The moment I stepped into a Ukrainian banya for the first time, I thought I was going to die. They told me it would be like a sauna, but I don’t remember many saunas that are heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit… so hot that breathing scalds your nose.
I also don’t remember many saunas that come with giant half-naked Ukrainian men named Yuri that yell and beat you with tree branches for fun while you lie there trying not to scream.
It was an… unforgettable experience. As I stumbled out of the banya and they dumped a bucket of ice cold water on my head, I remember thinking, “Huh. This is different.”
But as disorienting as that experience was for me, there was another in Ukraine that reminded me even more clearly that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
That moment happened at the Romaniv Disabled Boys Orphanage.
Story of first Romaniv Visit
· Disabilities in Ukraine, Romaniv no exception
· Attitude reflected (black walls, deaths)
· Administration baffled at MTU
· Nothing could have prepared me
· Grounds grey and desolate[BR1]
· Sights, smells
· Frozen (“to my shame”)[BR2]
· MTU staff moves in[BR3]
What in the world was I seeing here? How do I even begin to wrap my head around this?
On one hand, Romaniv wasn’t just full of individual neglect. There was poverty, a lack of education, a culture of shame around disabilities… I was witnessing the effects of a system of injustice. At the same time, I was watching a group of dedicated Christ-followers living out the kingdom of God in a way I didn’t even know was possible.
Little did I know that this was only the first of many times I would see a simple truth lived out:
BIG IDEA: There is no quick fix for systems of injustice, but when Christ-followers live out kingdom values on behalf of the poor and marginalized, these systems crumble.
That is what we’ll be talking about today. One of the six broken places in our world. The broken place of systemic injustice.
Now, before we jump in, we need to establish a few definitions. What do we mean here at Grace when we talk about “systems of injustice”? For that matter, what’s an injustice in the first place?
Put simply, an injustice is when things just aren’t right. When reality for an individual is not how God intended it to be. (What Tim talked about last week)
· A Haitian child going to bed hungry in a world of plenty
· A Rwandan widow having her land forcibly taken from her
· An Indianapolis family living on the streets
The fact that any of these things happen in our world is an injustice. This is not how God intended for the world to be.
A system of injustice, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. Let me give you an example.
Sreypich’s Story – 16 yrs, virgin girl worth $500, with a paying customer for a week…
happy, smiling girls living at home… [BR4]
This was one of the most horrific injustices I had ever heard of. How could anyone sell their own daughter for sex?
The only way I could find an answer was to try and see things from the perspective of Sreypich’s mom. She was facing off against poverty, hunger, corruption and a culture in which the quick cash of trafficking had become commonplace.
When her back was against the wall and her only options seemed to be: watch my children starve or sell my daughter’s body, you can see that the injustice goes far deeper than a single act.
It was an injustice that Sreypich was sold for sex by her own mother. It was wrong. But it was a system of injustice that made it a viable option in the first place.
An injustice can be fixed. An injustice can be made right. But a system of injustice has no quick fix. Here’s why:
A system of injustice is an interconnected web of man-made realities that strips people of choice and perpetuates cycles such as poverty, hunger and slavery.
Interconnected web – strips people of choice – perpetuates cycles
In scripture, systemic injustice is described using words like “yokes” and “chains.” You yoke an ox to work for you… You chain a slave or prisoner…
These are words that convey enslavement. A stripping away of choice. People trapped in systems don’t have options to choose from.
· A widow in a Nairobi slum, wondering how she’ll feed her children this week, can’t just trim a part of her entertainment budget to make ends meet. She is chained to the reality of hunger.
· For Sreypich’s mom in Cambodia, poverty, corruption and hunger were all conspiring to make trafficking a viable option. She was caught in a web of injustice…
Generally, webs like these are woven because sinful people are grasping for three things: power, wealth and comfort.
Striving for Power – Sometimes this is a central African warlord recruiting child soldiers. Sometimes it’s an American Senator advancing a politically expedient policy rather than one that will alleviate poverty.
Striving for Wealth – All over the world, you’ve got corrupt politicians... Brothel owners selling young girls. And hundreds of massive corporations right here in the U.S. who will turn a blind eye to abysmal factory conditions if it means a tiny bump in profit.
STITCHING – Have you ever thought about the fact that another human being stitched that? And (let me make things a bit uncomfortable) that it was in the clothing maker’s best interest to pay that person as little as possible?
Striving for Comfort – in every corner of the globe, you’ll find fathers and mothers choosing the easy escape of drugs and alcohol instead of providing for their families. On the other hand, here at home, our love of comfort is legendary.
