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What Do the Vulnerable Need: An Angry Rant or a Purposeful Song?

Last weekend, I attended the fifth-annual Justice Conference in Los Angeles, a gathering of evangelical Christian “justice junkies,” in the words of World Vision president Richard Stearns. For two days, a crowd of energetic, passionate, mostly young Christians heard from a bevy of speakers: from Bernice King to N.T. Wright to Eugene Cho to Jim Wallis. In many ways, I was inspired as I listened to beautiful people with wonderful hearts who care about this vital issue. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be, well…deeply saddened.

One of the musical artists who performed between speakers was Jars of Clay, the popular Christian-rock band. Before one of their songs, “Oh My God,” Dan Haseltine—the lead singer—admitted that this particular song was mostly “a rant.” It starts off slow and somber and then builds up to a thundering climax before abruptly ending. Incidentally, this ended up being an apt illustration of the conference as a whole.

Looking back, the conference was akin to a football coach delivering a rousing pre-game pep talk, but not preparing any sort of game plan. “Team, we’ve faced adversity this season, but now is your time,” the coach shouts. “Play hard. Play for your teammates. The fans are counting on you. Leave everything on the field!” The team is fired up. They clap, they yell, they say “amen.” They run out onto the field with exceptional energy, but when the game actually starts, they are disorganized, and some are actually counter-productive to the team’s success. Their effort and passion is unmatched, but also unbridled; as a result, they don’t know how to win.

Like football, effective social justice requires more than passion and enthusiasm. Equally important are strategy and wisdom. After all, Proverbs 3:21-22 (NIV) states:

Do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck.

Horrible injustice remains in this world. And while we each have a responsibility to do something about it, it seems the “how” matters as much as the “what” or the “why.” When history has shown us all too clearly that certain institutions and strategies work better than others, shouldn’t a conference on justice offer a game plan and not just a pep talk?

To be fair, a few speakers did mention some ideas. Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.) urged that we need to transform the “Jericho Road” itself, not just be “Good Samaritans.” But she failed to seriously explain what that meant. Similarly, Rich Stearns called injustice “a systemic problem.” He went on to mention that since 1970, extreme poverty across the globe has plummeted by 80 percent. I waited eagerly for him to mention what has been responsible for this great feat, and was stunned when he chalked it up to the United Nations, multi-lateral government cooperation and “justice junkies” like those in attendance. Seriously? While these all have played some small part, it is “global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship” (aka: the free enterprise system) that have led to wide-spread prosperity, freedom and human flourishing, as Arthur Brooks argues.

This is why I’m incredibly excited about the work of Values & Capitalism and AEI’s new Project on Human Flourishing. Both aim to combine wisdom and scholarship with energy and a deep desire to care for those in need. In other words, the goal is to match passionate concern for the poor with knowledge about how to actually help them.

As she stepped out onto the Justice Conference stage, Bernice King said, “I feel the energy in this room.” I feel it too. But it’s time for more than that. We need a game plan. Will you help us work on one?