Why does Embracing Justice matter?

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year is Embracing Justice by Dr Isabelle Hamley. Here, Alianore Smith explores why the arguments of the book are so important in practice, and introduces us to the work of International Justice Mission.

Alianore Smith writes: I want introduce you to Thaiyamma. Thaiyamma was in her early 20s when she and her husband took a loan of $15 to pay for her young daughter’s medical bills. The man who they borrowed the money from—the man Thaiyamma refers to only as ‘the beast’—used that debt to keep Thaiyamma and her husband in bonded labour for three years. This form of slavery sees victims forced to work to pay off debts that grow at impossible rates, often under threat of violence and unable to leave.

Alongside 13 other labourers, Thaiyamma and her husband were forced to work from daybreak to nightfall chopping acres of trees, tangled with thick thorns, loading trucks with lumber – all without adequate food, rest, or pay. Within a week of working there, ‘the beast’ had tried to sexually assault Thaiyamma. Her little daughter, Lavanya, slept in a makeshift swing made from an old sari, whilst her parents slept under trees.

But everything changed when Thaiyamma discovered she was pregnant again. As you can imagine, being pregnant in these exploitative conditions wreaked havoc on Thaiyamma’s body. She was exhausted and nauseous all the time. Amid her pain, she remembered how—years earlier—someone had given her the phone number of an International Justice Mission (IJM) staff member. Thaiyamma got a hold of a phone and called for help.

In August 2016, IJM and local authorities brought Thaiyamma to safety, thanks in no small part to her bold testimony to the local police of what was happening at the farm. ‘The beast’ was arrested. Thaiyamma went for medical treatment and, after an emergency blood transfusion, felt her baby move for the first time in six months. A few weeks later, safe in a hospital bed, Thaiyamma gave birth to a baby boy. As she held baby Bablu for the first time, she whispered to him: ‘I never knew I was going to see you. I never knew that I would meet you in freedom, and here you are.’

Today, Thaiyamma and her husband are daily wage workers, and Thaiyamma continues to be a strong voice for her community. She is the leader of the Woman’s Self-Help Group in her village, and runs a small business which gives released bonded labourers jobs to help sustain them in freedom. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Thaiyamma educated her community and spread awareness on the precautionary measures that needed to be taken to keep others safe.

Both her daughter Lavanya and (no longer quite so little) Bablu attend pre-school in their village. 

In the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2022 Lent Book, Embracing Justice, Isabelle Hamley writes that:

whether with Scripture or with today’s world, everything starts with stories, rather than concepts, ideas, or definitions.

The book is a 240-page, six-chapter journey through creation, the fall, exodus and liberation stories, legal systems and community justice, justice and incarnation, justice in the shape of a cross, and Holy Communion and the reshaping of the imagination. It helps us understand stories like Thaiyamma’s within the context of God’s incredible plan for justice.

Stories like Thaiyamma’s hold power to convict and inspire us. They help us understand what the reality of injustice looks like and its impact on the individuals that make up the estimated 40 million people trapped in slavery today. Little baby Bablu was born free, but 1 in 4 people trapped in slavery is a child—a child with a name and a family, with hopes and dreams just like Thaiyamma had for her children.

Stories have power. They change hearts and minds in ways that facts alone simply can’t. Embracing Justice utilises this powerfully as it journeys through Scripture. The book is incisive, well-written, readable, and full of powerful and engaging personal stories of seeking and finding justice from around the world. Isabelle’s exploration of how our Christian imaginations are shaped, and how that impacts our views and expectations around justice are profound, and her passion and previous experience as probation officer shines through. The book encouraged me in my own work, which focuses on mobilising church communities in support of IJM’s work pursuing justice for vulnerable people around the world.

I can highly recommend the book as reading material—for personal study or in a group setting along with discussion questions provided by the Church of England #LiveLent series. 

Throughout the book, Isabelle never gives a clear definition of justice, insisting (rightly, I think), that

the Bible has no pat, one-size-fits-all answer […] if we use only one story as a definitive statement on justice, we distort the biblical witness as a whole, and reduce justice to a monolithic concept, rather than a vocation to be worked out in every new time and place.

A statement such as this, profound as it is, begs the question: ‘what does justice look like for us, in this time and this place?’ 

My colleague Jenette, who works to combat the online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines, recently spoke with me about what justice looks like for her. She reflected that as she grew up

I thought justice was only for people who had power. Stories I heard showed me that justice was only available if you were connected to powerful people. If you weren’t, getting justice was close to impossible.

Today, Jenette works alongside survivors of online sexual exploitation, helping them to achieve their goals – whether that’s going back into education, testifying in court, or advocating for change.

