Why Justice Is a Powerful Apologetic

by Bishop Todd Hunter

Many people are looking for a reason to believe in God and to follow Jesus. Our actions can help.

I recently read Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. In his book, he recounts the tragic, devastating, almost unthinkable injustice done to Walter McMillian, who served six years on death row, often in solitary confinement, for a murder he did not commit.

In the years Bryan fought to overturn the wrongful conviction and free Walter from death row (which he successfully did in 1993), he learned how one instance of injustice “burdens an entire community…[and how] everyone in the poor, black community…expressed hopelessness. This one massive miscarriage of justice had afflicted the whole community with despair.”

It’s a tragic story, but I noticed that Bryan’s life and work yielded an opposite effect too. Many people, especially young people, find in Bryan’s work a powerful apologetic, a reason to believe in God and to follow Jesus. Bryan is a light on a hill, and many seekers find spiritual warmth and illumination in him.

We see the same dynamic in the life of Jesus. When he healed someone or freed someone from the terror of a demon, there was a direct, concrete, and specific good. But this goodness always spread so that great crowds of people heard and witnessed the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in and through Jesus.

Jesus led his disciples down to the shore of the lake. Large crowds followed him from Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. People came from Idumea, as well as other places east of the Jordan River. They also came from the region around the towns of Tyre and Sidon. All of these crowds came because they had heard what Jesus was doing.

Mark 3:7-8 (CEV)

My takeaway is this: Justice-seekers help others believe in the truth and goodness of Christianity. Women and men who are agents of good in the world have confidence in God and a humble, generous, openhearted desire to serve others.

Living such a life is easier said than done, though. Stevenson recalls moments in which he found himself “deeply distressed. Worried about executions…worried about what the U.S. Supreme Court would do with all of the children condemned to die in prison…worried about funding and staffing [for the Equal Justice Initiative]…worried about clients who were struggling.” One time after visiting Walter McMillan in a nursing home, Bryan describes leaving “shaken and disturbed.”

At a low point in his work, Bryan says, “The lack of compassion I witnessed every day had finally exhausted me…I realized that my life was full of brokenness…mental illness, poverty, and racism…war…disability…cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.” “And before I knew it,” he recounts, “I was talking to myself out loud: ‘I can just leave. Why am I doing this?’” 

In my experience, at one point or another, nearly everyone who serves God in places of pain and brokenness wonders similar things: Can I keep going? No one else seems to care…why should I? Yet, a challenge stands before me: Compassion in the biblical context means to be moved to action to alleviate suffering of any and all kinds.

As I try to do so, my motives and beliefs are constantly challenged as I show compassion on racial issues, or spiritual abuse in the church, immigration, etc. Compared to Bryan and others, I am only dipping my toes in the water. Yet I often wonder if I have what it takes to make a difference and whether I can keep paying the price.

Reading Bryan’s story caused strong, piercing questions to arise in my soul: Am I willing to be broken? To be criticized, to be unfairly labeled? To have my motives questioned and actions criticized? But when I read Bryan’s powerful articulation of why he does what he does, I am compelled to continue my own pursuit of justice:

I do what I do because I am broken too. My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, execution, and cruel punishment didn’t just illumine the brokenness of others…it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

Bryan helped me see that I need to take those risks because “our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.”

As Dallas Willard says in his book, The Allure of Gentleness, “Apologetics is really about serving…about helping people.” The vision of The Center for Formation, Justice, and Peace backs this up. (When you become a paid subscriber, all proceeds go to support the Center’s work of activating justice.) Naming imperfections and pushing through vulnerability, we seek the transformation of our lives so that we consistently seek justice—leading to shalom in the spaces, places, and relationships where we work, study, and play.

Such a life is good on its own terms—but it is also a truly powerful apologetic.

This article was first published in The Gospel of the Kingdom, the substack of Bishop Todd Hunter.

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