Sure, inventing a blanket with sleeves isn’t causing hunger in Africa. But is it possible that our desire to stay warm, well-fed and cozy is keeping us disengaged with the world?
Striving for power… striving for wealth… striving for comfort… When these realities are woven together and multiplied 7 billion times, systems are created that yoke people in, strip them of choice and perpetuate cycles like poverty…
And this is the bad news.
Systems of injustice are fueled by the choices of many people and they affect the lives of many people. This is why there is no quick fix. No instant solution. No magic bullet.
But there is hope in the struggle for justice in our world. And that hope lies in the kingdom of God. When Christ-followers live out kingdom values on behalf of the poor and marginalized, these systems crumble.
But in the prophetic words spoken when I was a child, you don’t have to take my word for it. Take a look. It’s in a book. A Reading Rainbow.
Turn to Isaiah 58.
You see, our tendency to grasp and strive for power, wealth and comfort is nothing new. In fact, it’s all throughout scripture. In Isaiah 58, we see the consequences of living this way.
Here, the Israelites are ticked that God has not been answering their prayers.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it?’
‘Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
They were going through all the proper religious rituals. They crossed their Ts and dotted there Is when it came to the law.
So why wasn’t God hearing their prayers? Well, here is his response:
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
And exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
And expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
Only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
And for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
A day acceptable to the Lord?
Ouch… God is saying, essentially, “You think I care about empty rituals? How do you expect me to listen to your prayers when you are grasping for power, wealth and comfort at the expense of those around you?”
Rhetorical question: Do you think we ever fall into this trap today? Going through religious motions while our approach to the poor and marginalized tells a different story?
Let’s keep reading… Verse 6.
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice
And untie the cords of the yoke
To set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
This is pretty provocative stuff. But it’s not the only place in scripture we see this.
It’s echoed, for example, in James 1:27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widowsin their distress.
If we want to worship God, if we want to show God that we love him, and if we want him to hear us and answer our prayers, then going through the religious motions isn’t going to cut it.
Reading your Bible three times a week, sitting here in church, singing praise songs…
These things are all important, but they are not the goal of our faith. They’re the fuel. They’re the recharge that we need to launch out and live lives of justice and mercy and to share the love of Christ with the world.
If we want to topple systems of injustice in our world, it’s going to take more than sitting in this room for 75 minutes a week.
Fine. Being religious isn’t going to cut it. But, Barry… Poverty? Hunger? Sex Trafficking? Where would we even begin?
Well, when it comes to toppling systems of injustice, our tendency (as Americans, as suburbanites) would be to pursue the same ideals as the world, but to do them better. More power to defeat unjust leaders. More money to outspend sex traffickers.
But the values of the kingdom are directly opposed to these roots of systemic injustice
Instead of striving for power, Christ followers pursue servanthood: a palms-up approach that says to the outcast and poor, “You are better than me… let me serve you.”
Instead of grasping for money, Christ followers pursue generosity: a willingness to say “All I have is God’s, so I freely give it to those in need.”
Instead of striving for comfort, Christ followers pursue sacrifice: an attitude that says “I am willing to give up the good life if it means making life good for others.”
These are not just different values from the world. They are crazy values.
What sorts of people would attack a howling beast like hunger with a palms-up approach? What sorts of people would combat greed and corruption by giving money away? What sorts of people would try to draw apathetic consumers into action by living difficult, sacrificial lifestyles?
These don’t seem like particularly effective strategies.
These values are the foundations of God’s kingdom. And for some reason I can’t explain, they are utterly corrosive to the chains that lock people into systemic injustice. They are devastating to the yokes that tie people down.
I’ve spent a lot of time among Christ-followers who have dedicated their lives to living this out, and I will never be able to shake the images in my mind of the people God has used them to help. People who have felt this release. The return of choice.
· An impoverished mother in Cambodia empowered to make dresses and feed her family
· A clever young Haitian boy, dreaming big dreams now that he has access to education
· A formerly homeless man, talking excitedly about his new job-skills training and hope for tomorrow
· A mother here in Hamilton County, ready to face the future because she has the food and support to sustain her family for another month
· Orphans smiling in the arms of their new fathers
· Outcaste farmers standing tall with newfound dignity
· For that matter, empowered South African grannies starting a soccer club to show that AIDS has no power over them
Once yoked into a choice-less, hopeless web of injustice. These people are breaking free. Why? Because the kingdom of God is on the move.
