God Takes Sides: the God of Justice

[The following is an excerpt from Victor Boutros' 2014 Kuyper lecture]

[The views expressed here are the author’s, speaking in his personal capacity, and do not purport to
represent the views of the U.S. Department of Justice.]

What is becoming manifest is that after 50 years and 3 trillion dollars of poverty alleviation efforts, we have skipped a step.   We have failed to build a platform of basic law enforcement in poor communities that will allow the poorest to hold on to the benefits of our aid.

It’s not that poverty alleviation efforts haven’t worked at all – clearly they have.  But we seem to be reaching the limits of what can be achieved without finally addressing the most intimidating aspect of poverty – the plague of everyday violence.

The question now is, is there any hope? Can broken justice systems in the developing world be transformed so they can actually protect the poor from violence?

If we are honest, we must admit that there is a strong temptation to be cynical.  Though the rallying cry may sound inspiring, the problem seems to be so big and so intractable that a part of us believes nothing is really going to change.  In response to this paralyzing cynicism, Kuyper tells us that,

[I]t is our duty as Christians, with God’s word in hand, to oppose both this false theory of destiny and the false system of culpable passivity.  Empowered by our confession of  God’s  providence,  which  also operates  in  the  social  arena  to separate good from evil, and taking in hand both sword and trowel, we must simultaneously fight that which is untenable and reinforce that which is obviously good.

(Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty, 65-66).  But where can we find solid footholds of God’s providence that we can use to begin to climb out of the abyss of cynicism?

Here is your pop quiz for this evening.   Listen to this description of a broken public justice system, and see if you can guess which developing world city it describes:

Corruption in this city police force is endemic.  The chief of police has made millions selling private services to elite criminals.  Precinct captains borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars (from criminals) to purchase their appointments in bribe-rich districts. The police are the foot soldiers of political factions and carry out massive voter fraud. Studies have found police brutality rampant and unchecked, and an investigative commission concluded that “every interest, every occupation, almost every citizen is dominated by an all-controlling and overshadowing dread of the police department.”  The city’s Magistrates’ Courts are also “known to be corrupt, inefficient, and ineffective” and experts observe that while the rich are “typically able to buy their way through the criminal justice system when arrested, the poor usually suffer injustice by it.”

Any guesses?  This description of brutality, corruption and dysfunction might apply to any number of developing world cities today, but it is actually a description of New York city about a hundred years ago.

This, then, is the first great point of hope – the hope of history.   It turns out that reasonably functioning public justice systems don’t just fall from heaven.   In fact, just about every reasonably functioning justice system in the world was, at one time, corrupt and brutal.  In our book, we describe the forgotten story of how justice systems all across the developed world were radically  transformed  to  provide  a  level  of  safety  for  common  people  that  was unimaginable just a century ago.  Each of the stories is unique, but in almost every case, you find four primary players.

1. Brave activists and journalists who told the truth;

2. Church and community leaders who lead with moral authority;

3. Lawyers and pioneering police leaders who demanded better of their professions; and

4. Enlightened elites in the business community who underwrote the crusade for true liberty and justice for all in their community.

Reclaiming this history, then, reminds us that transforming broken public justice systems is possible.

The second great point of hope is a series of demonstration projects that are beginning to prove that broken public  justice systems  in  the  developing  world  can  be  transformed. International Justice Mission (“IJM”)’s own experience around the world has provided profound glimpses of what is possible in the developing world today.

In a few short years, IJM teams in the developing world have been able to build community coalitions in the developing world to transform local law enforcement systems so they actually protect the poor from violence:

  • In Guatemala City, convictions for sex crimes against children have increased by 1,000% from when we started.

  • IJM’s work in training and equipping local law enforcement is turning the fear equation upside down – young Guatemalan girls can start to feel safe, precisely because the predators no longer feel safe.

    • In India, we have seen Indian officials respond to our training efforts with unprecedented mass enforcement actions against bonded slavery – on their own initiative.

    • In Uganda, we have seen levels of widow land seizures visibly decrease as IJM has partnered with government officials to enforce the law.

    • And in the Philippines’ second largest city of Cebu, an IJM project with the Gates Foundation transformed the performance of the police and courts so dramatically that outside auditors were able to document a nearly 80% reduction in the victimization of children in the commercial sex trade.

First, we want you to help us sound the alarm and change the conversation about poverty. In every circle of influence you touch among people who care about the world – in academia, in journalism, in corporate centers, in the arts – we want you to help us wake up the world to the plague of everyday violence and prepare the world to take on the Locust Effect.

Secondly, we would like to invite you to use your influence to press the UN to make violence prevention a key priority in the MDGs. As you know, the MDGs were created at the turn of the century to be the blueprint for setting priorities and goals and measuring progress in our global development efforts.  There were eight goals, but no mention of violence.  As the UN prepares to update and revise its goals for the next 15 years, the poor cannot afford to have centrality of violence overlooked again.

And this, my friends, is how things in the world actually get better.  A modest circle of thoughtful people, with courage and faith, begin to see something new.  Over time, a fresh vision is shared with an ever-growing circle of influence and good will – and slowly the tolerable becomes intolerable; until, finally, the impossible miraculously becomes possible.   And, by God’s grace, if we persevere, maybe one day, we can tell our grandkids a story of how the impossible all began.

-Victor Boutros is a federal prosecutor who investigates and tries nationally significant cases of international human trafficking around the country on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice.