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Have you ever wondered if there is more to the Christian life than your “relatively safe” life in the United States? Is your soul restless to impact the world in a greater fashion? Gary Haugen delivers a challenge to lay people and pastors alike in this powerful but short treatment of Christian social justice.
Addressed primarily to lay people in the church, the author uses numerous real-life incidents to illustrate the need to overcome fear, help readers begin to see the needs in the world, and argue that rescuing souls from physical slavery is a prerequisite to rescuing souls from eternal slavery. Finally, he challenges Christians leading a “comfortable” life to make the choice to be brave rather than safe. One major weakness of the book is the author’s view that “social justice” is a prerequisite to evangelism. In reality, he argues that freedom from physical bondage affords an opportunity to communicate the gospel to oppressed people. This view is generally accurate; however, the definition of “social justice” varies widely and his point can be easily misunderstood (see below for more discussion of this).
Rather than offering a theological treatise, Haugen relates a series of real life incidents from history and modern times. Interspersed with these illustrations are brief discussions of Bible verses that demonstrate God’s desire for justice and the need for Christians to communicate God’s love to the world in both words and action.
He begins the book by relating a true story about a childhood trip to Mount Rainer with his father and two brothers. His father and two brothers went beyond the visitor’s center to climb part of the mountain while Gary stayed behind because he was fearful. Haugen then challenges Christians in churches throughout North America to go beyond the “normal” Christianity of the visitor’s center and take the chance involved in climbing the mountain. He describes the mission of social justice in the world today and how International Justice Mission (his nonprofit) and other organizations are striving to free people from slavery (both forced labor and sexual trafficking).
After laying the groundwork in the first chapter by challenging people to go beyond their safety zone, the author talks about the dilemma of modern Christianity—we have been delivered from bondage to sin, but now we ask, “So what? What do I do now?” Burning within many churchgoers is this dilemma of wanting to make a difference yet not knowing how to do so beyond their little neighborhoods.
Why don’t we function as a light in the world? Haugen identifies three reasons for believers’ failure to be a light in the world as they should. The first is ignorance—not knowing the true horrors that exist in the world. Second is despair—knowing the tremendous needs but thinking that one person could never make a difference (and where would you start?). The third and final roadblock to truly making a difference is fear—what might happen to me or my family?
Haugen decimates each of these roadblocks in the remaining chapters. Chapters three through six lay out the Biblical basis for “seeking justice.” The author identifies the struggle for justice as a “pathway to courage” in our time. He writes:
We should not be surprised, therefore, that God specifically uses the work of justice as the pathway for liberating us from the Christian cul-de-sac of triviality and small fears. In other eras God has provided special pathways of rescue for his people—pathways to escape idolatry, cold-heartedness, mediocrity, joylessness and fear. For the early church it was trials of intense state persecution. For many followers of Jesus in the Middle Ages it was the struggle for reformation. Western Christians during the industrial revolution confronted brutal inequities and pathologies of rapid social change. For Christians in the late nineteenth and much of the early twentieth century it was the challenging opportunities of a vast new global mission movement. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was the challenge of bringing the love of Christ to the vast poverty of the developing world. (pp. 39-40)
Haugen notes the paradox of the cul-de-sac: a closed-end street designed to make the area safe for little children yet actually a higher risk area since most car accidents involving children being struck occur when a driver is backing up out of a driveway—in a cul-de-sac! “Likewise many Christians and churches in the West, seeking safety from a dangerous world, a threatening culture and personal weakness have turned inward to the prosperous cul-de-sac, only to find a spiritual atrophy, mediocrity and boredom that is lethal to the soul.” (p. 44) Haugen then calls Christians in modern churches back to the biblical idea of justice: fighting injustice (which he defined simply as an abuse of power where a “stronger” person robs a “weaker” person of “life, liberty, dignity, and the increase that flows from a person’s love and labor.” In our modern world, this usually takes the form of aggressive human violence by a more powerful person or group that robs someone of life, liberty, dignity, labor, family, etc. Haugen notes that many churches and organizations seek to provide food, shelter, and other basic needs, yet do not recognize the greater needs.
