Unpacking Biblical and Social Justice

I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions lately from people outside of Antioch about the phrase Social Justice. It seems there is a lot of work to do in the unpacking of biblical and social justice.

The So-Called Biblical Argument Against Social Justice

The argument that gets made and that I’ve heard over the years has two points and then a conclusion:

One, for a few generations, social justice has been seen as a sidetrack from the redemptive purpose and gospel message of the church.

Second, social justice is a focal point of many non-christian groups… whether they be atheistic, Buddhist or otherwise.

Therefore, we should avoid getting tangled up in causes that distract from Christ and diminish our unique position in the world as Christians.

I don’t think the premises or the conclusion hold up.

Justice and Our Redemptive Mission

The discussion could be cashed out in length, which is beyond the scope of this blog, but here are two quick rejoinders:

1) Isaiah 42 makes it pretty clear that one of the inextricable purposes of Jesus’ coming was to bring justice. It goes on and calls us to join in helping the oppressed, poor and needy. Then Isaiah ties this to the glory of God and our own joy in serving him.

In short, justice isn’t a distraction, it is a part of our redemptive purpose. Furthermore, justice is a part of the gospel… Jesus came to do for me what I could not do for myself and now I join him in that work as an outflow of my gratitude for his grace and lovingkindness.

Walking to the Other Side of the Jericho Road

2) The second argument is what I call a “guilty by association” argument. If someone I don’t like or agree with is doing something then I should do the opposite.

This is just plain silly.

If a Buddhist or atheist practices forgiveness, does that mean we have to walk away from forgiveness? Of course not. Something is valuable in and of itself and the Christian is called to practice righteousness with no eye to comparison games. (In fact, Paul praised the gentiles (non-Christians) in the Book of Romans for doing what the law required (justice) without even having the books of the law etc. They were “picking up their rooms” or “sharing,” so to speak, without even having been told to do so.)

Maybe the problem is the word “social.” Even this seems unimportant. The word social is usually put in front of justice so that we don’t think of merely court systems and legal disputes. Social justice is a broad-based justice movement that extends beyond the courts into the social spheres of life.

I find the word helpful, but if it causes problems I am okay with simply justice.

The Historic Christian Problem of Neglecting Justice

What we should keep in mind in this discussion, however, is that when God rebuked his followers it was more often than not because they had neglected justice, not because they had dug in for the proper wording or sat on the sidelines so as not to mix with the other team. (Remember the Good Samaritan story?)

The issue isn’t how justice or social justice sits with us or affects our sensitivities… the issue is whether we are focused on it and see it as part of our redemptive calling (Is 42).

It seems that we, like the Pharisees in the New Testament, find it easier to debate causes instead of being dedicated to them.

[P.S. The latest conversation I had on this topic came this morning over coffee. For the first time in a while someone actually asked me directly what I meant and how I saw it related to our Christian calling. If only more people would handle hot button discussions this maturely we might actually get somewhere!!]



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