Dominique DuBois Gilliard: God’s Justice Moves Toward Restoration

Pursuing justice is something the entire body is commissioned to participate in.

We spoke to six experts about how the church can be a redemptive voice and compassionate presence in front-burner cultural issues.

The following article on the topic of justice is based on a conversation with Dominique DuBois Gilliard, director of Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation for the Love Mercy Do Justice initiative of the Evangelical Covenant Church and the author of Rethinking Incarceration (IVP).

Growing up in metro Atlanta, in the shadow of Dr. King (and with a father who worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King founded), justice has always been an integral part of faithfully following Jesus. Throughout my spiritual formation and discipleship there was never a separation between word and deed, evangelism and justice, nor orthodoxy and orthopraxy; because, following Jesus entails both—never merely either, or. Justice became a passion for me as I became more serious about my faith and immersing myself in the word of God. While my training as a historian, lived experience, and proximity to suffering all enhanced my passion for justice, initially it emerged from Scripture, from reading about the ministry of Jesus and the prophets.

My education as a historian helped me understand the depth and breadth of injustice in our nation, and world. Then, my theological education gave me the tools to begin articulating how Christians have a unique and distinctive role to play in pursuing justice. My experience as a congregational pastor and professor behind bars brought me face to face with my neighbors who are suffering because of systemic injustice, and this only deepened my passion.

We must confess, lament, repent, and turn away from our sins of omission and commission. Too many churches have created an unbiblical chasm between evangelism and justice, while others have reduced justice to something “certain Christians are called to.” Pursuing justice is something the entire Body is commissioned to participate in (Micah 6; Isa. 58; Matt. 25:31–46; Rom. 8:14–17), as co-laborers with Christ, who is in the midst of restoring all things—which includes broken people like you and me, those who do not yet know God, and broken systems and structures—like our criminal justice system, immigration system (needs reform), and public education (which is riddled with horrid inequities)—which infringe on the shalom all of God’s children were intended to enjoy.

Another tangible step would be reengaging remembrance as a spiritual practice within congregations. In the Old Testament alone, God tells Israel to remember over 100 times. Remembrance was the lynchpin for Israel’s faithfulness. When Israel remembered, they were a faithful witness. When Israel remembered, they lived out of thanksgiving, and acknowledged that God freed them from slavery, and called them to be distinct and set apart. God instructed Israel to live out of this remembrance and as a fruit of their remembrance Israel was to be sure not to exploit migrant workers, to pay fair wages, to not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, and to ensure that there were provisions for the poor, widows, and orphans. But, when Israel forgot, they were just as prone to sin as any other people and nation. When they failed to remember, Israel created unjust systems and structures (Micah 6) that exploited the poor and the needy, and they mistook their choosiness, as God always blessing what they did, even when they were covenantally unfaithful.

Too many churches engage in ahistorical theology. We must confess, lament, repent, and turn away from our sins of omission and commission. One of the reasons why we have forsaken the spiritual practice of lament is because we too have failed to heed scripture’s call to remember. When we do not remember, lament seems unwarranted, and we fail to curate a common memory. Many of the divisions we see within the church today are due to our inability—or unwillingness—to curate a common memory of our nation’s past, and an understanding of how that past continues to inform present realities.

To advocate for the cause of justice, people can confess the blind spots they once had, and the ways they used to disregard justice conversations. They then can tell how they grew, and what transformational moment they might have had to help them comprehend the need for these conversations. It is important to remember that where many of us are today is not where we started. So, we need to have patience and grace with others who are doing the work but are still very much in process.

You can use months like Black, Native, Asian, and Latin American history month, and Women’s History Month to light voices from these communities that your friends should read, listen to, and follow on social media. You could also use these months to invite friends to learn alongside of you by watching movies and documentaries together, reading a new book together, or going to a museum to learn together.

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You could encourage conferences that you patron to become more diverse—particularly for their keynote speeches, you can raise important conversations about justice during family conversations, you can look at your kids textbooks, identify the gaps in them, & fill them in through experiential learning over the summer. You can make sure your children’s bookshelves are more diverse than yours was, and you can financially invest in organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative, The Christian Community Development Association, Innocence Project and Bread for the World who are addressing justice issues explicitly, or implicitly, based on Christian values and principles.

In writing Rethinking Incarceration, I wanted people to understand that punishment devoid of grace is not justice, but vengeance. Thus, while God’s story sometimes includes punishment, isolation, and harsh consequences, God’s justice moves toward restoration, reintegration, and redemption. God’s justice is inherently connected to healing the harmed, restoring what has been lost, and reconciling those who are estranged from God and community. God’s heart and justice are inherently restorative.

God’s justice is not soft on crime, but it also not marginalizing, dehumanizing, and retaliatory. Divine discipline must always be understood within the broader context of God’s redemption of all things.

