One of the catchphrases in the contemporary church is social justice. Although it is by no means a new phrase—having come into being in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the ravages of industrialization in the Western world—social justice has become part of the hipster creed. From TOMS Shoes to fair trade coffee, consumer-oriented social justice has come of age!
Development of Social Justice
In the 19th century, modern social justice in the church was focused upon educating and feeding the young children that worked under abysmal conditions in crude factories. It is during this time period that Protestant Sunday schools were formed. After the evangelical renaissance in the 1940s, social justice took a back seat to the community-forming mission of the church in a postwar era. For a generation nursed on world war, the comfort and care of the local church was important.
Nevertheless, the Vietnam War, the onslaught of drug abuse, economic hardship, sexism, racism, AIDS, 9/11, the onset of globalization and unrestrained mass consumption brought the concept of social justice back in the form we see it today.
All Christians should agree that the concept of justice is not only a biblical concept, but also a missional imperative embodied in the gospel. Again and again, we see Jesus in the gospels feeding the poor, healing the sick, and confronting the contemporary powers whether spiritual, material, or political. Indeed, justice, as it is witnessed in scripture, springs from the divine act of selfless love. It is in love, compassion, and mercy for the other that the call to justice is sounded.
The Character of Social Justice
However, the administration of biblical justice is not simple. This form of justice is not retribution; it is not punishment. This form of justice is neither manipulative, nor is it coercive. These are the forms of justice we see in our secular world today, born of anger or fear. Biblical justice, born out of divine love, is expressed in redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. Biblical justice affirms that it is in our separation from the holy God (sin) that we are distanced from a healthy reality, which simply begets the seeds of injustice in the forms of selfishness, lust, avarice, greed, anger, hatred, and murder. When these seeds come to fruition, they spread like a virus throughout a society, and when conceived in the majority of a population, result in societal prejudice, coercion, and violence.
Following David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, the results of this sin had disastrous consequences for his family and the state, ultimately resulting in the division of the Kingdom of Israel. Greed, lust for power, and a desire to emulate the kingdoms surrounding them brought idolatrous worship as well as economic and political injustice to God’s people in both Judah and Israel. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Amos protested endlessly against the injustices in Judah and Israel during the 8th and 7th centuries, to no avail. The machinations of both kingdoms brought their downfall by the surrounding powers. Nevertheless, the prophets’ siren call to redemption and restoration resounded over time and distance. God has never desired the death of His people but rather their redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.
The Church and Social Justice
In Jesus, the Church takes up the mantle of both prophet and gospel. We are the ones who cry out like a “voice in the wilderness” to all creation. We proclaim God’s love for the whole world, calling it to change its mind and experience true redemption and reconciliation to God in Christ. The Church is the good news incarnate; a taste of the eschatological Kingdom of God, today. In that the Church is called to the mission of Jesus, we are called to enact justice for our world. This justice is both personal and corporate; individual and social. We must discern the injustice in our communities, and speak intuitively, with resolve, towards the ultimate resolution of those issues. At times, our involvement will require action; first spiritually, then physically. If the injustice is grievous, we must be prepared to endure scorn and even harm. This is the testimony of Jesus.
Many of us often fear, and even shy away from, the very idea of public dissent and action. The truth is we have already given our oath to God that we will serve his purposes in the Kingdom. How can this be though? The Apostle Paul recalls the event which shapes our covenant with Jesus in these words:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NASB95)
This Lord’s Supper, this eucharist, is a public declaration of our love for Christ, and our dedication to his mission and message. As we enter into this act, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. This identification with Christ places us squarely in the instrumental role of “Justice of the Peace”—not like the contemporary local judge, but rather as deputies of the Prince of Peace, called to carry out the justice of Christ. As God so loves the world, we represent that love to the world, bringing justice—fairness, equality, plenty, healing, and, in doing so, the message of the Kingdom—to the world. Justice begins with eating—eating the bread of His body and drinking the blood of His life. It is an act that declares our allegiance to the Kingdom of God and a protest aimed at the injustices in our world. It is the beginning of justice.