True love pursues justice

I still remember the day I got accepted to the University of Pennsylvania. It was 2019 on a Thursday night, and I was in the lobby bathroom of my church after playing drums for the prayer service. As I washed my hands, I remembered that my Penn letter was out and wondered what it would say after getting deferred during early decision. Breaking the news to my dad after the service that his son had gotten accepted to an Ivy League exactly nineteen years after he had entered America, I felt like I had just won the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket. Subconsciously, I had prepared myself for a rejection so much so that, when I got accepted, part of me thought it was a mistake. Maybe they accepted the wrong person. The more I sat with the reality that I was now a student at the University of Pennsylvania, the more my feelings of gratefulness and excitement slowly began to erode into feelings of guilt and being an imposter. This guilt stemmed from the reality that I got to experience the splendor and luxury of all that my position as a Penn student afforded me while friends and people in my local Philadelphia community did not. During my first year at Penn, I was taken aback over and over again at the institution’s opulence compared to the asbestos-ridden buildings and underfunded schools I had always known. Slowly but surely, my grateful unworthiness turned into a deep-seated resentment against the institution I called home.

The more relationships I created at Penn, the more that the awe of this institution began to unravel right in front of me. I began hearing more and more about how the top universities in Philadelphia like UPenn, Drexel, and Temple are all exempt from paying taxes although they are some of the largest private landowners in the city. My eyes began to see the evils that my own institution had created through eviction notices and bulldozing companies. More apparently than working alongside the local West Philadelphia and larger city, UPenn has silently been draining its surrounding communities of its resources. As a former student of the School District of Philadelphia, I have lost count of how many times teachers have had to take salary cuts, how many librarians have had to be laid off, and how many students have been physically sick from the lack of attention to school buildings. I thought that as soon as I got into Penn, I could escape all of that yet, the haunting reality still followed me down the pavement of Locust Walk. I think that it is all too easy to live in our Penn bubble, both figuratively and literally, and turn a blind eye to the injustices happening on our own campus. Especially for the disciples of Jesus, it should be excruciatingly impossible. The more I grew in disappointment with the institution, the more I began to turn to the person of Jesus who never turned away from social injustices. Instead, the God of Love pursued justice.

In Luke 10, there is a lawyer hoping to trap Jesus after He had commanded His disciples to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) by asking who his neighbor was. This would lead Jesus to tell the parable of the good Samaritan who, although was an historical enemy to the Israelites, saw a man who was on the street after being beaten and robbed. Jesus carefully says that this Samaritan, although ostracized in Jewish culture, “had compassion” for this man (Luke 10:33). Thus because of this Samaritan’s love, he could not turn his eye away from this victim of injustice like the others had. Although it meant sacrificing his own convenience and treasures to take care of the man, the Samaritan had a sense of responsibility to undo the evils of another. At the parable’s end, the Samaritan provided for the man and took care of him even though nobody would have expected him to do so. On that notion, Jesus commanded His disciples, both then and even today for us, to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) which Jesus Himself modeled for us throughout His ministry.

Whether it was flipping over the money changers’ tables in the Temple of His own Father or confronting the religious leaders on their hypocrisies (Matthew 23), Jesus always confronted evil by pursuing justice. In Jesus’ time on this earth, there was a holy righteous anger that sought to disarm the wicked and uplift the lowly that is absent in a lot of His disciples today. This is not a dig but a solemn reminder even for myself. It was good that a righteous indignation boiled up inside of me when I saw the injustices of my institution, but what I have never realized until recently was that I too am responsible for the injustices that my school commits on my behalf. I believe Paul’s message to “carry each other’s burdens” in Galatians 6:2 may have a lot more to do with my relationship with UPenn than I previously thought. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who lived during the  Nazi regime, who instead of abandoning his country, sacrificed his life to present the gospel to an evil institution. Similarly for us as followers of Jesus that are a part of an institution that commits injustices to its surrounding communities, we are called to pursue justice if we claim to love our neighbors. Apart from practicing spiritual disciplines to bring Heaven down to Earth, my personal conviction has been to leverage the university and its resources to help the vulnerable populations of Philadelphia.

Many times when I see non-believers fight for social justice issues like housing or PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes), a sense of embarrassment stirs up within me. How is it that non-believers have a better sense of justice than believers of a God whose character is justice? It is beautiful to be able to be theological sound and grounded in your understanding of Jesus and Christianity, but it is a dead faith if it does not produce the fruits of justice (James 2:14-17). Jesus even said that this in the way that He instructed believers to pray “as Earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10). What would it mean if we, as citizens of an eternal kingdom that is known by pure and perfect justice, did something to make these heavenly realities more real in our worldly societies? In other words: if we are not merciless on evil, how will we ever be merciful in love? How could we ever tell people walking down Locust about Jesus if they are still in shock that they are being evicted from the home that they have been living in for the last 20 years? How would people ever listen to the gospel if they do not have enough money to eat? How would people understand your preaching of a radical grace if they saw your complacency with iniquities within Philadelphia’s education system? How could you, one day, meet your Master and only have used the opportunity He gave to be at Penn to position yourself higher without uplifting the marginalized people that Jesus would have been with? 

So where does that leave us? We know that works do not earn salvation but rather, works are a direct fruit of salvation (Philippians 1:11). If a person can judge a tree by the fruit it produces, what would that mean for those of us that are believers who are also part of sinful institutions? Do our hearts break as genuinely as Christ’s does for those negatively affected by systems or institutions that might benefit us? Imagine if non-believers were met with Christians side-by-side on the frontlines fighting for social justice while pointing them to the God of justice. What if we became more active members of the Body of Christ by doing our best to bring a perfect Heavenly justice down to a broken and sinful world? What if practical justice was just as important as theological knowledge? The truth of the matter is that the Christian approach to social justice is bigger than just you and I, my friend, and seeking Jesus is how we can better act according to His heart.

For myself, I’ve been convicted that God wants more from me in terms of my local community. This is for every resident of West Philadelphia that has been or is currently being evicted from their long-time homes. This is for every student in the School District of Philadelphia who will be our future leaders. This is for every immigrant that has moved to the United States and worked long nights and odd jobs in order to position their children in the very institutions that drain communities of their resources. This is for every undocumented college student that does not receive any financial aid for their education. This is for every Philadelphian that is employed by UPenn and is seen as expendable and replaceable. This is for every homeless person that sees the majesty of the institution compared to the depravity of the neighborhood. This is for every First Generation Low Income student, including myself, that has to live with constant feelings of guilt and imposter syndrome for being at UPenn. This is for every soul that Jesus has created in His image, no matter the SAT score, the zip code, the skin color, the religion, nor the school district. As Bonhoeffer would say today, this is for the battle between cheap and costly grace. Therefore, let us look no further than to Jesus and, as disciples of the God of righteousness, ask His Spirit to empower us to pursue justice. Why? Because true love does not stay to injustice but rather, true love pursues justice.

Leave a Reply