How can we do what is right when there is wrong in the world – and in ourselves? How can we help others without doing more harm than good? How can we be patient in working for a more just world – and not come to a complete stop? How can we have durable hope that sustains our efforts through times of struggle and setbacks?
Kent Annan’s recent book, Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly in the world, takes on these questions and offers five practices for the work of justice-seeking: attention, confession, respect and partnering. Kent is co-director of the nonprofit organization Haiti Partners. He recently promoted this new book at the community-based restaurant 541 Eatery & Exchange in Hamilton, Ontario, among other Canadian venues. (On his blog, he lists the 541 Eatery as one example of the “movement of creative Christians working for the renewal of their city” – if you are in Hamilton, check it out!) Christian Courier interviewed him shortly after that.
Kent wrote Slow Kingdom Coming to help people “feel freed into the work of doing justice” as individuals, families, churches and communities. Its title is a lament that the world is not yet as it should be, but it is also both an expression of hope that change is happening and a commitment to faithfully participate in this coming kingdom. In his words, “I found these practices can help us to be thoughtful, but not scared. Help us to be patient, but not stopped. Help us to be urgent, but not taking false shortcuts.”
Practice 1: Attention
Living a just life begins with waking up to the need for change in the world. This need may be local or far from home. Paying attention is practiced by individuals and in community, such as Calvary Church in Holland, Michigan, which took a break from capital campaigns and building expansions for a “Jubilee year” of helping in other areas of the world, a year which eventually led to a focus on partnerships in Haiti.
Many needs in the world seem to clamour for our help, and part of the work of justice-seeking is learning to focus attention. Kent compares this work to driving a vehicle. There are many distractions all around, but the driver focuses attention on what is most relevant to the way he or she is going. With sustained focus on a particular area (education in Haiti, in the case of Haiti Partners), incremental results can be seen and can encourage ongoing action.
Practice 2: Confession
Confession leads to gradual healing, “both for what we have done and what we have left undone. Healing helps us to see so we can keep following, step by step, toward helping each other to flourish. As we see, we can be guided not by shame that blinds us but instead by a clearer vision of God’s kingdom” (46). The book includes a long list of confessions to work through: mixed motives, the desire to feel good when you help, public gestures, your hero complex, your compassion fatigue, your privilege, your pain (caused and received) and your longing for change.
Confession as a practice prevents us from getting stuck in guilt and shame, allowing us to move forward in freedom.
It can also enable change to happen on a communal level, such as a Japanese student apologizing to Korean students for the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) at an Urbana Student Mission Conference in 2006. The occupation had occurred before any of the students were born, and yet this confession “led to more prayer and worship that was so much deeper and more joyful, more kingdom-like than was possible before practicing confession.”
Practice 3: Respect
Kent cautions against a “rescuing hero” mentality when going into another culture with an intent to help, suggesting instead that “we need to be listening and learners first.” Asking ourselves how we would want to be visited by someone who had come to help us can be a guide to deciding, for example, when it is appropriate to take photographs or to enter someone’s property.
The respect also continues upon return to the comforts of North America. An estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S. participate in a short-term mission project every year, at a cost of close to $2 billion, according to Missiology journal. With thoughtful preparation and follow-up, these trips have the potential to decrease materialism while increasing respect for other cultures and developing an understanding of missions as a lifestyle. Kent says that respect for those you meet in such experiences requires a change upon return home: “We disrespect the people we visit if their suffering does not make any difference in choices we subsequently make with our lives” (74).
Kent Annan advocates for partnership rather than a “rescue” mentality in aid work.
Practice 4: Partnering
Kent suggests an apprenticeship model for justice work, where people who are new to the work learn from others. The posture of working with others, not for them, is an important one. He prefaces this section of the book with a quote from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “True generosity lies in striving so that these hands – whether of individuals or entire peoples – need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”
Kent suggests moving from a “rescue” or “fix-it” approach to equal agency partnerships and, ultimately, partnering together with God in the work that God is doing in the world. He offers as an example the story of Chris and Aimee Fritz, who live with their children in a suburb of Chicago. Each year they choose a “family compassion focus” and research an agency to partner with and pray for specifically. They, in turn, have been blessed by the prayers of people from a partner agency.
Practice 5: Truthing
Kent borrows the term for the fifth practice, truthing, from environmental scientists who check big-picture assessments, such as aerial photographs, against what is happening on the ground. Kent advises personal truthing – knowing ourselves – as well as data truthing to find best practices when helping others. He also sees value in incremental truthing, noticing the small changes that are adding up over time in the work of justice. The stakes for ourselves and our neighbours are high as we attempt to be helpful, and it is worth paying attention to what is happening in ourselves and for our neighbours as we do so.
The means we use
How we approach doing the work of justice in the world – our posture and our practices – matters greatly. The following encouragement from Søren Kierkegaard was tacked up on a wall in Kent’s writing space, and can encourage us also when the work of seeking justice in the world seems overwhelming: “He is not, therefore, eternally responsible for whether he reaches his goal within this world of time. But without exception, he is eternally responsible for the kind of means he uses. And when he . . . only uses those means which are genuinely good, then, in the judgment of eternity, he is at the goal.”
The five practices suggested in this book offer means that are genuinely good as an alternative to apathy or cynicism. They are practices to use in the midst of the struggle as we “do good without hiding from the bad – both around us and within us – because we’re called to be part of God’s kingdom coming.”
Road trip activity!
How can busy families make justice a habit? KentAnnan.com has a free Family Toolkit to help. It includes 20 Family Car Questions, perfect for long road trips this summer! Print the questions out and tuck them into cup holders for when the time seems right. Here are a few samples:
- If you had superpowers, what would you do to make the world a better place?
- Can money fix every problem? Why or why not?
- If you could teleport to a different country, which one would you choose?
- What would our town look like if God were the mayor?