I am involved in a faith-based, legal aid organization that provides legal services and holistic help to people who live on the margins of our society. We call it “Gospel justice”, which is the title of a book written by Bruce Strom, the founder of the organization, Administer Justice. (See Gospel Justice)
I am aware of the skepticism with which Christians, and conservatives, generally, view “social justice”. While many Christians of the more liberal stripe (and liberals generally) embrace social justice, more conservative and orthodox Christians have learned to disassociate from social justice.
Labels, however, aren’t ultimately we are very helpful when it comes to nuanced understanding. We also have to be careful here that we don’t mix politics and the faith to the determent of the Gospel. This is true on both sides of the political aisle. Our politics shouldn’t define our faith.
We follow Jesus on what turns out to be a rather narrow road that doesn’t often follow the paths the world has beaten. Thus, I have been thinking for months about writing on the topic of social justice. I guess it’s time I do.
I think we need to start by acknowledging that our God is a God of Justice. Jesus focused on Justice prominently in his ministry. In fact, Jesus began his earthly ministry with an announcement that he came to bring justice:
“’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21)
I don’t think this announcement was meant simply to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah. It was that, but it was much deeper than that. Justice is God’s character, and Jesus was the embodiment of God in the flesh.
The character of god was demonstrated by Jesus everywhere he went, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free from the demons that bound them. Jesus did these things mainly on the fringes of society where the marginalized live – the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed.
The wealthy, comfortably righteous leaders of his time were put off by his unseemly demonstrations. The accused him at arm’s length of cavorting with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. The people Jesus tended to be seen with were not the sort of people respectful synagogue-goers associated with.
The parable of the good Samaritan was unsettling to them, no doubt, as it should be for us. Touching lepers and letting unruly young children interrupt his sermons were departures from respectable norms. Jesus seemed to go out of his way to encounter the dregs of First Century Judea and didn’t even flinch when the unclean touched him.
These things should, perhaps, be unsettling in what it implies for those who might aim to follow after him today.
Lest we fail to give proper weight to his example, Jesus left nothing to the imagination when he told the parable of the sheep and the goats. Lest we miss the point, Jesus summed it up:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
(Matthew 25:40,45) It seems inescapable that the things we like to call “justice” today were central to the ministry of Jesus and top of his mind.
The life of the First Century followers of Jesus exhibited the same focus on justice among its members. The wealthier members among them voluntarily sold their possessions so that none would want. (Acts 4:36-5:11)
James, the brother of Jesus, exhorted First Century Christians as follows:
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
When Paul met with Peter and the other key leaders in Jerusalem, they accepted him as a brother in Christ, anointed to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and confirmed the message he was preaching. According to Paul, they had only one instruction for him:
“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10)
Lest we think that “justice” was only a concern among the community of believers, Christians made a distinctive reputation for themselves in the Greco-Roman world. It wasn’t hard to do, because charity toward the poor was not a Greco-Roman norm. (See How the Poor Became Blessed) The followers of Jesus stood in sharp contrast to the Greco-Roman standard.
That contrast was noted by Julian the Apostate in a letter to Arsacius, acknowledging “the kindness of Christians to strangers”. The apostate leader was shamed by the good example of the lowly Christians:
“Why then do we … not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?…. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.” (See Julian the Apostate Letter to Arsacius)(emphasis added)
These are examples in the early church of the prominence of what we often call “justice” in modern lingo: concern for the distribution of food and wealth, and concern for the poor, widows, orphans and strangers – people on the margins.
The first deacons of the early church were chosen to handle the distribution of food among the believers. (Acts 6:1-7) And here is the key: they were appointed for this reason so that those who were preaching the gospel could continue to do so unhindered.
This example underscores the prime importance of the Gospel, but it also highlights the need to pay attention to “justice” at the same time. If we don’t pay attention to justice, the Gospel is hindered.
The primary concern was to free up the preachers of the Gospel to preach, yet the men who were appointed as deacons were no spiritual slouches. They were men “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom ….” (Acts 6:3) One of them, Stephen, gave one of the most moving defenses of the Gospel in all of Scripture. (Acts 7)
And thus, the term, “Gospel justice”, conveys the right emphasis: the Gospel is preeminent, even as justice, itself, is a primary emphasis of the Gospel. The Gospel and justice go together. They are separated only to the detriment of the advance of the Gospel.
Some may be called to preach, but we are all called to do justice:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
This is the primary business of the church because it is primary to the purpose of God. On these points we (Christians) should not be confused. Justice and the good news go together, just as Jesus announced in the beginning on his public ministry. They cannot, should not, be separated.
Why, then, does confusion persist? Why are people within the church divided on the preeminence of the need to preach the Gospel, and the primacy of doing justice?
I will try to address these questions in the next blog article on Social Justice and Gospel Justice, Part II.