I’m tired of justice.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not justice itself that perturbs me; it’s how we’ve come to understand and politicize it.
In my own experiences of humanitarian service from Canadian inner-cities to Cambodian villages, from boardrooms and courthouses to street corners and orphanages, it seems we often contort justice to fit our own agendas. We define its dimensions according to our levels of commitment to it. We speak of it to flatter ourselves, inserting “justice issues” casually but strategically into conversations as if it gives us more buoyancy in the human struggle for worthiness. We glamorize what it means to be a humanitarian. We sensationalize justice without unpacking what it really means or looks like.
And I’m tired of it.
I’m tired of all the hype. I’m tired of human trafficking being more of a flashy buzzword than a social and economic crisis. I’m tired of when fair trade is more about what’s trendy than what’s ethical, responsible, or right.
I’m tired of justice being so diluted that we become deluded. I’m tired of filtering it into easily digestible, bite-sized pieces channelled through some social media outlet to appease our eroding attention spans. I’m tired of 140-character, quotable sound bites serving as the central and sometimes exclusive informant of our educational experience of global inequities.
I’m tired of justice organizations being run unjustly. I’m tired of when a mission’s prestige is emphasized more than the mission itself, or when a good cause is used as a virtuous veneer we hide behind to leverage our moral statuses.
I’m tired of how working for justice can make me a doormat. It blurs the line between volunteering my time and getting paid fairly for it. It means taking time off isn’t seen as a reflection of healthy boundaries but is stamped as a selfish act that calls my dedication into question. It entails wearing a badge of honour at all times. It’s being rewarded for noble acts of self-sacrifice—without ever pausing to address my own needs.
I’m tired of justice being a thing we do instead of the people we are. It becomes a job we have, not a lifestyle we live. We’re so disconnected from seeking justice that we have to use organizations with registered charitable statuses as brokers for our compassion. But even those organizations are more comfortable talking about justice in conference halls and boardrooms—especially when it comes to doing justice in somebody else’s country—without knowing what to do with the homelessness we encounter on our own streets.
All in all, I’m tired of when justice is hollow. When it’s little more than a patch on a backpack, a bracelet on a wrist, or a bumper sticker on a car. When it’s more about promoting the celebrity status of the organization than the survival status of those it serves. That’s when we turn justice into a guise, a trend, a product. It stops being about justice and is more about “just us.”
I’m not the only one who’s ready for a change. I’m only one of countless baffled and bruised seekers of justice who ache for solidarity and desperately hope the truth will humanize rather than vilify us. We think it’s time to revolutionize our approaches, to pursue justice greatly but also sustainably, to work audaciously but wisely—not perfectly, not unrealistically, and certainly not on our own.
We’re ready to start a new conversation.
We’re ready to strip those badges of honour we’re supposed to carry. We’re ready to relinquish our saviour complexes, our insatiable desires to make a project out of “fixing people”, our adherence to the myth that we possess infinite compassion and interminable zeal.
We’re ready to adjust our expectations and admit our limits. We need to get real about the times our efforts to seek justice implode. We need to speak our struggles instead of distract others from seeing our authentic, messy selves. We need to destroy the illusion of nobility and be humans with needs and emotions, not heroes without boundaries or limits.
We’re ready to see an end to the consistent inconsistencies of the organizations for which we work. To see anti-trafficking organizations stop trying to break the cycle of exploitation in communities by guilting their own staff into working seven-day weeks for the sake of the cause. To stop cultivating a culture of nobility and perfectionism. To stop breeding a disease of burnout in order to achieve our goal and to start believing staff care is not only possible but necessary.
We’re ready to talk about the triumphs and trials. We’re ready to fill the gaps left by sensationalized stories and half-truths about the “adventures” and “rewards” of humanitarian work by also mobilizing honest discussions of its darkness, despair, and disillusionment. We want to learn how to accept the coexistence of beauty and affliction, of victory and defeat, of joy and pain in the pursuit of justice.
We’re ready to address the elephant in the room, too. We’re ready to talk candidly and shamelessly about mental health. We’re ready to de-stigmatize anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue in humanitarians. We’re ready to stop using suffering as the ultimate goal of justice workers and to start balancing work with rest, and truth with grace.
We’re ready to shift the conversation about changing the world toward how to change ourselves. Too often we try to solve the problems in other countries because we’re ashamed of the injustices permeating our borders. We try to fix the brokenness in other people because it’s easier than addressing the brokenness we conceal in ourselves. We’re ready to start identifying our need to be rescued and redeemed from our own pain and dysfunctions before trying to rescue and redeem others.
Because the truth is, pursuing justice doesn’t always give the personal return on investment we want. Sometimes we’re given suffering and scars that don’t always make sense—in the moment, or possibly ever. It’s especially in those eras of disillusionment that we need to permit the people who re-build our communities to embrace their humanity before heroism. We need justice workers who can serve lovingly, deeply, and empathetically, instead of breeding a generation of dehumanized humanitarians.
Yes, we are tired for a litany of reasons—and tired of being tired. But we are also ready to open the dialogue. We are ready to reclaim and redeem how we see and seek justice. We are ready to do things differently.
And as we do that, we need to start understanding that perhaps we’re so tired because justice isn’t always something we can achieve, something we bestow upon others, something we can measure. Perhaps it’s something we endeavour toward, however imperfectly, in a culture of community and grace while crossing the arc of time.
Perhaps justice just is.