This is the hardest article that I’ve ever written, as it tackles a highly sensitive topic and it incriminates attitudes that I have seen represented in myself and in many people that I know, appreciate, or even shepherd. This is not your casual Saturday night talk or ones’ venting of heart, but rather a matter that has been in my mind for a long time now and has been especially prompted by recent unfortunate events in our society. Before we attempt to answer the question of how we should approach matters of social injustice, let me start from a few general observations:
First, as Christians we should be constantly convicted in our weaknesses and grow stronger in the truth of God’s Word (Hebrews 4:12). This is a painful process that requires both a humble acknowledgment of our sin (by omission or commission) and the intentional effort to stand corrected in light of the Bible, whose purpose in our sanctification is not to pat us on the back, but rather to cut and abrade our most inner existence. If our Bible reading most often makes us feel satisfied with who we are every day (not talking about identity in Christ), if the sermons we listen to more often than not simply make us feel good about ourselves, if the books that we read do not disturb our current comfort zone, then we should consider radically changing our approach to the Bible and our secondary intake sources to ones that hurt the ego, break the pride, and bring light to our darkest places. Only then will we understand our need for sanctification and desire God as our only adequate savior.
Second, we live in a society characterized by struggles at all levels. We as a society struggle in matters of identity, morality, politics, race, immigration, sanctity of life, rights, etc. We break into sympathy groups that often transcend our church appurtenance based on what side of the barricades we situate in each of these struggles. Our society’s struggles have become more than a difference of opinion, to rather an apple of discord among us, because everything is personal and everything attacks my right of being right. Moreover, there are two struggles that today’s Christianity seems to have that aggravate most of the others: we often do not know how to separate church from state and we often turn sin matters into political matters. Both will be later addressed.
The third observation has to do with trends of the church that I have witnessed over the past several months. One of them is that, mainly because of what “social justice” seems to stand for today, we have become silent in matters of justice at too many levels, while being highly vocal when it comes to our own rights. Thus, in most of our groups, and especially on social media, we have been much more vocal about church’s right to meet and being mandated to wear a mask than about lives unjustly lost recently. I would like to believe that this is not because we care more about ourselves or abstract concepts than about lives, but rather it has to do with a final unfortunate trend of Christianity, perhaps the oldest of all – we have become overly involved in politics to the detriment of purely standing for Truth. This will also be later addressed.
These are the premises that prompted this article and I pray that the Truth of God will help us navigate through our personal issues in order to give us a godly perspective of how we should approach large scale issues as church or individuals.
What is social justice and should we use this concept or stand for it?
I believe in the fluidity of language. I believe that words and concepts that once meant something positive but have been charged with negative meaning over the years should be used, as a rule, in their most current meaning. For this reason, we should not call a poor person a naughty (originally having nothing) person, or a dreadful thing an awesome thing. Meanings have changed in a natural progression of language, as language itself is an expression of life experienced, and thus there is no reason to fight in a battle of retrieving old meanings of language. This has a lot to do with the concept “social justice.”
The concept itself is argued to have originated during the 19th century as an effort to protect the working class, but the roots of a just society are ancient. In its essence, social justice has preserved its sense of giving each person what it is due, but new categories of people, issues, and rights have constantly been added to the point that it has become an all-encompassing term, easy to overlook and hard to pin point. Matters of feminism, gender identity, race equality, child/women abuse, ageism, profiling, hunger, freedoms, pro-life rights, pro-choice rights, immigration, welfare, etc. are all hot topics of social justice today and clearly not all of them can and should be backed up by the church. In this current situation, perhaps any “social justice warrior” can become, at some level, the enemy of another “social justice warrior,” while both are honestly invested in creating a just society.
Thus, should the church promote and stand for social justice today? It clearly depends on what “branch” of social justice one refers to. For instance, the church cannot stand for something that opposes its biblical teaching (Ex. abortion). How then can we pick what to stand for? For starters, political narratives should not be the determining factor. Instead, we should look at the Author of Justice in order to understand what is universally and timelessly just. Thus, Christianity must boil down the concept of social justice, not in an effort to bring back old, irrelevant meanings, but in order to find what it must stand for as a mandate from God. This implies with necessity that that which will be found as a mandate from God is a must for the church, not an optional stand. Christians generally stand against at least one social injustice, but the reality is that we often choose what is most comfortable and less disputable (feeding the poor, attending pro-life marches, sponsoring anti sex-trafficking organizations, stopping gendercide in India, etc.). However, the church does not have the freedom to pick and choose, but it must stand for all that is God-mandated.
