When I started researching and writing the article that would become “Serving Justice vs. Saving Souls” for Reject Apathy last year, I decided right away I’d need to interview Ken Wytsma. As the pastor of a church, the president of a college, and the founder of a conference dedicated to helping people think theologically about justice issues, I knew he had an important perspective to share. “Justice makes demands of us in every aspect of our daily existence,” he told me. “It’s something too big for any of us to live up to, which is why we need grace. Grace is what keeps us from falling flat.”
In Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things (Thomas Nelson), written with D.R. Jacobsen and slated for release on February 12, Wytsma expands on those ideas, and he does so, importantly, with grace. As clear evidence of his deep and consistent study and reflection on all things pertaining to justice, in this book he manages to write with precision about weighty words and concepts that are often thrown around carelessly, and he’s boiled down complex issues into terms any of us can understand.
It’s clear Wytsma believes in the importance of learning about the causes of injustices and how wrongs can be made right. This, it seems to me, is the common thread that connects each aspect of his multifaceted work, whether he’s preaching in his congregation, teaching college students, hosting lively and wide-ranging Q&A sessions, or annually convening some of the best minds in the world. One chapter near the end of the book, called “Learning to Change the World: Education and Knowledge in the Pursuit of Justice,” captures well the heart of that commitment.
Yet it’s at this point, incidentally, that I’d offer a gentle critique. The idea of “changing the world” is a popular one, and in the face of widespread apathy, narcissism, and petty dreams, it seems like an unquestionably meaningful and noble ambition. But what’s not always clear is just what changing the world would look like, and whether it’s finally possible for any of us to really, truly change something as immense and complex as the world in the first place. On this point I’m sympathetic to the arguments of James Davison Hunter in To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford), who contends that while there is much we can do right where we are to faithfully love our neighbors and to honor God – including defending the rights of oppressed people – “changing the world” is not something we can realistically expect to succeed in doing on any sort of a global scale.
It’s a somewhat sobering view, but it’s also, in my opinion, a fairly convincing one. Education can help us pursue justice, certainly, and it can help us grow in our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, but most faithful followers of Christ live the majority of their lives in relative obscurity, never “changing the world” in the typical ways we understand the term. That’s not to say justice isn’t worth pursuing, or that we can’t give our lives to “bigger things.” It just means our impact might be more localized, and that those “bigger things” might not make the evening news.
Nonetheless, Wytsma does much to avoid the pitfalls of wishful thinking by emphasizing again and again that pursuing justice isn’t ultimately some fashionable cause, nor is it an exciting thrill ride. It’s rather a matter of laying down one’s life for others over the long haul. As the subtitle says, it’s about living and dying for bigger things – which is unglamorous, difficult, and ridden with failure.
But as Wytsma reminds us, “Justice both surfaces the need for, and is made complete by, grace.” Our failures when it comes to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God are thankfully not the end of the story. In the midst of our weakness and our never-ending failures, we experience God’s limitless grace, unlocking the potential for deep joy and true happiness. And so we press on in our pursuit of justice, resting in the hope that one day all things will be made new.
If you’re looking for the theological and practical tools to think more deeply and clearly about what it means to do justice as a follower of Christ, I highly recommend Pursuing Justice.
I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Opinions here are my own.