How can legal knowledge and experience bring justice to contexts outside the U.S.? The opportunities are real and plentiful. In this seminar, Brian Dennison shared what he learned as a law lecturer and coordinator of the law clinic at Uganda Christian University.
From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was written by Angelo Blancaflor.
Brian Dennison (who blogs for ESN) was a full time missionary from 2008-2015, serving as a law professor at Uganda Christian University. He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his four children. He is the co-author of Legal Ethics and Professionalism: A Handbook in Uganda.
Will-writing training during Justice Week 2014 at Uganda Christian University. Image by Brian Dennison
Making a Connection With Another Country
“I was in Uganda from a couple of weeks on a short term missions trip,” he says. Through his time making friends during the mission trip, “I was convicted. God said, you have fear and irrationality here, so give me a chance. I’m having a Jonah moment so I’m going to pull out Jonah. Do something that I can take as a sign.” The day after, he was invited to meet a Ugandan family. The father’s name? Amichittai (“close enough,” he says, to the name of Jonah’s father). The son? Jonah.
So what can a lawyer, with no theological background, do in Uganda?
The answer is justice. “We know God does justice!” Brian says. “Our God loves justice. Maybe lawyers can do something good.” For Brian, that meant work as a professor at Uganda Christian University, founded in 1977 by the Anglican Church, which had a faculty of law. “I told people in my Church, I told people in my law firm, and what appeared in my e-mail? A job offer!”
Three (Biblical) Typologies of Justice
Brian describes three types of justice from scripture. In Judges, we see a world without it. “David never holds up Goliath’s head in the last picture of the children’s bible,” he jokes. “But there’s really, really bad stuff happening at the end of the book.” In King Solomon’s story, we have the good king, and justice through wise leadership. Finally in Matthew, we see an example of Gospel consciousness. “The people on the ground get what happened on the cross, Jesus on the throne, and its impact on what they do.”
Wholeness and Justice
Brian offers four examples of how justice relates to the idea of wholeness. In the book of Judges, wholeness is totally broken. Citing Hadgen’s The Locus Effect, on the importance of justice to ending poverty, Brian describes situations where the formal legal system does not serve justice. “People can’t go to the police,” he says. “There’s no police, or if you’re going to get police, you have to pay them.”
During King Solomon’s reign, we see that top-down justice needs resources, says Brian. While the king has authority to set up courthouses and create formal law, he needs people to enforce it. In Uganda, Brian describes the challenges to this form of justice, in the form of complex rules regarding property being passed down, or property grabbing. “As a result (of a formal law system), nobody goes to the formal system, because nobody can access it. It takes time, effort, resources, and it’s a big challenge” (learn more about access to justice in Uganda through Gerald Abila’s TEDxKampala talk). Each district has it’s own set of laws, and ministries like the International Justice Mission require resources to be able to change and implement top-down justice. Otherwise, he says, “people just don’t opt in for it.”
In Matthew, we see the idea of justice turned upside down: it is transformative, reconciliatory, and radical culture. “This kind of stuff is happening because people are getting the gospel,” he says. There is justice for the poor and marginalized, the poor and widowed. In Acts 6:11-16, the apostles name exactly who is responsible for these ministries. “We’re not actually doing these things,” he says.
Justice at UCU Law
The way Uganda Christian University taught law before David arrived was dissonant with the idea of justice in Matthew. “Teach law and Christian political thought,” the school charged David. “But as I was teaching those things, we had something called clinical legal education. It’s supposed to be practical education for the law students so that they get experience in the field with actual cases. Yet the education was didactic and top down.”
Brian asked to run the clinical program. “We started figuring out ways to leverage this clinical education program– trying to get 230 students and how to get them in the field.”
