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In Leo Tolstoy’s short novelThe Death of Ivan Ilych, a godless, self-centered man struggles through a long and painful death. As he draws his final breaths, “it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” Ivan Ilych, an unbeliever, is converted, and then he dies.

I remember reading the story in an undergraduate world literature course. Some of my classmates scorned the story’s ending. It just didn’t seem right: Ivan Ilych cashing in a worthless life for redemption—and at the very last minute. He didn’t deserve it.

We talk a lot about justice, but we often frame it in the context of making sure people “have what they deserve.” This secular concept of justice has seeped into the Christian mindset as well. However, like Ivan Ilych, we don’t always get what we deserve—and thank God we don’t.

Our heavenly Father turns “just desserts” justice on its head. As people living in God’s grace, our notion of justice should be defined not by deserving but by serving.

Why is it then that the mere phrase “social justice” is enough to make some of us stand up and leave the room? Perhaps because it carries with it a lot of verbal baggage—loaded words like “advocacy” and “activism.” We think that social justice is political or that it involves taking sides.

Stop for a moment, though, and think of justice in the context of what God has given you. Social justice is simply showing to others the same grace we have been shown. It’s about “doing the right thing” in God’s eyes, not because a person “deserves” our help but as a daily expression of the grace that gives us life.

Not the Activist Type?

So what can you do to pursue social justice if you don’t view yourself as the banner-waving, protest-making, tree-hugging type? First of all, stop trying to figure out who is right, and start thinking about what is right. Then take it one simple step at a time. “You can start with small steps,” explains Harry Kits, executive director of the Toronto-based Citizens for Public Justice. “For instance, you can simply befriend someone who is poor or a refugee and let that lead you further.”

“Doing justice can be as simple as getting to know your neighbors,” says Peter Vander Meulen, coordinator of the CRC’s office of Social Justice and Hunger Action. “Start right where you are. Who’s there in front of you? Who needs you?”

Make a meal at a homeless shelter, adopt a lonely senior, or mentor a youth at risk of falling into a life of crime. Share your language skills with a refugee. Befriend a person with a disability. Pass on your professional skills through an employment-training program for disadvantaged men and women. By building relationships with real people, making just choices and taking just actions becomes less political and more personal.

You may discover that these very personal relationships motivate you to take public steps toward eradicating injustice in our society. For instance, if you go shopping with a person who has a disability, you can’t help but become more sensitive to issues of accessibility. The next step might involve contacting an elected official and discussing what you—and the politician—can do to improve accessibility in your community. The ripple effect can be endless.

It Starts at Home

If you are a parent, your role in creating a more just society starts at the dinner table. Your children are minds in the making, and the messages you send can mold lifetimes of action. “We are all activists in our own spheres of influence, either for better or for worse—even in our own families,” says Vander Meulen.

In our homes, we often talk about work and school at mealtimes. We need to take every opportunity to demonstrate that seeking justice means “doing what’s right” for the people around us in the office, on the playground, or in our recreational activities. When a colleague is treated unfairly at work, discuss why you think it is wrong and what you can do to change it. When kids talk about someone who is bullied by their peers, help them think through appropriate responses.

It goes beyond the dinner table, of course. We need to ensure that our relationships at church, in the community, and in our work lives aren’t defined by social, economic, or racial prejudices. Immersing our children in the diversity of our communities will help them become more sensitive to the barriers that create injustice in the first place.  

Finally, let’s not cocoon our kids from the injustices of society. Every child I know is quick to notice things that aren’t “fair.” When we see our children making that connection, let’s spur them on to taking the next step.

Together Steps

When the issues get more complex, don’t attempt huge steps alone—take “together steps.” That’s why our denomination has ministry shares. We covenant together to do what is right in our society and in the world. Our financial support of denominational ministries makes a huge impact in our world, but we all know that doing what’s right goes beyond check writing.

You can make your covenantal support more personal by volunteering for a denominational ministry, a local church social justice committee, or by befriending a church worker serving overseas to promote justice in other countries. Your prayers and friendship will advance his or her ministry in a big way. Then ask this friend for some practical ways you can “do what’s right” for people in the country where he or she serves.

Educate yourself about one global issue and share what you learn. “Choose just one thing at a time, taking one step to learn what to do and allowing that to open more doors for further steps,” says Kits. That may mean contacting a volunteer agency and offering your time or skills. It may mean writing a letter, leading a workshop, altering shopping habits, or changing brand loyalties.

“Rather than becoming overwhelmed by global issues, first examine your local community and see what you can address there,” suggests Karen Bokma, social justice coordinator for the CRC in Canada. Take any huge injustice on the global front and you can usually find the same thing happening on a smaller scale in your own community. You may not be able to directly help farmers in the developing world overcome the structural injustices that make it impossible for them to earn a decent wage. But you can support the local farmer in your own community who is unfairly hurt by international decisions beyond his or her control.

As individuals or a single church, we may feel that our voices go unheard at the global level. But as many churches together in a denomination, and as many denominations working together through coalitions such as Bread for the World or The Canadian Foodgrains Bank, we are having an impact. “There are so many people who don’t become involved in social justice because they say, ‘I can’t do this by myself’ or ‘My actions won’t make a difference,’” says Vander Meulen. “You need to ask for help. Find a group or work through your church. God works through communities.”

He Whose Understanding Matters

As his life slipped away, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych tried to ask his family for forgiveness, but he couldn’t make himself understood. In the end, he “waved his hand, knowing that he whose understanding mattered would understand.”

Ilych’s conviction has stayed with me over the years. No doubt our little acts of justice go unnoticed and are often misunderstood. Yet to him whose understanding matters most, our small steps are steps in the right direction. Our micro efforts to “do what’s right” become part of a greater macro plan, a cosmically redemptive movement toward a new world order, where all things will be as they should, with each of us getting exactly what we didn’t deserve.

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