I’ve always thought of myself as a justice-oriented, do-gooder-type person, but over the years, I’ve become a bit fuzzy about what exactly that means. For example, most people would say it’s good to donate to charities and worthy causes, but how many times have charities and worthy causes misspent, misappropriated, or misjudged? What about donating goods after natural disasters? International adoptions? Microloans? Many things that sound good on the surface—and that are almost always well-intended—aren’t necessarily doing the good work we think they are. It also seems that far too often when someone says “justice, ” what they really mean is good intentions and a quick fix.
In his new book, Slow Kingdom Coming, Kent Annan makes clear that good intentions can only take us so far, and that the work of building God’s kingdom is anything but quick. He writes, “we don’t want to think … that our good intentions are enough, as though God wouldn’t expect us to love our neighbors in the best possible way.” And the best possible way, he continues, is by creating deep and lasting change that, almost by definition, comes slowly.
Annan does know a thing or two about implementing deep and lasting change; he is the co-director of a non-profit focused on education in Haiti, where he has worked within the same community for over a decade. In fact, he and his wife lived within that community, getting to know its power dynamic, its practices, and its unspoken but understood ways of living. He has lived as those in the community have lived—with no electricity or running water, for instance—while keeping in mind that for him it is a choice, and one he can undo at any moment. For those around him, it is a way of life. In a world of quick-fix, summer-only mission trips, this type of long-term commitment and self-awareness is refreshing.
All of this said, Annan is sure not to use his expertise as a sledgehammer, condemning those who engage in one-stop justice shopping. Instead, he takes care to call out the quick-fix, rescue mentality far too many ascribe to, while also noting that the desire for a quick-fix rescue is coming from a place of care, compassion, and desire to build God’s kingdom on earth, as in Heaven. The truth is, he writes, too few people know how to make that happen in a way that is deep and sustainable.
To demonstrate this dilemma, Annan opens Slow Kingdom Coming by describing the frustrations of people who have awakened to the need for justice, but aren’t quite sure what to do to implement it. Their attempts fall flat, feel empty, somehow don’t seem to truly fit their desires to faithfully answer God’s call to help others. In answer to their question of “what now, ” Annan presents what he calls “five faithful practices” essential for deep and sustainable change. These practices—attention, confession, respect, partnering, and truthing—shun the urgency that desires quick fixes, and instead put forward an urgency and hope rooted in faithfulness.
By pulling from a wide variety of real-life stories, Annan ensures that each practice can be applied to an individual as well as a church or group effort. They may have to be tweaked a bit depending on the circumstances—for instance, most people cannot choose to live in another country for an extended period of time, or even travel back and forth with great frequency—but Slow Kingdom Coming is certainly not a “how-to” book with a limited audience. Anyone called to the work of justice can find a way to implement these five crucial practices within their own context.
The first practice, attention, is rooted in a true awakening to injustice. Most people want to do good, but it takes intentional focus on the injustices that surround us to determine which of the many we are called to address. This is not done in a vacuum. Instead, we awaken to injustice by “thoughtfully choosing who we talk with, what stories we read, what trips we take, what art we take in.” Importantly, Annan points out that part of this intentional action includes “church members [choosing] to put themselves in situations where their eyes would be opened.” This is an uncomfortable spot to be in; we may truly want to help, but are we willing to be among those we hope to care for?
This is the sort of issue Annan tackles in the second practice: confession. We aren’t always willing to commit to all that it will take to effect true change, and none of us come from a singular place of desire to do justice. Instead our desires are both altruistic and selfish, in that doing good makes us feel good, as well as makes us look good to others. Annan may be writing a book about the “right” way to help, but he by no means excludes himself from the need for confession. He admits, among other things, that he is now focused mainly on what is good for his family and that often times his protests of injustice are weak. These were confessions I could especially relate to at my current stage of life, and I appreciated the openness with which Annan exposed his own weaknesses rather than hide or ignore them.
This is one way that confession helps us and others: it binds us together to lift one another up. Also, by performing confession we move to a place where we recognize our faults, acknowledge that we are not “heroes, ” and therefore become more receptive to the third practice: respect. Respect, Annan writes, is the “golden rule” for helping. Annan pays special attention to the need for respect in personal relationships as those relationships are the “primary ways our imaginations are transformed so we can move from sympathy to empathy.” But the practice of respect means more than respect between individuals. It also means respect between justice-seeker and community. For example, will giving away free shoes put local shoe vendors out of business? It is only in considering the full range of implications for those we are trying to help that true help can be given.
Respect also means talking to and partnering with local leaders and any agencies already working in the community. The practice of partnering takes away the self-designation of “hero, ” and puts in its place a deep respect for peoples’ ability to find their own ways to flourish. Through partnering, a common vision is born and we move away from doing for other people to doing with other people. This is another area of Slow Kingdom Coming where Annan doesn’t shy away from pointing out the tendency of North American Christians toward quick fixes, yet he does so in a way more likely to bring enlightenment than offense. Case in point, Annan uses as an example the popular practice of child sponsorship. This, he writes, is an “unequal, ” or “rescue” partnership: just send a small amount of money each month, and a young child will get an education, food, and be rescued from a life of poverty. Donations to these sponsor-a-child charities come from an “impulse of compassion, ” but sponsorship programs ignore the child’s family and community, and the efforts both are putting into raising the child. This creates a “savior” situation in which the donor feels, consciously or otherwise, that he or she is solely responsible for “saving” the child whose picture hangs on the fridge. This is not a true partnership; it’s a hero complex. This is fueled by our lack of knowledge; we are seldom told or given the opportunity to learn what exactly it is that the parents and community are doing for that child. They infomercials don’t show us, and the monthly letters don’t tell us. That’s where truthing comes in.
Truthing is a word Annan uses to mean checking the big-picture assessment against the reality on the ground, and is a practice tied directly into respect and partnering. By providing the respect to listen intently and intentionally to the needs and life stories of others, and by partnering with communities and pre-existing agencies, we can learn what’s “on the ground.” The practice of truthing also allows us to see what justice efforts are or are not working, so that the same ineffective efforts don’t continue to be made, and so that effective efforts are given more resources.
Truthing is one of the hardest practices in many ways, because it does require an on-the-ground presence, which can be uncomfortable for many, and because it’s not always easy to realize the full implications of what one sees while on the ground without knowing the community’s history. And knowing that can take years, if it can ever be fully done at all.
Which is why, among other reasons, Annan says God’s is a slow kingdom coming. We all want to help now, and preferably in a way easy and comfortable for us and our families. Unfortunately, things seldom work out that way. As Annan makes clear through his many real-life examples and analogies, reaching deep and sustainable justice is a long, hard process. There are undoubtedly some of us better suited to the quick fixes when those are needed, and others who are better suited for the long, slow haul. To find out for which area we are best suited, we must start at practice number one: attention. Faithful attention will show us what breaks our hearts, and where we fit in the hard work of kingdom building.
Annan writes at the end of Slow Kingdom Coming that this book is for him a lament, a commitment, and a declaration of hope: We confess that we want change and we want it now; we commit to the the faithful ways that avoid shortcuts and live out the kingdom vision; and we proclaim that, despite the snail’s pace at which justice sometimes seems to move, we believe justice will come, and we are willing to give our lives to living out that belief.