The results of his efforts can be found in the Justice River program. Brian led his law students to train Ugandan people in understanding the law, to teach English, and to give away materials about key issues of justice. Students worked on land disputes, an important issue and a common source of dispute in Northern Uganda. They wrote victim impact statements, documents mandated by the law that are often undone due to resource limitations. “They are about wholeness,” he says about victim impact statements. “Giving the victims an opportunity to say what happened to them. Empowering people to know about what the law is.”
Working with IJM, these students visit schools to educate the public about legal issues. They also help write wills, which help preempt land disputes. “We want a help desk at the courthouse, manned by students, to tell people where to go for what they need, in their local language. These are things we can do with almost no money. That’s what’s important in places like Uganda.”
“The whole time we were there, we got like 3000 bucks. Everything we did was paid for by UCU, and we were able to do this clinical program for basically $4000 a year, leveraging 300+ students to make an impact. That’s crazy leverage! These Christian universities provide opportunities for crazy leverage. We can take these university models and make them missional, and bring justice. The ability to make an impact when you’re sitting in the middle of Uganda, there’s opportunities that are just incredible.”
Working For Systemic Changes in Justice
“How in the world can this justice system work, because I have to pay bribes, the system is broken, and I have to be corrupt to be a lawyer?” Brian reminds us who is on the throne. “You’ve got to be able to trust that you’re going to survive and make a living if you follow Jesus in the practice of law.” He charges his students to hold themselves accountable until there are enough people not doing things the wrong way. “I believe 100% that eventually the system in Uganda will flip. I want to be able to say that Christian lawyers were part of the tipping point,” Brian says.
In an effort to empower students, he takes them to competitions in Washington DC. “identify people who are going to be leaders, take them to Washington DC, it changes people. It gets them to say ‘wait, I can do stuff.’“
“We have so many people that are serious about being Christians in Uganda, people who are serious about their faith, yet in a broken system. It’s important to see a history of Christians doing good things. Let’s make Jesus a part of the story of bringing Justice to the majority world. It starts with raising leaders that will take their face seriously, and be conscious about what Jesus is saying in Matthew.”
The Christian University
Christian Universities offer so much in transforming the world. Students in mass communications can show what God is doing. Students in medicine, nursing, child development, business and agriculture bring faith into improving their country. Not only in academics, but in grassroots levels, Christians can help change people’s attitudes, which directly affect the way people are treated. To recommends reading the memoir by law professor Jim Gash on his experiences in Uganda, Divine Collision.
Questions and Answers
Question: What is your idea of reconciliation?
I struggle, as a lawyer, with reconciliation to see people whose rights are abused. So many justice issues in Uganda are family justice issues. In Matthew, so many of the issues are with people you’re in a relationship with. It means a restored relationship, and not a cycle of vengeance. Can we get to the point where the hatred and revenge is gone? Reconciliation requires justice and accepting responsibility.
Question: Is there a relationship with your university and the government, and what kind?
The government has oversight via a charter, but our parent organization is the Anglican Church, the Church of Uganda.
Question: Do you think that it’s a fantasy to say that the system is flipped?
You sound like my students! The idea that God is in control, and that you have to follow and trust Him is fundamental to how you navigate life. People draw lines and define for themselves how they will navigate life. Trust God that he will provide for you.
Question: How does a legal education change the way you can provide justice?
The lawyers control the system, which is corrupt. Christian lawyers need to be in the system to change it, even if the legal system is only a part of changing justice in Uganda.
Question: What led you to return to the U.S., and how was living overseas with young children?
Taking our children to school was difficult, says Brian, because driving into town took a long time. International schools were also expensive, and once we could no longer home school our kids, we decided we could no longer do this. Financial issues at home and security issues in Uganda prompted our family to return home. The timing was just right, and God does what he does. I’m thankful that we had the chance to serve for the time we did.
About the author:
Angelo is a 2016 graduate of the University of Illinois, where he focused on Molecular Biology and Asian American Studies. He’s interested in intersecting several fields: bioinformatics, microbiology, minority studies, digital humanities, and the role of faith as an academic. He has recently joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a Digital Spaces staff member.