The online sexual exploitation of children is one of the greatest injustices in our world today, one for us to wrestle with and work against in this time and this place. The brutal reality is that sex offenders from places like the UK are paying to livestream the sexual abuse of children over the internet. Children are left traumatised, physically and mentally.

But, by God’s grace, we are seeing real progress: the reality of God’s justice in action. IJM is collaborating with authorities to bring victims to safety – to date, over 847 children. We also work alongside law enforcement to achieve justice for survivors by seeing perpetrators held to account. In 2020, IJM Philippines celebrated the 100th conviction by government prosecutors for cases of the online sexual exploitation of children: 10 years ago, there were none. We have seen that change is not only possible – it’s real and tangible, with reductions in slavery of up to 86% in places where we’ve worked.

Reflecting on her last nine years working for IJM, Jenette commented that

my understanding of justice has completely transformed from what I believed as a child—no longer is it just for people who have power. Now, I know that it is the work of Christ. I love being Christ’s instrument to his people in the work of justice, because I see lives transformed, systems changed for the better, and survivors who are stepping out and using their voices for transformation.

Doing the work of justice, Jenette admits, is

not always bright and easy. Not all stories are success stories. But it is these stories that push me closer to becoming dependent on God, because I must lift them up to him. My prayer is simple: ‘You are God. You are the King who can do anything. This is beyond my control; you are the one who sees ahead. Please help. Amen.

Her words are a powerful reminder of what happens when Christians put their faith in the God of justice into action.

Despite there not being a definition of justice in Embracing Justice, ‘what do you think justice is, in one short sentence?’ was the opening question for panelists at the book’s launch late last month. Isabelle Hamley, Justin Welby, Chine McDonald, Darren Howie and I all tried to define an abstract noun in one sentence. You can watch our responses and the rest of the panel discussion here.

As I was reflecting on this, I was reminded of the words of Gary Haugen, CEO and founder of IJM. He writes in his book Good News About Injustice that

fundamentally, justice has to do with the exercise of power […] conversely, injustice occurs when power is misused to take from others what God has given them, namely their life, dignity, liberty, or the fruits of their love and labour. Injustice is the strong using force and deceit to take from the weak.

In other words, injustice is about taking away from people everything that God created them to have: the Genesis narrative bestows human beings with dignity due to their image-bearer status, it gives them liberty within the garden, it gives them rest from their work, and it shows us that ‘it is not good for man to be alone’. Injustice occurs when power is misused to take from others what God has given them in creation.

We see this worked out very clearly in Thaiyamma’s story of injustice. Thaiyamma and her husband were in a vulnerable position, desperate for medical help for their young daughter. Their employer had economic power over them in the form of financial assets. Then he used physical power and the threat of violence to keep them where he wanted them. This power was then misused to take from Thaiyamma and her husband their dignity, liberty, and fruits of their labour. It nearly took their baby’s life.

We see this in Jenette’s reflections – ‘justice was only for people who had power’ – and in the work she does alongside survivors of online sexual exploitation of children. This crime is a deep abuse of relational and social power, as often those facilitating the abuse are the children’s own relatives. It is also an abuse of financial power, because sex offenders in remote countries, including the UK, will pay relatively small amounts of money to live-stream and sometimes even direct this abuse, incentivising traffickers and taking advantage of the economic disparity between Western countries and the Philippines.

Justice is about the right exercise of power. Injustice is about the misuse and abuse of power. 

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have power. Relational power, cultural power, spiritual power, financial power… and how we wield this power in the places in which we find ourselves is a significant question of Christian discipleship.

In this post-enlightenment culture, it is easy to read such declarations from a purely personal perspective; an individualistic reflection on my power and how I can enact justice and how I have been formed. And that is an important question and one with which we must wrestle. But, as Isabelle so rightly reflects in Embracing Justice, ‘to do justice is, first and foremost, a communal task’. 

Stories grip us because they are about individuals, and we can empathise and understand the deep fear Thaiyamma must have felt as she discovered she was pregnant again, and her longing to have her little baby born into freedom. We can begin to grasp the horror of what victims and survivors of sexual exploitation have to endure, even if we can never fully understand it. Stories of individuals are powerful.

But solutions are always communal; they have to be done en-masse. Because however much I want to stop slavery individually, my efforts alone are not enough to stop an industry that creates $150 billion in annual profits globally. 

And so, as we consider justice and injustice, as we reflect on the power of stories and God’s call of justice to his church, we need to consider how we as a church can shape wider society and culture in and through acts of justice. The church is called by God to be a prophetic voice of justice across social, political, and economic divides. We need to show up in prayer, in speaking truth to power, in raising awareness of everyday injustices, and in giving generously – time, money, resources – to see an end to abuses of power across the world.

