Recently I met a man called Michael. He’s a trilingual, university educated teacher from Burundi. When I met him, he was wearing jeans and a shirt and holding onto his Samsung smartphone. But there was a look of bewilderment on his face. He had just stepped off a bus into a huge refugee camp, having fled Burundi the day before amidst gunfire in his town. He was now one of more than 50,000 refugees in this camp, and his house in Burundi was about to be replaced with a mass shelter until further notice. His first question to me was to help me find his family. His second one was where he would now find food. That Samsung was not going to get charged again anytime soon, as the battery faded along with life as he knew it.
I think that as Christ’s followers, passionate about international justice, we have three separate but connected, personal encounters when we face significant injustice, either in a refugee camp, homeless shelter or elsewhere.
First, we encounter the world in a new way when we see how grim it can be to people. In the West we live in a culture that values, and often provides, comfort and material wealth. And we try to ruthlessly eliminate anything that gets in the way of that. But in doing so we risk getting stuck in our cage of comfort where we are unable or unwilling to see the world around us. And it is a world that needs our attention. 61 million people are displaced in the world today. More than 1-in-4 Londoners live in poverty. As a few thousand people fleeing wars, conflict and poverty gather in Calais, our Western societies and governments build taller fences to attempt to keep them out. It sometimes seems that protecting our comfort is more important than protecting their lives. It is perhaps worth asking if our cage of comfort here is making us less able to be compassionate towards those without our privileges.
When we get to break out of our cage of comfort and view the world around us, we have our second encounter: this one is with ourselves. As we collide with the harsh reality many in the world face we learn a lot about ourselves. We discover if we care enough about the world to let the suffering we have seen mould us and remain part of us or if we prefer to forget and go back to a life of ease inside our cage. If we step out we often discover untapped capacity to make a real difference to people around us. But we also discover that there is a lot we cannot change, at least not by ourselves. The contrast for me between walking through a refugee camp on a Friday and walking across Waterloo Bridge on a Sunday has become both a great anecdote and something that keeps me awake at night. Having escaped the cage we get to live with that great tension of the world as it is in its brokenness, and the world as it should be without fear and want.
Somewhere here we have our third encounter; this one with God.
These themes of fear, fallenness and frustration are common throughout the Bible. I think the disciple Peter is one of many key personalities in Scripture who can relate to aspects of our journey. He was called from nowhere by Jesus and asked to take on a mission he didn’t fully understand. Yet he embraced it to the point of walking on water and being the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. At times, he was willing to give his life for Jesus and eventually did. And yet, he also started sinking while he was on the water, and he publicly denied that he even knew Jesus. He had huge successes and crushing defeats, both standing next to Jesus.
Still, after his worst failures Jesus reinstates him by asking him a question and connecting it with a call to action. In John 21 He asks Peter if he loves Him and He asks him to feed His sheep.
Like Peter, Jesus has the same command for us when we encounter injustice. And like for Peter, this command comes not because of our successes, but despite our inevitable shortcomings. He calls us to look after those around us, but first we have to sit down with Him. Then He’ll give us a mission, one we likely won’t fully grasp and one that will require faith along each step of the way.
This passage brings a key question and a key reminder for us, as does the timing of it.
The conversation between Jesus and Peter takes place after Peter has denied Him.
I wonder what my response would be to an invitation from Jesus if I had just publicly denied him like Peter did? What if Peter had hesitated and held onto his shame? What if we hesitate? The question for us is what kind of God it is that we meet when we acknowledge we cannot stand on our own performance. Is it a God of grace or of something else? Is it a God angry at our failures? Or one that embraces us as His children, despite our mixed stories?
I think the reminder here is that while we are absolutely called to feed His sheep, we are His sheep too: sheep who need a Shepherd.
When we become so focused on feeding sheep around us we risk forgetting God, and who we are in relation to Him, and then we often seek our own ways and end up in trouble. This world may put a premium on achievements, busyness and results, but Jesus asks us first if we love Him. I suspect He is at least as interested in who we become as in what we accomplish. His first question is not what we are doing, but who we are; and who we are in relation to Him. For those of us who have chosen to pursue international justice, this is a subtle but critical distinction. The world will tempt us to become hard to protect ourselves, but Jesus calls us to remain soft to embrace the world around us.
The distinction between who we are and what we are doing helps us navigate the now that is fallen world. We get to be not the creators but His instruments in bringing His Kingdom that is not fully yet.
We are called to feed His sheep, but we must remember we are His sheep too.
Johan Eldebo coordinates the International Justice Forum, a group for people from different churches who work in international justice to come together for community, insight and prayer to share in that spiritual journey.
He is also a Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser at World Vision. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of World Vision.
Image: Schafe by rauter25, used under CC BY-NC 2.0