On April 26, we are kicking off a year-long effort at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary to engage the topic “Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church.” We will be hosting three conferences and three leadership luncheons in 2018 and early 2019. It’s a big and important effort, which flows from our journey as an institution.

The topics of justice and unity raise questions for many. Part of the challenge is the inadequacy of our language. In his book “Generous Justice,” Tim Keller writes, “The fact is that the word ‘justice’ does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on.” It’s a simple but important observation. Talking about justice will always be a profound challenge. But, God has said a lot about justice in Scripture, so there is hope that within Christian dialogue we can develop a shared understanding. We at least have a shared starting point, and we can go from there. Different perspectives and solutions will certainly emerge, but perhaps we can move closer to shared thinking, shared desires and even shared practices.

This confusion about justice challenged me to study the topic years ago. I often wondered what people meant by “justice for the poor and marginalized.” In my mind, justice was simply when people get an appropriate punishment for their crime. However, the biblical writers connect justice and righteousness directly to compassion for the poor and advocacy for people on the margins of society. Keller summarizes justice in two ways: “care for the vulnerable” and “right relationships.” Yes, there is a need to administer justice to someone who commits a crime, but there is also a need to administer justice for those who are vulnerable. Furthermore, true justice and righteousness result in a peace and unity among God’s people that reflects God’s character.

In short, there was much more to the biblical concept of justice than I thought, which seems to be true for many in evangelical circles. Keller does a great job of wading into this topic with clarity and heart. He’s not the last word on the subject, but I recommend his book, especially if the topic of justice feels like a distraction from the gospel. We don’t believe it is!

In the Talking Points program this year, we want to engage a few key questions: What is justice, who are the vulnerable today, and how can we pursue right relationships (unity)?

In the course of our conversation, we want to hand the microphone over to brothers and sisters in Christ who can help those in the majority culture grasp what’s happening around us with greater clarity. The Spring 2017 conference, in particular, will center the Black/African American experience. One of our 2018 speakers, Dr. Mika Edmondson, published his dissertation on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theology of suffering, which provides a powerful window of insight. Dr. Christina Edmondson will weave together the intersection of being an African American woman and Dr. Todd Robinson will share from his research on the history of segregation in Grand Rapids—our own city. We are grateful to have these voices in the conversation!

Talking about race may feel risky and divisive, but it doesn’t have to be. We need to reckon with why this is so hard, and that’s part of the goal with our upcoming series. Our prayer is that clarity and relationships will lead to conviction and solidarity among pastors, church leaders and individual Christians.

In future posts, we will introduce our speakers, remember the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and more.

Be sure to join us at the conference on April 26!

Tell your pastors and church leaders. Invite your key ministry leaders. It’ll be a profound experience, I promise you.