Many times the widow’s children are hungry because bullies have stolen her land and she can no longer grow her own food. The street child is homeless because sexual abuse in the home has forced her onto the streets. The young boy is illiterate because he is held as a slave in a brick factory and can’t go to school. The teenage girl has AIDS because she has been forcibly infected with the disease while held captive in a brothel. (p. 49)
After painting this picture of a pathway to courage in seeking justice for the oppressed, the author describes the God of Justice, the intersection of justice and worship, and the meaning of loving our neighbor in the following three chapters.
The book then relays three historical vignettes to prove that this is not a new concept and to show that one person can “charge the darkness” and change the world. After that section, Haugen describes the simplest connection he has found in his work—the connection of parenthood. As a parent, he can automatically identify with the parents whose children are suffering from violence and injustice. He also reveals three key practices to help him and others seize the gift of courage God offers:
- Do Less, Reflect and Pray More
- Search the Promises of Scripture and Take a Risk
- Embark on the Lifelong Journey of Spiritual Formation and Renovation
The final chapter does an excellent job of summarizing the book by relaying the story and thoughts of two young lawyers who gave up their positions in thriving practices to work for International Justice Mission. John Richmond gave up a safe home and career to move his family to South Asia in spite of the risks. He was able to liberate slaves working in rice mills. When he moved, his colleagues felt it was foolish and risky. He was mocked and laughed at for his choice—“because loving the needy doesn’t look smart.” In addition, it “doesn’t match the image of the successful.” Another lawyer, Sean Litton was not worried about going—but rather coming back and having lost his place in his career. Haugen quotes Sean’s perspective:
But I just thought, if I can rescue one child from the unspeakable horror of forced prostitution, it would outweigh any sacrifice I could possibly make. How could any sacrifice I make, how could it possibly compare to the daily abuse and suffering of a child locked in a brothel forced to serve four to seven customers a day? (p. 120)
“It was like math,” Sean said, “No emotion. I did not have faith to believe that God could somehow provide for me and that I might even find joy in it. No, I just expected to be lonely and to suffer. But I signed on to try and save that one child.”
God used Sean to lead the rescue of hundreds of women and girls from commercial sexual exploitation and to virtually shut down child prostitution in a city that was once a cesspool of forced child prostitution. And all of this happened through the power of a very great God working through a very common vessel who made a choice to be brave rather than safe. (pp. 120-121)
Overall, this challenging book will open your eyes to a world that is begging for help and countless individuals who need to be freed from physical slavery before we can even hope to communicate to them the joys of freedom from slavery to sin. The major strength of the book lies in the challenge to go beyond our “normal” missions philosophy to seek justice for the oppressed in the world. Therein also lies the major weakness of the book—the author does not lay out a comprehensive picture of the theology of justice within the Bible. In addition, the author contends that social justice is a prerequisite to evangelism. Biblically speaking, evangelism is the greatest need of the world—not social justice. Practically speaking, however, how can a missionary communicate the gospel to a child or adult who is physically enslaved or endangered?
As fundamentalists we would argue forcefully and rightly that the world’s greatest need is salvation through Jesus Christ, but many times a person must be physically free to be afforded the opportunity to hear the gospel. The definition of social justice varies widely, and Haugen’s advocacy for it can be easily misunderstood and misconstrued. Defined narrowly as freedom from physical bondage and danger—yes, it is important to communicating the gospel. However, the term has also been used in reference to a variety of social issues. This lack of clear definition can lead to major misunderstandings and may be confusing to believers who hear the term “social justice” in other contexts.
Another weakness in the book lies in the indiscriminate quotations of famous figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill McCartney. These references are not surprising from an evangelical lawyer but may be a distraction for some fundamentalist readers.
Two appendixes provide details of how to partner with International Justice Mission in their work specifically and a short list of additional resources. Discussion and reflection questions for each chapter are also included at the end of the book.
I highly recommend this book as a challenge to the apathetic and self-centered Christianity pastors and lay people alike find themselves stranded in and which has weakened many churches. Though I do not agree completely with the author’s arguments regarding social justice and its relation to evangelism, the book will awaken readers to some of the horrors in the world and challenge their view of missions. How can we evangelize people who are enslaved and endangered without helping them to escape physical danger and slavery?
Ray Arnett works at the Fremont Area District Library in Fremont, MI. He received his BA in Youth Ministries and his MABS at Northland Baptist Bible College (now Northland International University), as well as his MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.