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 (Manna 57: Christians in the Community)
Social Justice and Christianity
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Social Justice and Christianity

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Angry protestors. Men-hating feminists. Tree-hugging hippies. All too often, these are the images that come to mind when anyone mentions issues related to social justice and equality. The general public often conjures up equally unflattering images whenever the topic of Christianity comes up—Bible-thumping evangelicals, money-hungry televangelists, blind and brainwashed followers, and the like.

So what might a sincere activist and a devout Christian have in common? One is that both are often caricatured and misrepresented in the media due to the extreme views and actions of a few. More importantly, though, the socially conscious and the spiritually minded may share this in common: the desire to do good, to make a positive difference, and to help others.  

In the secular world, this concept has been loosely branded as “social justice.” While the term is usually associated with the fields of sociology and community organization, it is increasingly being used in Christian circles.

The specific phrase “social justice” is not mentioned in the Bible. However, in a world where so much abundance exists alongside so much inequity, these topics cannot be ignored by Christians living in an increasingly complex and globalized world.

So if the Bible doesn’t talk about social justice specifically, what does it say in regards to issues of justice and equality in our society? What did Jesus say? What did Jesus do?

The goal of this article is to move beyond our preconceived notions, to move beyond what we may have seen, heard, or read third-hand. Instead, we will go directly to the source—the words of God—as we examine how to respond to some of the stark realities in our society today.

SOCIAL JUSTICE—WHAT IT IS AND WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS

Before we begin to explore how to fully live out our faith as both heavenly and global citizens, let us first establish a standard definition of the term social justice. Issues related to justice often filter down through academia, activist circles, and religious groups in the form of words such as social equity, equality, peace and justice, human rights, faith-based action, and so on. We will work with the term social justice, as this is currently a popular umbrella term.

Because entire books have been written on the subject, not surprisingly, definitions of the term have varied greatly. We will use the following definition so that we are all on the same page: social justice is the idea that everyone in society should have the same basic rights and opportunities.

What weight does the Bible give to helping others?

Jim Wallis, a prominent Christian activist and author on the topic of social justice and Christianity, often describes how he and a friend once took scissors and an old King James Bible and cut out every verse that had anything to do with peace or justice. When they were finished, they had very little left of the Bible. Wallis and his friend would often bring the Bible to workshops, stressing that one would have a hard time reading the Bible without emphasizing issues of justice.1

So what are some of those verses that might fall into this category? One of the most oft-used Scripture references in regards to living out our faith in society is Micah 6:8:

            He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God.

Here, we see that intentions (“to love mercy”) and actions (“to do justly”) are combined in an effort to obey God via caring for humankind. We are asked to not just passively support such endeavors but to actively take steps to make those endeavors happen. And as we do so, the Bible carefully reminds us to do it all with humility. Instead of being proud of our supposed good deeds, we should view ourselves as dutiful servants simply carrying out the tasks God expects of us.

Jeremiah 22:3 also stresses how God expects us to make a conscious effort to make right what is wrong:

            Thus says the Lord: “Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”

In this passage, God clearly tells us what we should do: execute justice, deliver the plundered, and so on. He also tells us what we shouldn’t do: do no wrong, do no violence, etc. Thus, we can see that the sins of omission, the absence of doing good, and the sins of commission, the act of doing evil, apply to the realm of social justice as well.

While the notion of the wicked being punished for their wrongdoings is not a new concept, we tend to forget that God will also hold in harsh judgment those who do not commit evil but do not do good either. In other words, those who commit the sins of omission. Matthew chapter 25 explains how God will divide the “sheep” from the “goats,” or those who will receive everlasting life versus those who will receive eternal punishment. Verses 41-46 describe the fate of individuals who neglect to care for the needy:

            Then He will also say to those on the left hand, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” Then they also will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” Then He will answer them, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Here we see that ministering to the hungry, the sick, and others who are undergoing hardship is not a suggestion but rather a command that affects our salvation. In contrast, those who do provide for others’ basic needs will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34). This passage highlights that loving others is essential because it is a way of demonstrating our love toward God.

