History and Social Justice

Not For Sale logo
Logo of one of the many modern-day abolitionist movements fighting sex slavery and other forms of human trafficking

Last week I was pleasantly surprised to receive the following query from one of our admissions counselors at Bethel: she had been talking to a prospective student who wondered which major would be most beneficial in preparing someone to fight sex slavery, estimated to be the second largest criminal enterprise in the world today (after drug dealing) and affecting two million children in addition to millions of adults.

Now, there are lots of good answers to the student’s question. International Relations: because of the global dimensions of trafficking issues. Political Science: one of the leading gateways to law school. At Bethel, Journalism would be a good fit because of a strong interest in what’s called “advocacy” journalism, as would our unique Reconciliation Studies program. Given the substantial aftercare and counseling needs of those who manage to leave sex slavery, Psychology could be a good fit.

But I was thrilled that the admissions counselor thought to include me, the chair of the History Department, in the distribution list. For while I doubt that our discipline would seem naturally suited to preparing one for a life spent pursuing social justice, I think it’s a perfect fit.

Kristof & WuDunn, Half the SkyI suspect that I got the e-mail not so much because of my position as department chair as the fact that I just wrapped up teaching a course on Human Rights in International History, in which three pairs of students chose to research various dimensions of sex trafficking for their research projects (several of them having been inspired by Nicholas Kristof’s coverage of the topic in Half the Sky, a book read by the Bethel community last spring and assigned in our Political Science capstone course this year).

But even beyond that one class, students in our department have a small but growing track record of interest in modern-day slavery. To cite two examples:

• In 2008 one of our graduating seniors, Rachel Primrose, wrote her capstone research paper on the history of Minnesota’s human trafficking task force, a unique partnership of law enforcement agencies with community groups, non-profits, and faith-based organizations. (The student interviewed everyone from a police sergeant to a prosecutor to a Catholic nun.)

• And a couple years ago another graduate, Lauren Peffley (’09), spent a year in Chennai, India as an intern with the Christian NGO International Justice Mission, working with an office that combats debt bondage. At least once, she participated in a mission to rescue some slaves. Here’s Lauren talking about that experience: (in a video we produced about our students studying abroad — Lauren spent a semester in Uganda and Rwanda)

So, what connects the study of history and the pursuit of social justice?

First, while there are other History departments that are more self-consciously centered on activism, we’re fairly typical in our focus on teaching history from below — the impact of social history and other movements hit Bethel at least half a century ago, and to this day, we affirm (in our department objectives statement) that marginalization is a key point of emphasis for our courses:

…we share the guiding assumption that historians who follow Jesus Christ ought to imitate him in paying special attention to those on the margins of society: the poor, the oppressed, and the alien, to name but a few groups. Rather than simply repeating comfortable narratives of power and privilege, we will seek to tell the stories of those who are powerless and dispossessed. In particular, our courses will consider categories like gender, class, and race that have often been used to perpetuate injustice.

My colleague Ruben Rivera teaches an entire course on Minorities in America, plus another on Hispanic Christianity in which students spend 25-30 hours immersed with a local Spanish-speaking church or faith-based organization. Students in my Modern Europe course consider the persecution of Jews and other religious minorities and explore the impact of industrialization and urbanization on the working poor, women, and children. Those in my Human Rights in International History course who didn’t focus on sex slavery researched the violation of basic rights for, among others, indigenous peoples, gays and lesbians, and the unborn — themes that rarely overlap in contemporary Western political discourse, but for those students, reflect a common concern for the most at-risk groups in many societies.

But while this concern motivates students and professor in many disciplines at Christian colleges like Bethel (and at many secular and non-Christian religious institutions as well) and should resonate with a natural desire for justice in all of us (what N.T. Wright has described as one of the echoes of God’s voice that all human beings hear), history also insists that there are no easy answers. Coming to the end of the semester in the Human Rights class, for example, I’m struck that students both (a) feel much more deeply concerned about particular issues related to the violation of human rights, and (b) much more dubious that human rights are actually universal (as opposed to cultural constructs) or can truly be realized.

For someone passionate about social justice, the study of the past ought to be a crucible, blurring convenient lines between “victim” and “perpetrator,” or helping us to realize that solutions to problems sometimes produce new injustices, or amplify the old ones. Crystalline notions of “the right” quickly lose their clarity amidst the messiness of human history…

…but they emerge intact, more nuanced and stronger for having been tested. I’m convinced that studying the past produces people who are more empathetic, more hospitable to other cultures and perspectives, and more aware of their own blind spots and limitations. They don’t expect rapid change, and when progress comes more slowly than they’d prefer, history teaches patience. But those who study history also have the skills (questioning, listening, researching, analyzing, synthesizing, communicating) to bring about small steps, starting with their own relationships and moving out into the businesses, markets, neighborhoods, churches, governments, and other spheres in which they can influence how decisions are made. And perhaps even in working for groups like IJM.

This is why I was so taken with Tal Howard’s discussion of prudence as a historical virtue (in my most recent post on the book Confessing History). On the one hand, history prepares students not to be thoughtless: they do not simply see injustice and respond instinctively, unthinkingly to it; they consider its causes and effects, and weigh possible solutions, learning to discard their own assumptions if they aren’t born out by study. But at the same time, prudence requires resolute action, not equivocation or nihilism. In Josef Pieper’s words (quoted by Howard), a prudent approach to learning seeks to turn “knowledge of reality into the accomplishment of the good.”

And this seems to me to encapsulate why historical study is good preparation for social justice work: the painstaking, humbling work of seeking to know the world as it has been helps prepare people to make the world what it can and should be.


5 thoughts on “History and Social Justice

  1. Great reflection! Don’t forget Stina Busman’s work in Cambodia and the use of a BTS degree for dealing with these issues as well!

  2. Since Stina Busman has already been mentioned, whatever degree the students ventures into, Stina would be a fantastic mentor/collaborator for the student’s development. Also, last I checked there was an IJM group at Bethel and Stina is the leader of the group.

    As far as degree’s, you are right, it is really difficult to pick. The student could make use of probably any degree at Bethel, including primary education. It is a matter of which angle the student desires to approach modern day slavery. Thanks for sharing.

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