Justice Conference Part 1: It's complicated

justice conference graphic
Image source: Justice Conference Facebook page

A whirlwind Thursday...


I put off writing about my experience at the Justice Conference in Chicago last weekend, at first, because I was physically exhausted and didn't think I could go back over my notes and reflect appropriately without getting overwhelmed. Instead, I went out to the mountains twice in two days and didn't really think about anything.

When I initially took the plunge and purchased tickets to the conference, I assumed I wasn't the target market. After all, the Justice Conference presenters were largely evangelical - largely charismatic or mega-churchy - and I left that world a few years ago because I felt like it was destroying any chance at my finding peace in the Christian faith as an adult. But I think I've done some healing since I left and I wanted to know what these people were doing to enact justice in the world. Like a lot of the presenters said, "we don't have a monopoly on justice." No matter what "we" you are, that statement holds true, and remembering that helps us find ways to "live justice together" (this year's Justice Conference slogan). 

When I got back from the conference late Sunday morning, everything felt fresh and easy - I felt empowered to do the hard work of justice in my community - but by Tuesday evening, I was starting to feel unsure and uncomfortable in my own skin. The discomfort still lingers and I'm trying to interpret it. So let me give a bit of context:

I took a direct flight to Chicago from Charlottesville at 5:00 in the morning on June 4. That left me with an hour once I arrived at the airport to anticipate meeting my virtual "friend," Hannah before setting out to tour fair trade shops for the day (Hannah runs an ethical fashion blog and we'd only spoken via Google Hangout before meeting in real life). I don't buy into the introvert/extrovert scale so much, but I do know myself pretty well, and the thing that's stuck out to me more and more is that I tend to over-process new experiences to such an extent that I go into fight-or-flight and become mute until I can get my bearings again. My inability or subconscious unwillingness to engage "normally" with new people or new surroundings, though it's meant to make me feel more in control, makes me feel self-conscious. I'm fighting with myself to just say something.

When I met Hannah for the first time, it was exciting, but it was also a relief. She's cool, you guys, and really smart. Still, I felt like I didn't have much to say. We spent the rest of the day touring around, meeting wonderful, like-minded people, and I was having a great time somewhere deep down, but there was always the anxiety that I wasn't putting my true self (whatever that means) forward. But, you know, it didn't really matter; I felt safe to be or not be whatever worked best for me because Hannah and our hosts were all very welcoming, and I slept like a baby that night.

Human Trafficking Pre-Conference, morning sessions


The pre-conference started bright and early the next morning. We headed out on the blue line to the conference center and then went our separate ways to learn about human trafficking and racial reconciliation. Having started the trip on insecure footing, I entered the lecture hall where the human trafficking track began with some reservations. Christians interested in anti-sex trafficking efforts are easy to stereotype as young, conservative, and sheltered. I don't think it's unfair to say Evangelicals are tied up in the cause of anti-sex trafficking specifically because it relates so well to their sexual ethic in general. If virginity is a gift to be protected and shared within the very specific, hallowed context of monogamous marriage, then being sold into sex trafficking to do it with hundreds of people a month is the worst kind of degradation. And I don't necessarily disagree, but I think there are all sorts of terrible things we do to people that need to be addressed in tandem with anti-sex trafficking efforts.

Tangent aside, I came into a room of well dressed young women (and a few outliers) full of self protective judgment, thinking all sorts of mean things ranging from the logical, "How can you care about human trafficking and be wearing brand new Skechers and a top from Target (brands that most definitely have exploitative practices somewhere along their supply chain)?" to the weird, "How can you work against the exploitation of young women wearing that much makeup?!" Despite that, I really enjoyed some of the speakers:

Dr. Paul Lee, sociology professor, looked at the number of academic articles being written on human trafficking from 1995 to 2014 and found a dramatic rise after 2005 (not coincidentally around the same time that key trade embargos were lifted in the US that made it easier than ever to use cheap foreign labor to produce goods, leading to a dramatic rise in the popularity and profits of "fast fashion.")

Then Dr. Rajkumar Boaz Johnson, called the "Slumdog Professor" because of his early life spent in New Delhi slums, made the powerful claim that the whole Bible is an extended narrative about human trafficking and violence against women, from Eve being manipulated by a phallic Sumerian serpent god to the Hebrew people enslaved by the Egyptians to the demon possessed slave girl exploited by her owner in Acts. His basic point was that the Bible, unlike concurrent religious narratives of the time, not only sees exploitation but interprets it as the horror story it is. We are asked to live in narratives of injustice so that we can do the work to end it. I'm sure a lot of people have very valid rebuttals to this approach, but I find it useful within a wider conversation about Biblical interpretation.

After a few other speakers presented, we broke for lunch and I decided I'd learned about all I could learn from the human trafficking track (there were about 6 other speakers in the morning that didn't provide the depth of insight I was hoping for). I decided to join Hannah in the Racial Reconciliation track for the afternoon sessions. And that's when the recurring themes for the weekend started to take shape for me...

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6 comments

  1. Looking forward to hearing more about the confrence - I saw bits and pieces on twitter and it sounds like there were some important conversations happening!

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    1. It was overwhelming, but full of a lot of good information and conversations. Part 2 is up now!

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  2. Thank you for your honesty, and I'm looking forward to your second post on this. I think I'd probably have a lot of the same feelings about the conference as you do. Some of my family members share an interest in these topics, and the motivation behind it all is interesting, I think. I watched a documentary on PBS this week called "God Bless Uganda" that was pretty eye-opening, though it focused more on extreme religious beliefs being spread in that country by American churches.

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    1. I'm going to watch that documentary!

      I was actually really relieved and occasionally impressed by the approach of the speakers; there were some hiccups, but it was more sensitive and thoughtful than I thought it would be. I think when people start to do this sort of work, they're changed by it and eventually get to a place where they are more culturally sensitive. Part 2 is up now.

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  3. How refreshing to hear about your inter judgment voice. Mine is so strong as well, and it is sometimes holding me back from listening to people.

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  4. I admire your candor! I think we all struggle with those inner judgements. I know I do.

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