How I learned that paying attention to social justice is discovering how to listen with God’s ears.

Basahin sa wikang Tagalog.

Something puzzling has been popping up in my social media feeds in the past little while. There have been debates about the role that justice, or more particularly social justice plays in the life of the church. It’s puzzling to me because for the past number of years social justice and related issues have been central to my life and ministry. But I guess it hasn’t always been that way for me. I remember many years ago when I first heard the phrase social gospel wondering what it meant and why it was considered important to some and unimportant to others. This initial curiosity led me down a path towards developing practical theologies that help the church engage society.

I thought this might be a good venue to explain a little bit why I feel that churches should be involved in justice ministries, including what the bible has to say about them, how the church can emphasize them, and how they truly reflect who God is. Will you join me in my explanation?

Defining Social Justice.

First, let’s begin with defining our terms so that we can all be on the same page and ensure that we are talking about the same issues. I guess we can just take each word in order and then look at how they are used together. According to Oxford, “social” means “relating to society or its organization” and “justice” means “just behaviour or treatment.” When we put the two words together we get “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” That seems pretty straightforward in addition to seeming like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? It also seems to be addressing a series of issues also addressed in the bible.

Justice in the Bible.

In the Bible we read about justice as helping widows, the poor, and the foreigner.

Here are a couple of ideas and verses (out of the 443 verses that mention justice) that we can interact with when it comes to justice:

God wants us to care for victims, oppressors, exploitation, orphans, widows, and innocents who have been killed: Jeremiah 22:3 clearly states, “This is what the LORD says: Administer justice and righteousness. Rescue the victim of robbery from the hand of his oppressor. Don’t exploit or brutalize the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow. Don’t shed innocent blood in this place.”

God wants us to pay fair wages: Jeremiah 22:13 “Woe for the one who builds his palace through unrighteousness, his upper rooms through injustice, who makes his fellow man serve without pay and will not give him his wages,”

God is interested in the poor, and in economic fairness: Ezekiel 18:17 “He keeps his hand from harming the poor, not taking interest or profit on a loan. He practices My ordinances (ie. justice) and follows My statutes.”

God wants us to prioritise justice with our entire lives: Amos 5:24 “But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.”

God shows us how to incorporate the equitable division of property into our systems. The Promised Land was divided up into tribal land units that were intended to stay with each family in perpetuity.

God shows us one way to incorporate debt forgiveness into our systems. We also have this rather strange system called the year of Jubilee. The year of Jubilee ensured that economic pressures that caused people to sell their properties or even themselves would get relief every 50 years. What’s interesting to note is that, while the bible records the promulgation of this law, we never read about how this was actually implemented.

Jesus talked about his main purpose as targeted towards the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and sinners. This is most clearly stated in his first sermon in Luke 4, where he quotes Isaiah. We also see this in his seemingly continual emphasis on things like healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, and discipling to tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.

I don’t know about you but it sure seems like the bible is interested in “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”

Eliminating Poverty as the Social Agenda of the Church.

The bible also mentions the curious situation of the poor always being with us and there being no more poor with us. Deuteronomy 15:4 says, “In any case, there shouldn’t be any poor people among you, because the Lord your God will certainly bless you in the land he is giving you as your own possession.” Just a few verses later we read in v11: “There will always be poor people in the land. That’s why I command you to be generous to other Israelites who are poor and needy.”

So, on the one hand there will always be poor in the land but on the other hand there shouldn’t have to be poor in the land. Both verses encourage others to help eliminate poverty through generosity and even Jubilee. This is, according to Dr. Jun Vencer, the evangelical agenda.

What makes the issue more complex for us today is that poverty is not merely economic. In fact, in the Asian Development Bank’s report on poverty, we discover that poverty has fourteen core indicators, only one or two of which are economic in nature. That gives ample opportunity for the church to engage the world on several levels, including basic survival, security, and enabling.

Church as center for Diakonia.

Going beyond this, the basic identity of the church is in its function of diakonia, which is serving God and kapwa (“myself in the Other”). This service includes the stuff labelled here as “social justice” but of course goes beyond that.

That is why the church throughout the ages has been concerned with the things God is concerned with — orphans and widows, feeding the poor, critiquing society’s sins and evils, and why it helps during natural evils like typhoons and earthquakes, as well as helping people deal with their own personal versions of evil.

I am not sure what happened in the history of the church or in the development of theology that has led the church away from these realities.

All Truth is God’s Truth.

One of the issues I have seen raised is that social justice may have its heart in the right place but since Jesus isn’t a part of the equation then it’s not biblical. This is a good time to talk about an idea that I first heard about at Canadian Baptist Seminary (so many years ago). I should also point out that it took me quite a while to appreciate what it was saying. The idea is that “all truth is God’s truth.” This is derived from two biblical truths: Jesus is said to be the … “truth” and Satan is said to be “The father of lies.” That means if something is true then it is from God, regardless of the source. What I mean by this is that even if it’s not explicitly from the Bible it can still be true. It also means that if it is false, then it is from the devil.

So what?

What all this means is that we need to spend time focussing on the right stuff. I suspect that many Christians who are opposed to social justice are so because those practicing social justice are doing a better job of being the church than the church is! We as the church have focussed for so long on the life hereafter that we have sometimes ignored the life here and now. We can see this in our method of evangelism — “If you were to die today do you know where you will go?” It ignores the idea of “If you were to keep living your life today do you know how you would reflect God’s love in the world?”

God’s Ears.

I would like to wrap this all up by reflecting on how, in Exodus 3, we read about God hearing Israel’s cries for justice and beginning actions that eventually led to their escape from Egypt. That’s why this post is entitled learning to listen with God’s ears.

I realise that not all may agree with my take on social justice and the church. If you have a different perspective I would love to read about it in the comments below. I would especially love to hear your take on what the Bible says about it.

If you have found any of this useful, please don’t forget to follow and like this blog.

Remember sharing is what friends do!

Image by imdadul hussain on Unsplash.

One thought on “How I learned that paying attention to social justice is discovering how to listen with God’s ears.

  1. Pingback: Paano ko natutunan na ang pagbibigay pansin sa katarungang panlipunan ay pagtuklas kung paano ako’y makinig gamit ang mga tainga ng Diyos. | Michael J. Fast

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