This weekend at church, my husband Curtis was on a panel for our sermon, answering questions submitted by our church community alongside two of our other pastors. One question he prepared to answer was what is social justice?
Our church is large, and we have a lot of varied opinions in our community on everything: politics and parenting, scriptural interpretation and sports loyalties. So spending a couple of weeks sharing short responses to congregant submitted questions can be risky. After all, most questions become FAQs precisely because they are complex and cannot be answered with a proof-text. The question of social justice in the church is no different and has a tendency to be loaded.
But personally, I loved his answer. So I wanted to share it with you.
Q: What is social justice?
A: This phrase, ‘Social Justice’, has gotten something of a bad rap. It’s been used over the last hundred years or so by some groups that care more about certain progressive causes than they care about Jesus, and the reaction by some Christians has been to reject the term completely because of who it’s been associated with.
But “social justice” in and of itself is just a phrase, and so the question is not so much how its been used, or misused, in the past, but whether it accurately describes what God cares about and what the church should care about.
So I got to the bottom of this by getting a highly accurate and reliable definition of “social justice” from the internet. According to Wikipedia, “Social justice is justice exercised within a society, particularly as it is exercised by and among the various social classes of that society. A socially just society is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, understands and values human rights, and recognizes the dignity of every human being.”
Now I think we can agree that equality, valuing human rights, and recognizing the dignity of every human being are very Christian ideas. Gen 1:27 says “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” What’s interesting is that other nations around Israel thought that only the King was created in the image of the gods, and only in Genesis do we see ALL humanity being created equally in God’s image. So equality and the dignity of all are very Biblical ideas.
But maybe the piece of the definition of social justice that ruffles feathers is the bit about different classes of society – justice between the rich and the poor. So let’s see what the Bible has to say about this issue. You can almost just flip to a random page of the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, those books at the end of the Old Testament – and find something about justice for the poor, but here’s a quick sampling:
Micah 6:8 says that God
“has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
So Micah sums up what God asks us to do by telling us to act with justice. But what does justice mean exactly? Is it just to do with laws and judges and religious actions? And the answer is no, it’s much bigger than that.
Jeremiah 5:26-29 addresses justice in very strong terms:
“Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like those who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this? Declares the Lord. Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?”
So to God, the justice that is required of us includes economic justice, that we would defend the cause of the poor and the vulnerable. And in fact if we don’t we are going to find ourselves on the wrong side of God’s vengeance, according to Jeremiah.
And the New Testament gives us the same picture – Jesus tells us that caring for the poor, the sick, the oppressed is one of the key signs that we are part of God’s family.
All the way through the Bible is consistent on this issue of social justice, telling us it is very close to the heart of God, and ought to matter deeply to his people. So instead of rejecting the phrase because some people have misused it, why don’t we work to reclaim it for the sake of God and his Church?