The Biblical Sense of Social Justice
Before we take into account a series of biblical principles, there are two delimitations that must be made. First, in the context of the Old Testament, many social justice principles are imposed by God under the intended, yet unrealized by Israel, theocratic system – a nation whose sole leader is God and each aspect of society representing His will. Thus, the fact that many of the social justice requirements are the responsibility of the nation’s leaders in the Old Testament does not translate for us in the expectancy that our nation’s leadership is directly responsible with fulfilling God’s principles. Our political system does not submit to God as the sole leader of our nation and does not shape each aspect of society in accordance with His Word. It is not a theocracy and the rebellious Israel hasn’t been replaced in the New Covenant with our nation, but with the church; thus, we, the church, are directly responsible for representing God’s will inside and beyond our walls.
Second, the principles of social justice in the New Testament were not meant to be imposed on the whole Roman Empire, but rather were to characterize the Kingdom of God (the new theocratic reign). Everyone entering the Kingdom of God would become responsible with representing God’s justice. However, this justice is often expressed in the church’s relationship to the “outside world.” The Philippians are asked to remain anchored in the truth of God amidst a corrupt society, which would bring light in its darkness (Philippians 2:15-16). This is in fact at the foundation of the church being the Kingdom so that it would shine truth and life in this corrupt world.
Biblical social justice in the Old Testament is a prominent topic, mainly referring to a fair treatment of all covenant people and care for the vulnerable. The basis of social justice are given as early as Genesis 1:27, where we learn that mankind is an image bearer of God’s own image. The sanctity of life starts with this: we are all designed by God, breathed life into (2:7), blessed by God (1:28a), and given purpose from God (1:28b). We all came from the same nothingness (and later, all saved from the same naughtiness), but have been given the valuable title as “the crown of creation” (Gregory of Nyssa). Ontologically, none of us is more valuable than that, and none less.
The One whose image we bear is just, He is eternally upright and His ways define justice (Deut. 32:4). Only those who do righteousness (day-by-day just living) and justice (correction of injustice) walk in God’s ways (Gen. 18:19) and serve the Lord with all their heart and soul (Deut. 10:12-13). Walking in God’s ways was in fact the main condition for Israel to become the holy people of God (Deut. 28:9), and consequently, one couldn’t be a person of God unless one represented the justice of God both at a personal level and a community one, and both in a preventive way and a correctional way.
The Lord hates social injustice (Proverbs 6:16-19; 11:1; 17:15) and His people must not practice it (Exodus 22:21-22; 23:6-8; Isaiah 10:1-3; Deut. 16:19). Thus, the unjust would be destroyed (Micah 2:1-3; Malachi 3:5) while the just would be blessed (Psalm 1:1). The Law dedicated large sections to just relationships among all people of God and just treatment of those outside the covenant people. God even proclaimed judgment against the social injustice of pagan nations (Nahum 3, Amos 1). Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Malachi, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Hosea, and Nehemiah all stood up against social injustice that often infiltrated even the leadership of Israel. Moreover, just as the exodus (the adoption of God’s people) was God’s response to the social injustice suffered by Israel (Acts 7:24), the exile was in part His response to Israel’s exercised social injustice (Amos 5:11-12; 8:4-7).
3 Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)
Thus, in the Old Testament, social justice is at the heart of Israel’s identity and part of the big picture of God’s justice. The people of God were mandated to live justly and correct injustice of any kind found among them. God also mandated certain people to speak up about the social injustice of Israel and nations around it. These people were not given a special calling to adhere to standards higher than the law, but they were called to speak up among a people blinded by its own injustice. The failure of the rest made a few stand out.
In regards with the New Testament, standing for justice became part of the church’s mission, with the ultimate goal of making and caring for disciples of Jesus. Just as in the OT, justice is anchored in the character of God in the NT. The Lord is an avenger for those mistreated (1 Thess. 4:6; 2 Thess. 1:6-7) and His gospel by definition is the fulfilment of His justice (Romans 10:4). Jesus dedicated much time to caring for the vulnerable and spoke against those who acted unjustly towards others (Luke 11:42). Moreover, because all those redeemed by Christ receive a heavenly identity (adopted by the Father, integrated in Christ, and indwelled by the Spirit), imitating God’s character becomes normative for His followers (Ephesians 5:1) as the only gospel-worthy way of life (Philippians 1-2), while representing God’s character in the world becomes integral to their mission (Matt. 5:13-16). Furthermore, believers are called to put the interests of others above their own (Philippians 2:1-5), which implies that speaking for a brother/sister whose voice is not heard should become one of their interests with a higher priority than fighting for their own rights. This is an implication that we certainly must not miss today.
