When Justice is Uncomfortable


The international human rights organization International Justice Mission (IJM) recently made news when police allegedly murdered one of their staff lawyers, Willie Kimani, his client Josephat Mwenda, and their taxi driver Joseph Muiruri after they left a court house in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Mwenda had previously filed a complaint against the police for shooting him the arm while riding his motorcycle. After receiving word of Mwenda’s complaint, the police then allegedly fabricated new charges against him to excuse their shooting him in the arm. IJM’s Kimani was defending Mwenda in court against the new, false charges.

Upon hearing news of these murders, Kenyan lawyers and international activists took to the streets and to social media to urge officials within the Kenyan government to prosecute the police for their crimes. The Kenyan police chiefs listened to the international outcry and opened an investigation. Soon after three police officers were arrested for the murders.

Unfortunately a tragic incident like this one is not unheard of; one in three Kenyans report experiencing abuse by police. What is more, in a ground-breaking study by the World Bank, researchers found that poor people encounter vast corruption when trying to access protection from the police and justice from local authorities. The long term impacts of a “brutalizing police force is particularly demoralizing for the poor, who already feel defenseless against the power of the state and the elite."

It is hard to know the appropriate response to news like this; I find myself wanting to cry and cheer simultaneously. As Christians we are called to mourn with those who mourn. While their arrest is a victory in the fight against police impunity, this act of justice is also part tragedy for the men now arrested and families affected. 

This has not been an easy concept for me to wrap my mind around. I joined IJM as an Advocacy Intern, and then as an Organizing Fellow, and it was so easy to celebrate when a perpetrator was arrested. But over time staff at IJM became uncomfortable, myself included, because the truth is that God loves the perpetrator, too. I wondered if it is possible to celebrate the arrest and also love the arrested? At our daily prayer gatherings staff would sometimes pray out loud for the perpetrator, their family, and our broken world.

It is on the hearts of many young, civically minded Christians to seek “justice”. The Bible is clear that “The Lord loves justice”. If we stop there, however, we lose out on a side of God’s character that I believe helps us to cope with tragedies like this one more fully, and more in line with God’s full being.

With every arrest there is victory and justice, but also brokenness and more loss.

A commonly quoted verse, Micah 6:8, sheds some light on the hope and tragedy enmeshed within these recent events. Christian justice seekers are quick to use the verse in defense of the arrests of the police officers that killed these three men. The verse allows, however, a deeper dive into reality than we generally pursue.

What does the Lord require of you? “To seek justice,” yes, it is easy to celebrate the arrest of the perpetrators of crime against those like IJM staff. Next, “to love mercy”. This means, for instance, that the Lord loves those police officers who committed the crime as much as he loves each of us. And lastly, that we are “to walk humbly with our God”. Perhaps this is where we are called to do what feels almost unnatural, to love both a victim and a perpetrator, like God does.

How can we ever comprehend this almighty God that loves the victims, and the murderers, their families, and the broken city where such crimes take place? With every arrest there is victory and justice, but also brokenness and more loss. In our broken world, “justice” is not a word synonymous with good, upright, or holy as it is so often used. No, justice is a word implemented in this messy world, with real winners and losers, and is not sufficient to summarize what the Lord requires of us.

The Lord does not ask us to focus on one or the other, justice or mercy, but rather allows the tension of both realities to take hold in our minds and hearts. As police related shootings are increasingly brought to light in our own country, I am brought to my knees to pray for the transformation of the entire city, for peace like God promises in Revelation, for victim and perpetrator alike.

A new development in Kenya, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), was established to investigate any complaints of criminal offenses committed by any police. It can also audit investigations and police premises. This is a huge win for the work to fight police brutality in Kenya, and it is the long and faithful work of organizations like IJM that brings systemic transformation.

There are movements like IJM’s Freedom Commons you can get involved in, adding your name to a petition, asking US Congress to put resources behind this fight. Increasingly local churches are seeing how policing affects their neighborhoods’ health and safety, and we can join the movement to keep police accountable, while simultaneously integrating policing into our communities.

In light of this, I believe as a community we can “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” if we keep in mind the vastness of God’s love and the depths of his desire for more just institutions.

-Lauren Walker Bloem is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, in Global Governance and Human Rights. She also works at the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the UMN.