What Is Social Justice?
Social justice. Perhaps you have encountered this term in a bookstore, on the Christian radio or even in conversation with a friend. It is a term that seems to be sweeping through the Western “church culture.” Yet, for all the prevalence of this keyword, it is possible that you are unsure of what is meant by this term. The term social justice refers to the fact that there are injustices, such as poverty and sickness, in the world and that Christians are responsible, through the power of Christ’s love, for correcting the injustices that they see around them. Perhaps that mandate makes you feel overwhelmed. How can the injustices that are so prevalent in our culture be corrected by a few Christians? Ultimately, enacting social justice is showing the love of Christ to others. In this issue of the Youth Messenger, we will explore the meaning and implications of this term as it relates to us.
What does the Bible say about social justice?
The social justice movement, as it relates to the church, is about adopting the Christ-like attitude of love for all people. To a large degree, how the world sees Christianity today is reflected in the actions of the modern church. In the Old Testament, God’s revelation of His character was reflected through the nation of Israel. Throughout the Bible, the Lord demonstrates His hatred for injustice and His desire for fair treatment. For example, the Lord declares His displeasure with Israel in Amos, Chap. 5. He states, “For I know your manifold transgressions and your sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right” (5:12). Note, that the sins of Israel, God’s chosen people, include the affliction of the poor. Later in the chapter, the Lord declares to Israel,
I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them ... But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.Amos 5:21-22, 24
The Lord will not accept the offerings of the people as long as they continue to ignore the plight of the poor and downtrodden, but He commands them to return to justice and righteousness.
The idea of seeking and serving the Lord is contrasted with the idea of following selfish motives and mistreating the poor. It is only through turning back to justice that the Lord will hear the cry of His people. In Isaiah, the people of Israel are compared to a disappointing vineyard: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry” (Isaiah 5:7). The people of Israel are an example for the church today. Because the Lord is unchanging, we know that He still desires His people to seek justice rather than oppression and that His wrath will be kindled if He finds His people misrepresenting Him by allowing unfairness.
Israel had to answer for their injustices and the church today must also answer for the injustice that it does not address. This is true for the church as a group, but also for individuals. Jesus modeled a very specific example of how to love and very specific instructions to His followers regarding the distribution of wealth and the treatment of society’s ‘outcasts’. Jesus ate with tax collectors and known sinners, touched lepers with compassionate and healing hands and also allowed Himself to be crucified as punishment for sins He did not commit. His actions demonstrated immense love. He also had very strong warnings for the rich. Consider the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he lacked. Jesus replied:
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow meMatt. 19:21
When the rich young ruler walks away because the price seems too great, Jesus lets him go. The cost of following Jesus may be immense, but His ways are infinitely more rewarding than our own ways. He is both the example of how to love and the reason why we ought to love.
Those who follow Christ are commanded by Him to show love in a very practical way for the “least of these” (Matt. 25:45). In this passage, Jesus states that the righteous are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the incarcerated. There are three groups that need the kind of justice that Jesus exemplifies: the orphans and widows, strangers, and enemies. Obviously we are also called to also show justice in our own close circles, but it is usually easier to demonstrate selfless love for our families and immediate friends. Unfortunately it is pretty easy to forget about the fatherless, not know about the stranger’s plight and not care about the enemy at all (maybe even to be secretly happy if the enemy seems to be suffering). Reading through the accounts of the actions of the early church gives a compelling sense of how love and justice was demonstrated. In his third epistle, John writes “Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; which have borne witness of thy charity before the church” (3 John: 5&6a).
John also speaks about the responsibilities that Christians have regarding material wealth. He says,
But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother in need, and shutter up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? 1 John 4:17
Also, James says: “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not these things which are needful to the body; what does it profit?” James 2:15-16
To be a Christian is to be called to show love in a practical way. This requires, through the power of the Lord, a putting off of the old selfish nature and a putting on of a new selfless, Christ-like nature. Paul says: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). The world should be able to see Christ through the actions of Christians and the church.
Social justice is counter-cultural
You may be thinking: “I do not promote injustice.” My guess is that many of us do not actively promote the oppression of less fortunate people. However, we live in a culture of the (North) American dream. Woven into the very social structure of our society is the idea that if you work hard enough you can achieve wealth (which is promoted as the ultimate goal of life). By its very nature, the American dream causes us to work selfishly for our own good. Materialism and consumerism are the diseases of “Western” society. Often, this consumerism leads to the mistreatment of labourers in other countries as well as feelings of inferiority or the mass accumulation of debt for those in Western societies who try to achieve the “dream.” Throughout history, God’s people have been called to actively work against the societal norms of their times. Today it seems that the Christian church in North America has become very complacent with the lifestyle of the North American dream. As members of the church, on an individual and communal level, we must ask, are we adhering to or resisting the societal norms? Perhaps it is time that we examine our own thoughts and motives and ask the question: If the poor shall inherit the earth, why are we working so hard to become rich?
A word of caution
The social justice movement is meant to inspire Christians to act with love and the best interests of others. However, whenever a “movement” begins to become the “norm” for how to do things, there is a danger that the normalization will cause the actual goals of the movement to be missed. The recent efforts of society to “go green” demonstrate that it is very popular to care about the poor and to try to “live with less.” We must be careful that our efforts to promote social justice do not become a new type of legalism. There is no competition to see how much you can give or live without in comparison to your neighbour. Remember that those who do their works before men have their earthly rewards. If you have an attitude of trying to do good to please men, you are missing the point. The Lord discerns the thoughts and motives of your heart.
So how do we practically live out the ideal of social justice? In his book “The Irresistible Revolution,” Shane Claiborne explains his journey and conscious choice to live a much more simple life than the accepted norms. He makes this statement:
I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what He did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore His cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that the rich Christians do not know the poor.*Claiborne, 113
Claiborne has learned to find the poor and show them love. But you do not need to travel in order to find the poor around you.
There are many ways for people to be poor. Find those who are poor and need your extra material possessions, but also find those who are suffering from loneliness and simply need your listening ear and your time.
The mandate of social justice does not have to be daunting. You can live an ordinary life with a radical love. Follow Christ’s example. Just start by finding one person in need and loving them well. If you choose one person to come along side of, you may find that social issues come out of that relationship. As John says: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). The kind words and actions of a Christian can change a life.