A quick internet search of “social justice” frustrates. Some people are richer than others: it isn’t fair. Some people want to take away our money: it isn’t fair. Too many people can vote, or not enough people can vote. Either way, it isn’t fair. Often, the talk confuses. It usually isn’t a conversation, but yelling. It would be easy to ignore the noise.
Bottom line: talking about social justice is hard. It would be more comfortable to avoid it all together. For Christians, too, social justice is a difficult topic. Yet, it is an important part of the Christian faith.
What are we talking about?
For many people, social justice is what they make it. So it’s important to have a common definition to allow the discussion to go anywhere. Everyone knows that in a race, all of the runners should start at the same place. None of the runners should have their legs bound together to give others an advantage. It would be unfair. When every runner is treated equally, the race is just.
Social justice is also about equality and fairness. Social justice is achieved when everybody has equal access basic needs. Also, justice occurs when all groups of people are treated the same by people in charge. Fairness is supposed to be for everyone: every race, gender, religion, sexuality, or age (or any other defining feature). All people must have equal opportunity to provide for themselves.
Social injustice can appear in many forms—for example:
- discrimination against any of the above groups,
- lack of access to resources,
- systematic removal of economic opportunities from a group,
- unequal educational opportunities, or
Injustice can happen when groups of people discriminate against each other, but it’s especially noticed when people in positions of power cause or act unfairly.
Social justice is about relationships.
Social justice is a relational issue. It isn’t primarily about money or opportunities, but about feeling as valuable as other people. Being treated differently feels wrong. Deep down, people know it isn’t fair to receive better or worse treatment without earning it.
In a classroom it’s obvious that all students expect to be treated the same. All first graders know that if another student gets to use markers, he or she should, too. In reality, adults aren’t much different. No one ever wants to be the single car pulled over for speeding among a long line of offenders. The first thought is usually, “They were speeding, too!”
The hope of equal treatment grows when we look at people who have power over us. A lack of fair treatment leads to a decay in trust and respect, and in the end destroys the relationship. This is true for individuals, families, groups, and defined communities. A lack of fair treatment in any way fractures relationships. The first grader won’t trust a teacher who keeps only giving markers to another child for no reason.
One need look no further than the unrest in communities such as Missouri, Louisiana, and the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the United States. No matter which side of the issue you’re on, the relationship is strained at best; completely broken at worst. There is a lack of communication, a lack of respect, and a lack of trust.
Humans are the source of injustice. Christians included.
Both biblically and in experience, there is one source of injustice in the world: human beings. Justice requires humans to be concerned for others in long-lasting and meaningful ways. It requires the sacrifice of pride, resources, time, and comfort. People must see the needs of others and help. All of these are difficult, no matter who you are.
It is especially tempting for people in positions of power, even just a little power, to use their power to help themselves rather than others. People don’t usually help those who can’t help them back. It is easier to ignore marginal groups or take what they have. But officials are supposed to help others, and we know it’s wrong when they don’t.
Social injustice is often economic. Because of this, the Bible is very critical of people who hoard possessions rather than share them with people in need. In Luke 16, a very wealthy man ignored a poor man (Lazarus) at his very own gate where dogs licked his sores. He didn’t stop to help him in any way. He gave Lazarus no money or water, ignoring Lazarus’ most basic human needs. The rich man was condemned to eternal torment not for being rich, but rather for valuing his wealth over the life of another human being. Also, the “rich fool” had his life demanded of him after he used his wealth for pride rather than helping other people. This, biblically, is injustice: valuing things, status, and pride over people. To put it another way, it is breaking one of the great commands of Jesus: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
Noticing the whole person
God gives the gift of individuality. People have contrasts that together can create a beautiful harmony. No two people have the exact same gifts, interests, hobbies, hopes, or desires.
Sadly, it is extremely difficult for human beings to think of each person they meet as an individual. Categorizing human beings into groups based on race, gender, age, etc. serves as a way for us to quickly make sense of the world around us. It is not inherently bad or evil to categorize people. However, this practice can easily lead us to see others as only a small part of who they are. Instead of a person, it is easy to see “white” or “black” or “gay” or “straight.” These are important characteristics, but people are more than a single characteristic. That “black guy” at work may have a wife and kids, he may really like to read or play board games, or maybe he is an aspiring writer. To not think people are complex dehumanizes them.