Our criminal justice system administrates punishment without a plan for restoration. Presently, many individuals serve their time and then cannot successfully reintegrate into communities because they are stripped of their dignity (labeled as ex-cons), deprived of voting rights, and denied the liberties and freedoms that enable them to flourish. Upon completion of their sentence, most continue serving time on the outside, unable to shake the social stigma of incarceration or unable to overcome the barrier posed by a felony record. Many people are never given a second chance in our society.

I wanted readers to understand that Christianity is predicated upon grace. Orthodoxy affirms that we are Christians because Jesus chose to pursue and save us while we were yet sinners. Jesus didn’t wait until we got our act together; he embodied perfect, sacrificial love while we were yet enemies of God. Subsequently, the amazing grace that reconciled, restored, and redeemed us should be the hallmark of our lives as Christians; particularly patterning our disposition towards others standing in the need of grace.

While the United States constitutes only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of its incarcerated populace. Statistically, our nation currently has more people locked up in jails, prisons, and detention centers than any other country in the history of the world. We currently have more jails, prisons, and detention centers than degree-granting colleges and universities. This means that in many areas of the country, there are more people living behind bars than on college campuses.

As followers of Christ, we must ask what our faith calls us to in this unprecedented era. Collectively and individually, we must contemplate what bearing witness to the gospel in this critical moment entails. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” Hebrews 13:3 exhorts Christians to “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

As new creations, we cannot dismiss these explicit instructions to be engaged with our criminal justice system. Could you imagine the prophetic witness of the body of Christ, in this watershed moment, if we steadfastly lived into these passages today?

Finally, I pray the book awakens the church to the tragic realities of mass incarceration and inspires us to envision and work toward a justice system predicated on reconciliation, restoration, and reintegration. I hope this book makes clear that mass incarceration will not end via legislative tweaks and incremental reforms. Mass incarceration will be halted only by a moral awakening. Citizens nationwide must refuse to remain silent while entire communities are stigmatized, targeted, and destroyed by our broken criminal justice system. United, empowered by the Spirit, and in humble solidarity with others, we can end mass incarceration, shaking the very foundations of an immoral system, as Paul and Silas did in Acts 16.

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To start a conversation with someone who has a different viewpoint on what justice looks like, I always invite people to read Scripture with me. Scripture, in both the Old and New Testament is consistent in calling the people of God to be concerned about justice. The major and minor profits bear witness to this. Jesus embodies this. And, Theologian Daniel Groody writes, “In the New Testament, 1 out of every 16 verses is about the poor. In the Gospels, the number is 1 out of every 10; in Luke’s Gospel it is 1 out of every 7, and in James, 1 out of every 5.”

Some of the other most successful ways to do this for me have been inviting people who I am in relationship with to join me in stepping outside of our comfort zone, to intentionally find ways to get proximate to suffering within our context, and trying to find ways to step into the shoes of our neighbors. This looks like anything from …

• inviting a friend to watch Just Mercy or When They See Us, and then have a conversation about the content over a meal.

• having a neighborhood, or congregational, book club where you read Rethinking Incarceration, The Color of Compromise, Welcoming the Stranger and/or Unsettling Truths, and then have space to collectively process the groups learnings, and time to raise remaining questions.

• participating in what I like to call immersive discipleship experiences where you go on a pilgrimage to scared land and learn about the history of our nation by physically leaving the comfort of your home and doing something like replicate the ethos of the 1960 Freedom Rides through an experience like Sankofa, or you go beyond the political soundbites and see firsthand what is transpiring along the southern border through an immersion, or go on pilgrimage to the holy land.

Listening to one another with civility starts with remembering that we are all equally made in the Image of God and respectfully engaging with each other in God honoring ways based upon this fact. And, when we are engaging with someone that we might consider to be our enemy, we must remember that we are called to sacrificially love that person too. Scripture says that the world will know that we are Christ disciples by our love, so for me this question arises because we aren’t seeing the Body choose love enough in the face of fear, political division, and systemic injustice. When we cower to fear, prioritize political convictions over scripture, and remain apathetic as our neighbors suffer, the world does not recognize us as Christ disciples—and they shouldn’t, because these aren’t faithful witnesses to the gospel.

But we also must remember that we do not have to agree on everything to be in faithful fellowship with one another. We must be humble enough to acknowledge that we all have blind spots and that no one owns absolute truth. We remember that we’re all sinners saved by grace, working out our salvation in fear and trembling. We commit ourselves to one another as brothers and sisters, knowing that we truly are better together than when we are siloed in our echo chambers and segregated from one another. We speak the truth in love, bear with one another, and have difficult conversations about what it means to seek the Kingdom first, and to embody the Lord’s Prayer, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

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