Learning from Injustice While Living Overseas

This piece is being posted anonymously so as not to disrespect the writer’s host country or its authorities.

I was waiting in my car at the intersection, watching the policeman directing traffic. He looked in my direction and started walking towards me.

Uh oh, I inwardly groaned. What is it this time?

I put down my window and dutifully greeted him in the traditional respectful manner.

You’re in the crosswalk, he barked at me. You stopped in the crosswalk. He took my license and then shooed me to the other side of the road.

I pulled over and inwardly fumed. The crosswalk was barely visible, the paint rubbed off and the rest of it covered in dust. More importantly, erosion had broken away the sides of the tarmac to such an extent that if I didn’t pull forward at the intersection, I could be swiped by other cars.

Knowing that in this culture, my anger would just make things worse, I put on my sweetest, humblest voice. I politely explained to the officer my reasons. Please, give me grace, I said.

He gave me no response. Just typed my information into his little machine and handed me a ticket back with my license.

The injustice of it all infuriated me. I’m a careful, cautious driver, yet I’ve lost count of how many tickets I’ve received in my host country for insignificant or made-up offenses. Meanwhile, other drivers regularly ignore stoplights, pass dangerously into oncoming traffic, cut in line, and drive on the shoulder, and the police don’t seem to care.

I grew up as a white, middle-class American, so I am naturally accustomed to justice. You follow the laws, and the government authorities are on your side. You break the laws, and you get punished. It’s cut and dry. It’s simple and sweet.

But I’ve learned that living in a developing country, all bets are off. The only way I could have avoided this ticket was to surreptitiously hand the officer a bribe. Since that was out of the question for me, I got a ticket. Granted, the fine was only equivalent to around fifteen dollars, but that wasn’t the point. I was furious at the injustice.

Ironically, I have also realized that learning what injustice feels like is one of the greatest gifts of living in this culture. When the officer walked away, I sat for a few moments and intentionally let the feeling wash over me.

I am angry because this isn’t fair. I feel picked on because of my skin color and because I am a woman. I don’t trust the police, and that makes me mad.

But I consciously reminded myself to think: This is what much of the world’s population feels every day.

It was only fifteen dollars. What if it had been five hundred dollars? Or five thousand?  What if it was my entire daily salary? What if that fifteen dollars meant I would have nothing to feed my children that day…or that week?

What if that officer had been armed and my life was at stake?

What would it feel like to be at the mercy of a merciless government?

What if my skin color deemed me worthy of oppression in the eyes of the powerful?

What if being female meant I was automatically worthless?

And most importantly, What would those daily injustices do to my soul?

Truly, I have no idea. As a white American living in a developing nation, my eyes have been opened to my privileged, charmed life. Even on a missionary’s salary, I am one of the richest people in the world. My education was practically handed to me on a silver platter. Sure, my parents worked hard. I worked hard. But my hard work rewarded me. What if no matter how hard I worked, my life never got better?

I’ve never had a teacher expect a bribe or a sexual favor to pass a class. I’ve never had a government official threaten to unjustly steal the land I labored over. I’ve never had the fear that the military would kidnap my young son and hand him a gun. My husband has never treated me like his property.

So the small injustice of receiving an undeserved traffic fine is an excellent reminder to this privileged white woman. I am not entitled to justice. Instead, I need to look for ways to identify with those around me who live with injustice every day. And more importantly, identify with the Savior who willingly chose injustice on my behalf.


Complicit no matter what we do? So was Jesus.

Ever get the feeling you’ll be complicit in injustice no matter what you do?

I remember finding out that slave-labor was used to build natural-gas pipelines in Burma. Thousands of slaves were involved in clearing the land and in construction work along the 65km pipeline.

So, of course I decided to boycott the French and British gas companies involved. That meant driving past the most convenient gas station to my house, a gas station owned by Chevron, when I needed to fill up our community car with gas. I encouraged others to do the same.

No biggie.

Then, I found out about the injustice involved in the manufacture of a key part of cellphones — a mineral called coltan. Most of the world’s coltan is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The extraction of coltan has contributed to maintaining one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in Africa, which according to human rights organizations has led to:

  • more than five million deaths
  • massive displacements of the population, and
  • the rape of 300,000 women in the last 15 years

Finding a cellphone that was “conflict-mineral free” became a big challenge.

Then, I moved to Cambodia and got to know garment factory workers who toil under exploitative conditions to make the brand-name (and unbranded) clothes you and I wear.

Time to go naked? Time to sew my own clothes? Wear sacks?

No seriously, it’s a problem.

Whichever way I turn there is injustice. And I am complicit in the suffering of others. There’s no real escape unless I go off the grid.

Next time someone wants to point out some injustice in the world I better be sure to stick my fingers in my ears and scream, “Lalalalalalalalalalalalalalala – I’M NOT LISTENING!” — or I’ll be stripped of some other simple joy in life.

But here’s the thing.

Jesus walked on Roman roads built by slaves. (Here’s proof.) Slaves and prisoners of war were often forced to perform the most difficult tasks of quarrying and transporting stone in building the massive network of roads for the Roman Empire.

There was blood on those stones. And yet, Jesus walked on those Roman highways. Does that mean He didn’t care about injustice? Was he indifferent to suffering?

Of course not! Didn’t He harangue the Pharisees about their lack of justice (Matthew 23:23)? Didn’t He respond with anger to exploitation (Matthew 21:12)?

But I think Jesus knew that there is a certain pride in our idealism that has nothing to do with seeking better outcomes for the poor and the suffering. We feel good because we’re not complicit. We feel better because we’re not responsible. We’re not guilty. We wash our hands.

Jesus points out the danger of this attitude in a provocative little story about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). One was righteous (self-righteous!), supposedly free from injustice. The other knew he was complicit. He knew he was guilty.

The point is not to embrace apathy nor to be paralyzed by the complexity of being human in a fallen world, but to embrace the humble stance of the tax collector who wept over how he had fallen short.

So where does that leave me? Now, I still fight the good fight. I still battle against injustice. But with a healthier dose of grace and flexibility. I’m trying to stand tall with the humble posture of a recovering sinner.

Because sometimes the purist is impotent.


Thanks to the hard work of human rights activists, most major cellphone producers announced in 2011 that they would no longer buy minerals from the DRC. So our work is not futile.


(post originally appeared here)


Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.