If those who neglect to do good must face the consequences of their inaction, those who willfully perpetuate injustice—sins of commission—must also face the judgment of God. As Isaiah 10:1-3 sternly warns:

            Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees,
Who write misfortune,
Which they have prescribed
To rob the needy of justice,
And to take what is right from the poor of My people,
That widows may be their prey,
And that they may rob the fatherless.
What will you do in the day of punishment,
And in the desolation which will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help?
And where will you leave your glory?

As we can see, those who consciously commit acts of evil and rob the needy and the helpless of their basic rights and resources will undoubtedly have to face God’s wrath.

Although the threat of God’s punishment can serve as a sobering reminder, we should be motivated to help the helpless out of our love for God and humankind rather than out of fear. And if that’s not enough of a motivator, we can remind ourselves that the Bible also spells out the reward we will receive when we do good to others.

As it says in Jeremiah 7:5-7:

            For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.

SPIRITUAL NEEDS vs. MATERIAL NEEDS?

While there is no question that the Bible commands us to care for the disadvantaged, some may question the logic of giving without getting anything in return. Should we still care for others even if there are no long term effects or results either in their material or spiritual lives? Should we tend to the downtrodden of society only when we have the opportunity to preach the gospel to them or bring them to church?

Using a cost-benefit analysis, investing without returns may seem illogical, even wasteful. In today’s modernized societies, giving without receiving can sound like an outdated practice. However, the Bible states that the wisdom of the world is often foolishness with God; in the end, God’s logic trumps human logic.

When Jesus came to earth, He did not only love those who gave Him something in return or who noticeably and immediately changed their ways. In fact, what is so unique about God’s love is that He gives of it freely, even when we don’t deserve it, even when we take it for granted. Loving others is not easy. Sometimes, it is thankless.

There are some who might contend, though, that caring for someone’s spiritual needs is far more important than caring for someone’s material needs. The following dilemma then ensues: can or should we merely care for a person’s basic physical needs without addressing spiritual issues?

First, we should make it clear that we should not devote our time and energy only toward making changes to our temporary earthly lives. “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mt 16:26). At the same time, we should also note that caring about our material circumstances does not necessitate that our spiritual circumstances are being ignored.

Likewise, 1 John 3:17 focuses on providing for the physical needs of others and illustrates how this in itself proves that God’s love abides in us:

            But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

We are not told to give only if our work is appreciated, only if we see that our efforts have long-lasting impacts, or only if we bring those individuals to Christ. Thus, the act of unconditional giving, void of any terms or conditions, is what God requires of us.

Therefore, rather than pitting spiritual needs against material needs, we should understand that both are necessary and that emphasizing one shouldn’t then negate or neglect the other. When Jesus began His ministry, He stood up in the synagogue on the Sabbath and spoke the following words to an awestruck crowd:

            The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Lk 4:18, 19)

Some may interpret this passage quite literally; that is, that Jesus came to preach to the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. Others may take these words in a more figurative sense, understanding that Jesus was speaking to those who were spiritually bound, oppressed, or in need. However, the Bible contains many instances where God’s words have both a surface meaning and a deeper spiritual meaning.

As a result, we can take this passage to mean that Jesus was emphasizing both the literal and the figurative, the physical and the spiritual; God anointed Jesus to care for those who were materially and spiritually lacking. The solution to the dilemma posed earlier is therefore not a matter of one need versus another, but rather, reframing the parameters themselves and taking the perspective of both earthly and heavenly needs.

SOCIAL JUSTICE IN ACTION

Now that we have established that serving both spiritual and physical needs is an important biblical principle and command, it is up to us to close the gap between understanding and practice. As with many aspects of our faith, we often know the good that we ought to do but seldom actually do it. So, what can and should we do in reality?

A few years ago at my local church, one sister suggested that some of us visit a home that helped senior citizens transition out of homelessness. After some coordination and encouragement, about ten of us cooked dinner for a very gracious and friendly group of septuagenarians and octogenarians.

When the meal was over, we presented a few hymns. Afterward, we all agreed that the experience was truly fulfilling on many levels: we were able to share the love of Christ with others, we were able to bond as a group, and finally, we were exposed to a set of life experiences that we might not come across on a regular basis.

