On Wednesdays, I look to the words of wise and wonderful folks who make me think and wonder about things. I also try to use as many w’s as I can in this intro.
Christians are bound to recognize any passionate concern for social justice. Such concern is basic in the Christian doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and the brother[and sister]hood of [humanity.]
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
This past year, we discussed changing the name of the office where I work. Part of where we got stuck was in our desire to represent social justice in our name. But becoming some variation of a Center for Social Justice raised questions for some people. They identified that the phrase can be a bit difficult to just throw out there.
Part of the challenge is to simply define our terms. What do we actually mean when we say this? Like many words (or perhaps all words) social justice does not have one set meaning that is universal and unconstrained by a particular setting or culture. Some hear it as highly political, in a way that may not fit with their understanding of the Christian faith. Others hear it as the fundamental call of their Christian faith. And of course, there is a whole sector engaged in the work who neither think nor care about religion.
I happen to be someone who believes that social justice is the heart and soul of the Christian life. Precisely because it focuses on empowering all people to be who God made them uniquely to be, I think it fits with the freedom and full life that Jesus came to offer. This is the work that removes anything standing in the way of someone being dignified as God’s creation.
Over and over again, Scripture points to God’s heart for the poor, marginalized, and low in the world. Consider Isaiah 56, 58, Jeremiah 7, 2 Corinthians 7:11, Deuteronomy 15, and so, so, so many more. Glen Stassen, an ethics professor at Fuller Seminary, observes in his book Kingdom Ethics that the four words for God’s restoring justice in Hebrew and Greek appear 1,060 times. (The main words for sexual sin appear 90 times.)
One of the more helpful metaphors that explains social justice is that of a disease. A disease has both symptoms as well as causes. I believe service and social justice each address the disease uniquely. Service treats symptoms–if you are hungry, I provide food, if you have HIV/AIDS, I get you antiretroviral drugs. Service is immensely important.
But it is not enough on its own.
If service treats symptoms of the disease, then justice addresses causes. It asks, Why can you not obtain your own food? What keeps you from working? Or why does all your working still not earn you a living wage? It asks, What is promoting the vast spread of HIV/AIDS in the first place?
And that, my friends, is why social justice as a term can be charged and difficult. Insofar as major challenges in the world have no one set easy answer, we will debate about the best solution. That debate is not always fun, and yes, it has political implications. And this tension is what Dom Helder Camara identified when he said, When I feed the poor, I’m called a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, I’m called a communist.
Nevertheless I think this call to compassionate action is central to following Jesus. God’s plan has always been to partner with us to bless the world. We mess that up all the time. But when we’re being who God intended us to be, we show the world a God who sees them, cares about them, and loves them tremendously. Social justice is about identifying things that stand in the way of experiencing a God who sees and who cares, and working to move those obstructions.
I opened with a quote from a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. In the same sermon, he also wrote,
We must come to see that the Christian gospel is a two-way road. On the one side, it seeks to change the souls of men [and women] and thereby unite them with God; on the other, it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men [and women] so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men [and women] and yet is not concerned with the economic and social conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is…an opiate of the people.