It seems as if every time we turn around another scandal is being brought into the light. With high profile cases such as those indicting Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein for sexual crimes, along with the #metoo and #churchtoo movements, we have seen hundreds come forward to say they were harmed—and that things were covered up when they tried to report it.
The question I am asking today is, “If we value justice so much, why do we have to fight for it?”
I have no doubt the answer is complex and multifaceted. Today I hope to share what my life experience tells me. Perhaps you will see something familiar here.
We say we value justice—for women, for children, for victims, for people who are poor and marginalized. There are a precious few among us who would say, “Nah, justice is not that important to me. I’m cool with things as they are.”
I believe the reason we must fight continually for something we say we value is due specifically to our fear of exposure and our deep desire to do image control and reputation management. We are broken and prideful people. We are people who want to protect our own image first, and if that requires us to look the other way, sometimes we do.
I have learned that we want justice right up until it requires us to stand up and speak out against systems we are a part of, or against people we know and love. I have learned that it’s our selfish desires and impure goals that keep us from doing the justice work we say we so value.
Close to thirty years ago, at the church I attended as a teenager, I learned my first lesson about the cost of standing up for a victim.
My church’s senior pastor was accused of sexual abuse. I have no doubt that in the months leading up to the abuse being exposed, the leaders and elder board would have told you that they believed in justice. But theory and reality have a way of being at odds with each other.
When the elder board was presented with evidence that our pastor of more than two decades had been sexually abusing teenage boys in his office, justice took a back seat to self-preservation. Some of these men who once valued justice ended up choosing to protect their image and reputation of the church over helping these young victims.
The elders and leaders wanted to find a way to hide what had happened. They were embarrassed, and suddenly what people thought about them and the church became a higher priority than the justice of scores of victims.
They did not value justice enough to humbly and immediately say, “Our church has a problem. We have a problem.”
Many years later, I worked for a non-profit organization in Haiti. The issue of justice versus self-preservation once again reared its ugly head. Some co-workers and I discovered that many children that the organization was sponsoring were not, in fact, receiving anything. Their faces were on photos hanging on refrigerators in the states. Donors were told that their $30 monthly donations were feeding and educating a specific child. As we worked for the non-profit a bit longer and dug deeper, we learned that some of the kids had moved away from the area, and some had even died. It was not a single oversight or a rare occurrence.
When the leadership was presented with these facts, they shrugged it off and said, “But the money helps some kids in Haiti, because we have other programs.” It was okay to allow that mistake and choose dishonesty in order to protect their image and reputation and keep the money coming in each month.
They did not value truth and justice enough to say, “Our organization has a problem. Let us tell you our mistakes and make them right.”
At another non-profit organization we worked with for a short time, thousands of dollars were raised and designated to a specific cause. The donors gave the money designating it for severely malnourished children. The fundraising efforts promised that was how the funds would be used. The leaders ran into financial strains and decided that not all of it had to go to malnourished children.
In the end, less than half of the donations went to purchasing the product needed to help the starving kids. The balance was used to help pay for the guesthouse and comforts for those visiting the poor children.
They did not value justice or starving children enough to use the money as they promised the donors they would use the money. They valued their image, and they wished to appear to be an important organization with a nice guesthouse.
No organization—not a for-profit, a non-profit, nor a religious organization—wants to be seen as a place where abuse of any type could happen. But, inevitably, these things always come to light.
More often than not, damage control begins immediately. People defend and deny and make new rules to protect themselves and “their guy”. The transparency and humility required to truly seek justice costs something. It costs something from everyone who is affiliated.
To be able to say, “Our organization has identified a situation in which a vulnerable person or persons was harmed by a misuse of power,” means that every staff member, leader, co-worker and board member must be willing to let go of their desire to maintain a certain image.
While addressing a scandal at his network, CBS talk show host Stephen Colbert said,
Everybody believes in accountability until it’s their guy. And make no mistake, Les Moonves is *my guy*. He hired me to sit in this chair, he stood behind this show while we were still struggling to find our voice. He gave us the time and the resources to succeed, and he has stood by us while people were mad at me. And I like working for him. But accountability is meaningless, unless it’s for everybody. Whether it’s the leader of a network, or the leader of the free world.
In her recent Netflix special, comedian Hannah Gadsby talks about men with unchecked power. Hannah asks,
What about their humanity? These men control our stories and yet they have a diminishing connection to their own humanity, and we don’t mind so long as they get to hold on to their precious reputation.
Justice requires personal sacrifice of image, ego, and reputation.
Justice requires truth-telling and confrontation.
Justice requires listening and believing those who say they are being harmed.
If we cannot set aside our desires to look good, be important, and maintain our reputation, then we will never make sustained progress.
As we seek justice for those with less power than we have, let us call out the abuses we see, whether it be financial, physical, sexual, or otherwise.
Let us be justice seekers who are truthful, vulnerable, repentant, and seek reconciliation.
Those being harmed depend on it.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on social justice and from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.