What Does Social Justice Really Mean?
How would you define social justice?
It’s not hard to imagine that you’re having a hard time. Despite the fact that social justice is a social and political buzz word that rules our media and political conversation, it’s often something that we talk about in passing without giving it further thought. There’s the social justice that’s talked about in our society, but as Christians, we also need to be aware of the difference between secular and Biblical justice. Our society is so motivated by narrow and individualistic mindsets, that when we compare what justice looks like, we see the complexities and incomplete nature of justice in our a secular world. It can be hard to truly understand Biblical justice as more than just being committed to serving others and advocating for justice.
Here are four important things Christians should know about Biblical justice.
1. Biblical social justice challenges social norms.
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honourable name by which you were called?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:1-13 (ESV)
When we put this passage up against the social context of today, we see that it echoes our current thoughts: wealthy people – either inside the church or not – are seen as more valuable and more significant. We look to the poor and carry out our good intentions by providing meals, but often we treat them as less than. And it’s not just the poor that we do this to – those in minorities, ethnically or racially, and to those with a criminal background.
But what we’re left with are churches who express their discomfort in being in community with people who don’t make as much money as them or who don’t look like them. It simply shows how much of an impact the social norms influence and define the lifestyles and practices of many Christians.
Justice for a Christian requires challenging and rejecting the social norms that show partiality to people with elite status.
2. Christian social justice requires true grace and mercy.
When we look at what our culture is today, we often see that our ideas of people’s behaviours and practices are reason enough for us to not lend a hand to assist them. We justify this by looking at the situation of others and comparing them to what we think they should be doing to no longer need our help. Not one of us leads a spotless life, yet the thought is that we’re spared somehow because we’re more privileged. Ultimately, we are all saved and sustained because of the grace of God.
How many times do you repeat that same act of sin that demonstrates a rejection of God, and yet he continues to bless us and spare us with things that we don’t deserve? By allowing the grace and mercy of God to fully come into our lives, we learn to be more willing and we grow in the ability to be just.
3. Christian social justice requires destigmatizing people.
The assumptions that we make about people, either individually or collectively, are directly connected to how we will behave towards them. If we consistently subscribe to negative stigmas about people with criminal backgrounds, whatever ministry or service that we do toward the group will be paternalistic, borne out of negativity and in many cases, old-fashioned bigotry. If in the first few moments of communicating with someone, you’re thinking negatively, it’s you that needs to re-evaluate your thought process. It doesn’t require you to adopt different viewpoints, all that is required to de-stigmatize is critical thinking and gracious generosity.
4. Christian social justice requires sacrifice.
The continued sacrifice that is required is emotional, physical and mental. Physically we need to engage with those who are less fortunate or who are looked upon as less than in our community. That translates to hosting people who have less money or social standing and inviting them in. Mentally, we need to learn how to broaden our ideas politically and take the time to learn what the term justice really means.
In the original article, the author discusses a book titled Justice, by professor Michael Sander. Sander defines three frameworks of justice:
- The utilitarian worldview, which emphasizes justice for the common good
- The liberal framework, which champions individual rights
- And the conservative perspective, which emphasizes morality
Today, we are so narrowed in our political thinking that we see justice in one or two frameworks.
Biblical justice, however, is dedicated to all three: helping communities (utilitarian), civil rights for individuals (liberal), and morality (conservative).
Mentally and intellectually, we need to stand up and abandon our narrow political frameworks of justice and embrace the holistic view of Biblical justice. And, emotionally, we sacrifice our desire to remain comfortable. The sacrifice that is required insists that we need to truly love and care for others, even if it makes us uncomfortable and even when that person or community feels unlovable.
So often in our episodes, Ryan will say that God is deeply concerned with all aspects of our lives. And that is absolutely true in this case as well. God is deeply concerned about justice and when we realize that and understand and embrace God’s view of justice, we recognize that His view of justice requires more than our secular society. He provides hope and liberation, so much more than our political parties or our culture’s skewed worldview. Moving away from our comfort zones and into spaces of vulnerability and risk, we’ll most likely feel uncomfortable, but God doesn’t promise comfortability. When we step into God’s call for justice and His plan for our lives, we will be living our lives toward the eternal home that God is preparing for His children – a home that is free of injustice and free of pain.
The original article was published on Relevant Magazine on September 6, 2018, titled, What Does ‘Social Justice’ Really Mean?
If you would like to hear more on social justice, Danielle Strickland, joined the indoubt Podcast on March 25, 2019: Ep. 167: Why Does Social Justice Matter?