Thinking biblically about social justice
by Kevin Cox
“I’m not really religious, but I like coming to your events!” commented a student at a university in Worcester, Mass. The student was helping out at a Operation Christmas Child Packing Party our Christian club opened up to the campus community. Besides the OCC event we have also hosted social justice service events where we partnered with International Mission Board missionaries educating Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Muslim, non-religious, Buddhist and atheist students have come to our Christian events focused on serving, loving and seeking justice for the vulnerable. At these events we interweave social justice, compassionate service, and the message of Christianity. At every event students hear about why we do justice and love others while we build relationships with them. They are told about a God who “works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6, ESV) and a Savior who demonstrated his love for us by dying for us (see 1 John 4:9-10).
While all Christians would affirm sharing the truth of the Gospel, some question whether Christians should practice social justice. And if so, how should Christians think biblically about efforts of seeking justice in their communities and around the world?
Should Bible-believing Christians “seek justice”?
Bible-believing Christians are by definition people who seek to live according to the Scriptures. Of course we understand that the Bible commands us to love our neighbor, but a deeper exploration of what it means to love our neighbor reveals that loving others may mean seeking justice on their behalf. Take for example the oft-quoted verse from Micah 6:8, “...What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” Love and justice are intertwined in the social interactions of God’s people. Lest we think that justice is not denoting social action, we can find the same word “justice” used in Isaiah 1:17. It reads, “Learn to do right; seek justice; defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”[i] All are actions that give the oppressed and vulnerable their God-given rights as humans made in His image. Therefore we can generally define “doing justice” from the Bible as acting to give people what they deserve[ii] or as so powerfully stated in our Constitution, rights “endowed by their Creator.”
There are many Bible verses in the New Testament that demonstrate “doing justice” should be practiced among Christians and churches today, but the simplest and possibly strongest arguments come from the Great Commandment and the Great Commission (see Matt. 22:36-40 & Matt. 28:18-20). Already the verses cited from the Old Testament demonstrate that love and justice are intertwined, so to love our neighbor implies seeking his or her justice when he or she is not being treated fairly. Further Jesus tells us that His people will be blessed if they “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6), righteousness being the same word often translated justice. Thus conservative Bible scholar D.A. Carson comments on this verse, “These people hunger and thirst not only that they may be righteous…, but that justice may be done everywhere.”[iii] In the Great Commission we are told by Jesus to teach disciples “everything I have commanded you.” Therefore, in order to follow our Savior’s commands we teach others to love their neighbor by both compassionate actions of love and seeking justice.
Who is my neighbor?
As you likely know, Jesus provides an example when asked the question “who is my neighbor.” The example Jesus provides is an enemy to Jews who has been treated unjustly, exploited and left vulnerable (see Luke 10:29-37). Here we see Jesus building upon the Old Testament definitions of one who was particularly in need of justice: the fatherless, the widow, the poor and the alien (arguably comparable to the modern-day illegal immigrant).[iv] As Baptist scholar Craig Blomberg explains, “[The Old Testament] calls on God’s people to treat with justice the poor, oppressed, fatherless, widow and alien in the land.”[v] Those who are the easiest to take advantage of are the ones who are most often exploited thereby in need of loving justice to protect them.
How can we as individuals and churches start practicing justice?
It may come as a surprise, but I think many of you already are seeking justice! Recently on a trip sponsored by the Baptist Convention of New England’s Disaster Relief, I was awakened to how disaster relief seeks to do justice. We witnessed first-hand how in the wake of disasters, many exploit, steal, cheat, and take advantage of their neighbors. But when Christians come to lovingly serve in a fair, ethical manner, we give people what they deserve: just treatment. But even more we clothe it in love and grace when we demonstrate and share the Gospel.
As a denomination of churches, we have much to celebrate. Still by focusing on the Scripture’s mandate to practice justice we will also become aware of blind spots in our lives and churches. We must open our eyes to look for those who are the most vulnerable for exploitation in our communities and around the world. We can begin by thinking through the biblical categories from the Old Testament, some of which are explicitly reiterated when James saw those most vulnerable in his congregation (see James 1:27). Though by no means exhaustive, I hope the examples below will give you some ideas for thinking of one way you may start doing justice work.
Fatherless or Orphan: As most of us know, abortion claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable children every year in the United States. At the same time, thousands of children are in the foster care system in New England because of neglect or abuse. Advocacy and volunteering with women’s healthcare clinics are one way we can make a difference. Churches are also desperately needed to care for and adopt the thousands of children in foster-care.
Widow: Currently, in Massachusetts we are again facing a bill legalizing “death with dignity.” We have to stand for justice by speaking out against laws that would provide an opportunity for others to exploit the elderly.
Poor & Oppressed: There are many good works that seek to address issues in this category, to name a few: education for at-risk children, social ministries for the homeless, feeding programs, clothing programs, racial reconciliation initiatives, fighting human trafficking, family parenting training, efforts to combat pornography and exploitation of women.
Alien (Immigrant): While admitedly immigration is an extremely divisive issue today, the command of Scripture is to love, care for and seek biblical justice on behalf of the immigrant. You could begin a ministry to refugees in your community such as an ESL program. Commit to building friendships with international students, refugees or a local non-English speaking church. Partner with International Mission Board initiatives to serve and evangelize refugees.
Having seen God work through community service and justice events, one of our Christian club student leaders recently said, “I am thankful that a part of Christianity is based off loving and helping others because it’s a great way to get the [students from my college] to connect to Christianity.” By serving those in need and inviting your non-Christian friends to join in with you, you could fight injustice together. At the same time you may be building bridges to sharing with them about the God who died to reconcile unjust people like us. By seeking justice we may not only give our neighbor what they deserve, we may also share with them what they do not deserve…grace.
[i]See the textual note on justly in Micah 6:8. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible, eBook, Edited by D.A. Carson, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), Loc 211769.
[ii]Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, (New York: Dutton, 2010), 3-4.
[iii]D.A. Carson, Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Edition, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010),164.
[iv]Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 78.
Kevin Cox is a collegiate missionary in Worcester, Mass.