About two years after I visited Romaniv Orphanage for the first time, I had a chance to return. As we drove out to the orphanage, Oksana said “We have a surprise for you, Barry.” I had no idea what she was referring to…
Romaniv re-visited, beautiful grounds, no smell, quiet, desks, toys, play area, all done by the orphanage administration. [BR6]
The administration, which once saw these boys as little more than animals, had begun to invest in their wellbeing... In their dignity. They were starting to see them as humans. Why? Because of the love of MTU. And you can see this love reflected in the faces of these boys today. Joy. Hope. Life. Friends, these are the faces of people touched by the kingdom.[BR7]
Gravestones – Talk about a change in perspective!
The system of injustice that had caused such suffering for these boys was being dismantled. Right before my eyes. Not by vast government overhaul. Not by clever strategies or initiatives. Not even by a bunch of money.
The system was crumbling because a handful of dedicated Christ followers abandoned power and chose to become servants to these boys.
Chains were falling off because these men and women chose to give generously of their time and money to bring the light of the kingdom to that dark place.
Yokes were breaking because they were willing to sacrifice comfort, walk into a building that smelled like a barn and hug filthy boys that didn’t know what it meant to be loved.
When Christ-followers live out the values of servanthood, generosity and sacrifice, systems of injustice don’t stand a chance.
Now, as awesome as this all sounds... it still requires a lot from us. And frankly, when we count up all that this sort of life change would cost us, most of us just stand at the edge of the cliff and hesitate.
And I get that. Shoot. It took me years to get over my fear. But let me save you some time and give you a glimpse of what I’ve discovered post-wild-jump-into-the-scary-unknown… A little icing on the cake, if you will.
Something powerful happens in our own lives when we pursue servanthood, generosity and sacrifice on behalf of the poor and marginalized… Take a look back at Isaiah 58 with me.
Verse 8. What happens when we choose to jump?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
And your healing will quickly appear;
Then your righteousness will go before you,
And the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
You will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
With the pointing finger and malicious talk,
And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
And satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
Then your light will rise in the darkness,
And your night will become like the noonday.
Tell me that doesn’t sound like exactly what you need right about now.
There is a mystical, supernatural transformation that happens when we wade into the messiness of injustice.
I’ve felt it happen in my own life. As I’ve become more and more engaged in serving the poor and marginalized, scripture has become richer, my prayers have purpose, my own problems have shrunk in significance. I’m happier now.
And even these kingdom values, which can seem like such a major sacrifice, have come with unexpected results. I see it all the time in the passionate Christ-followers I meet around the world.
When we choose to live lives of servanthood, God instills us with spiritual authority and power.
When we choose to live generously, God showers us with unexpected blessings.
And when we choose to live sacrificially, God gives us unexplainable contentment.
Don’t get involved with the poor and marginalized because you feel guilty. Do it because you want a piece of that transformation. Because you want healing. Because you want to see your light rise in the darkness.
You can choose to live a safe, comfortable life… doing as much religious stuff as you have time for and trying not to sin too much.
Or, you can follow the example of brave, selfless Christ-followers throughout history who have charged into the darkness, stood toe to toe with ravenous beasts of injustice and watched God’s kingdom do through them what once seemed impossible.
There is a solution to the systems of injustice in our world. And that solution is you.
This raises an important question, doesn’t it? What am I supposed to do with all of this? What are my next steps?
Well, we’re not saying that all of you need to pack your things and move to Africa… (Some of you do…)
But for most of us, our role is to live out these truths in our own communities. In our own day-to-day lives. So let me give you a few ideas for how to get started…
First of all, Grace is partnered with a whole host of ministries combating systemic injustice all over the world. Giving financially to them (above and beyond your tithe!) is a great first step. A way to practice the value of generosity…
But true engagement requires more than just writing a check. It requires action.
Aw, but Barry… I don’t think I’m cut out for this sort of thing. Oh, really? If God can take an introverted, comfort-loving, picky-eating, xbox-playing suburban kid on a journey that would lead to eating goat brains in India, I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to give you the tools you need along the way.
So what’s it going to be?
Volunteering at our choice food pantry. Serving at Shepherd Community Center. Going on Short Term Trips. There are a million ways to practice the value of servanthood here at Grace.
And every week in Town Square, there are staff and volunteers at the Outreach Kiosk who are eager to get you plugged in. If you are feeling a nudge to act, don’t you dare walk out of this building without talking to them!
But there’s one more opportunity I want to tell you about. A chance to practice the value of sacrifice. Giving up a bit of comfort for the sake of those in need…
It’s time to take the Hunger Challenge.
PHOTOS: first visit 1
PHOTOS: first visit 2-3
PHOTOS: first visit 4
SCREEN TEXT: There is no quick fix for systems of injustice, but when Christ-followers live out kingdom values on behalf of the poor and marginalized, these systems crumble.
PHOTOS: Romaniv Return 1-3
Faces 1-4 (quick cycle through these)