People who are no longer real humans in the minds of others are very easy targets for discrimination. When people are no longer some-“one” with whom to have a relationship, but rather some-“thing” to be used for one’s own benefit, discrimination occurs. Social justice first starts with the deliberate consideration that other people are just that: people.
God cares about justice—and commands it.
God is relational and caring. In the beginning he walked with the people he created. He refers to himself as Father and his people as sons and daughters. It is God’s nature to give and care for people. Looking outward toward the needs of his creation, God gives freely. God wants his creation to reflect his loving personality.
Injustice sabotages God’s plan for communities. God cares when his gifts are stolen or exploited away from anyone. He called on his people in the Old Testament to care for widows, orphans, people who were oppressed, and foreigners in their land (Dt. 14:28-29). He wanted his people to provide aid in forms of material resources and hospitality to those on the fringes of society. As the God of love and justice, this fits his character (Psalm 103:2,6). It also fits that God is frustrated by people who are preoccupied with possessions at the expense of their fellow man and their love for him. God desires followers who behave like he does: generously living with and giving to all people. Injustice breaks this mold. God values justice because God values people.
Jesus and Justice
God’s most earth-shattering promise of justice for his people in the Old Testament was through a savior—his Son, the Messiah. It was the promise that the Messiah would restore creation to the perfection God intended, including his promise to restore justice (Isaiah 42). Jesus of Nazareth, being the Messiah, confirmed the prophecies about justice in the Old Testament. In Luke 4 Jesus claimed that he was sent to “preach good news to the poor and to proclaim liberty to the captives.” It fits perfectly with how God described himself. Throughout Jesus’ life, he cared for those who did not receive justice from society—the ignored and the alien. He healed lepers, befriended sinners, and conversed with people not of the family of Israel. Even his own disciples were themselves on the fringes of society. Simply put, Jesus cared about all people.
Christians are called to care about other people because that’s what Jesus does.
The phrase “You are what you eat” has a parallel in Christianity – you become more like what you put your ultimate trust in. The God in whom a person places trust shapes them, and for Christians this is Jesus.
Jesus calls his people to carry on the work that he does, including bringing about social justice for others. Speaking of those people who love him, Jesus says:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
The Bible directly appeals to Christians to care about people. All people are valuable to God, so all people are valuable to Christians. Jesus has had great mercy on Christians, and because of this love Christians are to genuinely love others, even those who can’t help them back.
Certainly, Christians fail, and often. This is why Christians must assess their own lives. They look to Jesus, leaning on him for salvation and forgiveness, while they strive to carry out the command of Jesus, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Christians and Social Activism
Many use activism to try to change lives for the better. Fittingly, Christians have turned to activism to help groups of people neglected by society. The Abolition Movement and Civil Rights Movement owed much of their momentum to Christian organizations. Even today, many Christians and Christian charities feed the hungry and clothe the naked in their communities.
This work involves government. Christians are to be active in government, but Christian activism knows no political party. Christians do not get to choose which causes are Christian, Jesus does. Always, Jesus’ cause is people. Christians, no matter their political party, are to care for children, to feed to hungry, to aid the poor, and to be hospitable to strangers in their community.
There is only one ultimate, final solution to social injustice.
Humanity can do much to relieve its own suffering. People can work to limit the pain of homelessness, poverty, prejudice, and racism. However, there will never be a time that humanity will be able eradicate social injustice. Humans are too sinfully selfish. No, the job of bringing justice for all time belongs only to Jesus Christ. He has promised to alleviate suffering and justice for believers at his return. The creation that is unjust and broken will be recreated through Christ. At that point he will take away pain and suffering for all time and destroy forever its cause—sin. Jesus paid for this sin once and for all on the cross, and he will return to spread justice. And, as is prophesied in Isaiah, “He will not tire until he has established justice in the earth…” Jesus is the lasting solution to injustice. This is the hope in which Christians put their faith.