For example, roughly 50,000 children work in the fishing industry on Ghana’s Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake in the world. In a 2016 study, IJM found that 57.6% of children observed were likely victims of trafficking. This was an issue raised at the first ever National Justice Conference in Ghana, run by IJM in collaboration with the Bible Society of Ghana. It was – amongst other things – a call for the church to take action, encouraging local churches to raise awareness in their congregations and educating people on how to report suspected cases of trafficking. 

To date, IJM Ghana have helped to bring 290 children to safety from trafficking on Volta Lake and arrested over 150 suspected traffickers.

Awareness leads to action. Action leads to change. Change is possible.

As you read through and consider the questions and issues raised in Embracing Justice this Lent, here are three things that can help you do justice as well:

  1. Pray
    Commit to pray regularly for a justice issue locally, nationally and globally. You can sign up for IJM’s fortnightly prayer emails here. In addition, the Church of England’s #LiveLent booklet contains daily prayers for the season of Lent. 
  2. Give
    If you’re giving something up for Lent, such as coffee, consider donating the money you’ve saved to an organisation working on justice issues.
  3. Act
    Seek to raise awareness of justice issues in your local area, as well as globally. Write to your MP about an issue of justice in your constituency or speak candidly with your friends and colleagues. Your church could combat climate injustice by becoming an eco-church, or run a Freedom Sunday event and raise awareness of the problem of slavery and violence around the world.

Awareness leads to action. Action leads to change. Change – and justice – is possible, and as the people of God, we must pursue it. 

Alianore Smith is Church and Theology Executive for International Justice Mission (IJM) UK. She is also a guest writer & speaker for LICC and author of ‘Musings of a Clergy Child: Growing into a faith of my own’. She lives in South East London with her husband, who is a civil servant.


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3 thoughts on “Why does Embracing Justice matter?”

  1. I find this unsettlingly odd as a former solicitor of England and Wales having worked in the criminal and civil justice system, with families, social workers, probation officers, fellow lawyers that there seems seems to be is no or little consideration of any jurisprendential schools of thought. Which then will revolve arouround the central question. Whose Justice? Maybe an even deeper question, Why Justice. Try asking that why question, say, 5 times…
    And even more astonishingly that this question of God’s Justice as theme of the Bible is dismissed as providing “pat answers*. If so, I suggest it risks providing *pat answers* to the Person of God from whom justice emanates? Revealed in the full sweep of the Holy Bible, from Genesis through Revelation.

    Is there only ever *justice according to the law*, or does it extend beyond the law? Either way, whose law? These are not mere abstract concepts. They both measure and are measured by life, by what it means to be human in God’s, or a Godless world. And if it is God’s, which God? And that perhaps brings us a full circle as Christians.

  2. Justice is about the right exercise of power. Injustice is about the misuse and abuse of power.

    I don’t think it is, is it? This is a far too narrow idea of justice.

    The entry at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice/

    … gives a good attempt to sum up the overarching concept of justice as:

    ‘The most plausible candidate for a core definition comes from the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD, where justice is defined as ‘the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due’.’

    This strike me as a good starting-point, and you can see how it relates to the ‘power’ definitions, because the ‘right exercise of power’ is one of the ways in which it can be ensured that each receives his or her due, while ‘the misuse and abuse of power’ is one of the ways in which people can be deprived of their due.

    But focusing on the action of power exclusively misses the essential core concept of justice, which is what is due, both good (for instance, what happened to Thaiyamma was unjust because she did not deserve her treatment at the hands of ‘the beast’) and bad (for instance, it would have been unjust if ‘the beast’ had not been punished for what he did, for he certainly deserved punishment).

    A focus on power also is both too narrow — there are injustices, where people don’t get their due, that do not involve abuses of power (for example, if a criminal manages to evade punishment for their crimes, that’s unjust, but isn’t necessarily an abuse of power) and too broad, as there are ways to abuse power that are wrong, but are wrong for different reasons than that they are unjust (for example, if I use my physical power to mug somebody on the street and take their money, that’s an abuse of power, but it’s not injustice unless I get away with it.)

    Sometimes I fear people who would not fall for the non distributio medii fallacy in any other area of life, for some reason do do so when it comes to ethics. For instance people who would rightly spot the absurdity in:

    A1: A dog has four legs
    A2: A cat has four legs
    AC: Therefore, a dog is a cat

    Fall for exactly the same error when it’s expressed as, say:

    B1: Sexual abuse is wrong
    B2: Injustice is wrong
    BC: Therefore, sexual abuse is injustice.


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