn’t taking notes, so I might have added a bit of midrash to the conversation, but that was the general drift.
That was a significant realization on Tad’s part. It has theological, vocational and practical ramifications.
• Theologically, Tad came to see his mission work in light of a major big-picture dimension of God’s mission in the world, namely, justice. Most people would recognize that teaching in many contexts in the Two-Thirds World is a helpful activity, and that teaching English, in particular, is useful in broadening people’s perspective and access to resources. Seeing it as participating in God’s concern to catalyze justice in an atrociously unjust world adds depth to Tad’s understanding of his own work.
• Vocationally, Tad’s perspectival shift will probably prompt him to to be alert to other ways in which his English teaching might promote justice in the country where’s he’s working. He might talk with his students about issues of justice – in English! He might experience new energy and enthusiasm within himself as he continues working. As he plans out the rest of his life – Tad is young – he might find himself drawn towards other kinds of justice work.
• Practically and rhetorically, naming English teaching as justice work might stimulate others to take more interest in his work. Teaching English in foreign countries is a good, traditional activity for young people abroad. It’s even ‘nice.’ So if someone asks Tad what he’s doing in X country and he responds, ‘I teach English,’ the questioner is likely to pigeonhole his work in the traditional category of a ‘good’ and ‘nice’ thing to do, and move on. But if Tad says, ‘I’m doing justice work,’ the response is likely to be immediate curiosity: ‘Justice work! So what does that mean? How are you doing justice work? Tell me more!’ And then Tad could be off and running, first explaining about injustice and oppression in that country, how educational deprivation fits into that pattern, and lastly getting to what he actually does and explaining how he is doing justice through it.
This approach would not just be good public relations to get people interested. It would actually change people’s thinking. And Tad would get used to seeing his English teaching in a truly missiological perspective, seeing how it fulfills an important dimension of God’s mission in the world, which is justice.
Reconciliation is the crucial step beyond justice in God’s mission in the world. Through his justice work, Tad’s students might experience greater reconciliation with the God they thought might have left them behind, and reconciliation with their circumstances, now on an upward incline. Reconciliation between the historic haves and have-nots in the society is doubtless much further off, for there would need to be immense amounts of justice work before reconciliation could be at hand.
For now, justice is big-picture enough. It’s good for the students, for the local community, and for Tad. Justice work: God is pleased.