Finally, the church of the 1st century experienced much social injustice, in response to which they were called to love their enemy and wait with patience and endurance for the day when Jesus will return and solve all injustice. In the meantime, although armed with the weapon of righteousness in both hands (2 Cor. 6:7), believers were called to not lose hope, but renew their dedication to God every day by nourishing a heavenly approach to life (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Therefore, social injustice should not prompt the church to violence or hopelessness, but to a fresh expectancy of Jesus’ return while practicing justice (Romans 6:19), caring for those mistreated (Matt. 5:7), and standing up for God’s justice (Matt. 5:13-16; Philippians 2:15-16).
What then is our mandate today?
There are at least four reasons why we should understand promoting and standing for biblical social justice as part of our mandate today:
- The church is mandated to promote and stand for justice because God does – God is most concerned about the just treatment of His creation and has given Himself up for its redemption. A silent church that closes its eyes to the unjust treatment of any of those created in the image of God is a church that presents a distorted image of the character of God. Moreover, just as God expected his people in the Bible to represent His justice in both preventive and corrective ways, a solely preventive stand of the church in an already unjust secular culture is a half-mirroring of God’s justice, a dim light, a not so salty salt. No, simply stating that humans are created equal as image-bearers does not solve the problem of injustice at so many social levels. We need to also lovingly address injustice and patiently wait for God to bring forth His perfect justice once Jesus will return.
- The church is mandated to promote and stand for justice because of its unity in both joy and suffering – this issue is not as theoretical as it seems. We have people in our communities who are affected by systematic social injustice, and due to our identity and commitment to Christ’s church, we must stand for their fair treatment and show compassionate love in their distress. Our churches are called in 2 Cor. 1:3-7 to provide comfort for those experiencing troubles, but how will we do so if we don’t first hear the unheard, welcome the unwelcomed, and give attention to the forgotten?
- The church is mandated to promote and stand for justice because injustice is a sin issue – God hates injustice (Proverbs 6:16-19; 11:1; 17:15) and thus, we must as well. Obviously, not anything that one calls unjust is necessarily objective injustice, but in principles that the Bible requires us to assume, we must call sin what it is. If we qualify as sin issues injustice towards unborn babies, the abuse of children/women, the exploitation of the poor, the racial abuse, sex-trafficking, gendercide, etc., then we must not expect a secular society to move towards a righteous approach in any of these matters, but rather we should expect those who are made righteous in Christ to push for moral reforms. Moreover, if they are sin issues, then they must not be seen primarily as political issues (or not at all). The politicizing of sin has lately been one of the fiercest weapons against the awareness of the church and its objective rejection of sin. Alignment to a political view must never dictate one’s morality, and immoral aspects of society that are refuted by political opponents are never to be simply ignored on grounds of political affiliation. Otherwise, political narratives are a more formative influence in our Christian lives than the Bible, which would be a very sad reality.
- The church is mandated to promote and stand for justice because it has been gracefully made just through Jesus’ sacrifice – If the gospel has truly changed us, it must be on our lips and in our actions. The gospel, in my opinion, is the most compelling argument for the church to represent and stand for biblical social justice. If God Himself actively pursued us and laid down His own life so that we might be eternally justified by His grace and saved from the death we deserve, are we not also called to actively pursue those created in His Image for them to experience justification and eternal life with the Father? The gospel is not the story of a passive god who acknowledges discord in His creation and leaves us to make things right, but the beautiful story of an active God in a sacrificial pursuit of a people who in no way deserve His intervention! We are to allow the gospel to shape us in a way that will impact our whole existence. We stand for justice so that the good news of Christ may abound and transform hearts and lives and so that our witness of a just and loving God will not reflect Him only so far as our personal comfort would allow. Our interactions with the world and our relationships in the church or family must all be centered on this truth. 1 John 2:6 argues that one who claims to be made alive through the gospel must live as Jesus did, and oh, how He cared for the vulnerable and the outcast!
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)
Therefore, should a church get involved in matters of social injustice? If we talk about acts that defy God’s timeless and universal justice, then yes, the church is called not only to promote social justice in a preventive way, but also to speak up against already existent forms of injustice. However, if our stands in themselves are not out of Christ-like love and gospel-shaped identity, then we must consider what truly is at the roots of our stance, allow the Word of God transform us, and then stand again with a right perspective. Brothers and sisters, let us not let go of our calling to represent the justice of God in this corrupt world. Let us not be able to close our eyes on injustice. Let us speak up for the sake of the abused. Let us be light and salt for the sake and glory of the One who will always be just, for the honor of the gospel of Christ, in submission to the Spirit, and in hopeful expectance of the return of the One who will bring justice eternal.