That said, our experience also raised some tough questions: should we make this a one-time visit or should we establish something more consistent? Are our money and time being used “efficiently” on a group of people who might never come to believe, given difficulties with transportation or even ability to retain information?

As is often the case, difficult questions may require even more complex answers. Therefore, we should try to answer these questions on a case-by-case basis depending on each church’s individual circumstances, resources, and peoplepower. More importantly, experience and know-how should take a back seat to relying on the power and wisdom of God’s Holy Spirit.

As Paul advises in 1 Corinthians 2:5, “your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Just as with other types of church work, we should not depend on our own efforts or skills but should put our efforts into prayer. God’s work includes things that are done both in and outside of the physical church building, and they all require us to ask for God’s abidance before, during, and after we embark upon each of these endeavors.

In our case, we did end up visiting the senior center only once but felt that we were still able to spread God’s love both indirectly (serving a meal) and directly (singing hymns), and that was by no means a “waste” of our time.

In contrast, members in the Dallas church have been consistently providing meals for the homeless for the past several years. It all began when a recently baptized member, who was formerly a pastor at another church, encouraged some other members to become involved with the homeless ministry.

Eventually, a group of less than half a dozen members started visiting a homeless shelter on a weekly basis. There, they were able not only to feed and clothe those in need but also offer their counsel, prayers, and in some cases, were even able to preach. Since then, former recipients of the church’s volunteer efforts have come to believe and receive baptism.

While God’s miraculous design is evident throughout this example, it is not to say that such works will take place without any difficulty. The obstacles we may face when we embark upon efforts related to creating a more just and fair world should by no means be taken as an indication that the work should not continue or that our work is in vain.

All holy work is, in a sense, a spiritual battle. Lest we become discouraged, we can use the difficulties as a humbling reminder that when we are weak, God can make us strong (2 Cor 12:10). Although we might not see or feel God’s presence at the moment, we only need to persevere in heart and in prayer and God will take care of the rest.

CONCLUSION

While God commissions us to actively pursue a more socially just society, we should not take God’s commands to a skewed extreme. Caring for the disadvantaged doesn’t mean God expects us to quit our jobs, move to a remote country, and set up an orphanage. While we should think globally, we can act locally—that is, in our daily lives.

We do not need a coordinated event to carry out acts of kindness or justice. Whether or not we are officially and collectively representing the church, we are always ambassadors of Christ. Therefore, all of us as individuals can and should act toward a more godly and just society, be it in an office with our co-workers or in an orphanage with small children.

Our church as a whole may still have some ways to go to become consistently involved with volunteer work, but we should not use this as an opportunity to point fingers or criticize others for their seeming lack of compassion or concern. The responsibility to carry out God’s commands in this area may fall more easily upon the shoulders of the believers who are better equipped in terms of language and navigating the ways of society and who are no longer recent immigrants.

The earlier waves of immigrants were responsible for laying the foundations of our churches; now that there may be more members who feel that their country of residence is also their home country, more emphasis can be placed on reaching out to the community beyond the confines of our church or home.

However, when trying to improve the condition of those around us, we should also be reminded that we should never make waves just for the sake of making waves. We know that Jesus often spoke up and took action to carry out what was just. The catch for us is that we need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to help us discern what is just and right in God’s eyes. This requires constant spiritual cultivation and renewal.

We must be careful to remember that while we are making efforts to be “wise as serpents” when righting wrongs in society, we must also take care to be “harmless as doves” in our thoughts, speech, and actions as we do so (Mt 10:16).

The opportunities exist in which we can help to make the world around us a more socially just place and where we can shed God’s light and even spread His word. Besides working with the homeless, individuals or groups can become involved in tutoring programs, volunteer construction projects, community clean-ups, walk-a-thons and runs that raise money for a good cause, environmental awareness projects, or prison education programs. The possibilities are truly endless.

So long as we are willing to look, God will open our eyes to see.

 

1.        Wallis, Jim. The Soul of Politics: Beyond “Religious Right” and “Secular Left.” New York, The New Press, 1994. pp.149-151.

 

Suggestions for further reading:

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis

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