Friday, August 25, 2017

Opening Day Activity

How do you use your time when the first day of class is a half day, and each class only lasts for 25 minutes apiece?

For most teachers, that is just enough time to talk through the syllabus and field questions.

This is often the first time in the year, of many, that I feel so fortunate to have the students for two periods a day.  25 minutes may not be much time, but 50 minutes allows for more flexibility.

This year, for the first time, I tried an activity instead of just talking at the students about the importance of our class theme.

I posted six images around the room: a photo of four hands, each gripping another around the wrist; an equal sign; a shot of the barricades from Les Miserables; a drawing of Lady Justice holding up her scales; a photo of a Black Lives Matter rally; and a clip-art of a stick figure in a jail cell, behind bars.

When the bell rang, without any other sort of introduction or fanfare, I instructed the students to walk around the room and look at each of the images.  As they took in each image, I asked them to think about which image most closely matched their understanding of the word "justice".

After deciding, I asked the students to spend five minutes journaling on scrap paper I'd distributed, stating which image they chose and why.

After five minutes, I asked the students to stand by the image they had chosen.

In both sections, there was at least one student standing at every image, though some had larger groups crowded around them than others.  The students then needed to find someone who had chosen a different image from them, share their reasoning and hear the reasoning of their classmate for why they had chosen the images they did.

When the students had shared and returned to their seats, I briefly explained the point of the exercise.  We today hear the terms "justice" and "injustice" almost constantly.  We hear them in the media, used by politicians, used in movies and TV shows, and the challenge is, the terms seem to have very different meanings depending on the setting.

Is justice unity?  Is justice equality?  Is justice revolution?  Is justice law?  Is justice activism?  Is justice punishment?

I neither praised nor condemned the definition of justice implied in each image, but simply pointed out that these definitions are all around us, and that whether or not we are aware of it, they shape how we view (and attempt to pursue) justice.

We also hear a lot about justice in Scripture.  In Generous Justice, Tim Keller states that some form of the Hebrew word for justice, "mishpat", occurs more than two hundred times throughout the Old Testament.  If we are to take Scripture's repeated call to do justice seriously, with the ultimate goal of "serving Japan and the world for Christ" (as CAJ's mission statement reads), we absolutely need to have a good grasp on what Scriptural justice means.  Each of those images reflect a cultural definition of justice, and while each has elements of truth to be found, none of them tells the complete story, and if each becomes an idol unto themselves, they can actually cause quite a lot of damage.

Justice is a rich and complex subject, worthy of a year's worth of study and time in class.  Moreover, we need to understand that those who we work with as we pursue justice in the future may have a completely different operational definition of justice from us, and we need to know how this may affect our pursuit of justice--how to find common ground while also holding firm to truth.

Next week, we will start reading chapters from Steve Monsma's Healing for a Broken World and Tim Keller's Generous Justice, which taken together present us with a thoughtful, Scriptural definition of justice.  Monsma defines justice as protecting that which is due to others as bearers of God's image.  Keller connects this act with mercy and generosity on a basic and intimate level.

My hope is that by having examined their own impressions about justice, the students will be in a better position to engage with these readings and think through the implications of a rich, textured, Scripturally-based definition of justice.

This activity and the follow-up took about 20 minutes.

I spent the second half of the class introducing myself in a way that has become a tradition six years running, by telling the tragic (but also humorous) story of my attempts to raise ducks when I was in elementary school.

If you haven't heard the story, ask me some time.

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