Social Justice as Part of the Christian Lifestyle
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In the first half of your essay generate a broad and deep biblical basis for social justice being an integral part of the Christian life. In the second half of the essay, synthesising all the material from this unit, clearly communicate your understanding of the interplay between the three (3) areas of faith, reason and justice, refer to historical and contemporary figures engaged in justice and give your own personal response.
Social Justice is a response from God’s own heart as he loves and rules over His Creation, faithfully, reasonably and justly. As His people, our response should mirror His, not only towards our Creator but with Creation as well. Social Justice is defined as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society (Lea, 2017) and practised, with varying success, as a philosophical idea promoting the interests of all people in a society, no matter their wealth, status or circumstances. This term originated from a desire to create economic and social equality between workers and the wealthy in the Industrial revolution (Manolopoulou, 2017, 3). Justice is multi-layered and requires understanding beyond a definition, as Wytsma says, “Justice is a sum of many parts” recognising that love, mercy, service, charity, ethics, truth, integrity, laws, righteousness and more come together to form true Biblical justice (Wytsma, 2013, 4). Today, justice is used to describe the underlying principle for diplomatic and prosperous coexistence within and among nations and the peaceful and thriving relationships between neighbours (Caritas Australia, 2019). This idea has always been at the centre of Jewish and Christian culture but has also been adopted by the secular world. Even as early as the creation of human beings, we see that God created humans to have His likeness (Gen 1:27), imbuing us with his character and acknowledging that all humans are created equal, with a desire and right to be treated with fairness and justice. Although this perfect ideal was broken by The Fall resulting in malfunctioning faith (Volf, 2011) and a breakdown of social justice, Jesus enabled propitiation for the sins of all humans, giving people the opportunity to accept grace and salvation. Understanding that all have fallen short (Rom 3:23) and all are both guilty and responsible, yet are freed and still called to repent, restore and redeem; means that social justice is possible once more.
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2. Social justice, an integral part of the Christian life
Social Justice is God ordained and has a strong and clear Biblical basis throughout the Old and New Testaments as an essential Christian value in daily life. The overarching narrative in the Bible promotes equality of all people as God’s creation and as a response to human sin, God’s Word also shows justice and grace held in tension, as both are necessary for righteousness and genuine transformative change. These things coupled with proactive, preventative principles such as the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:2-17), as well as reactionary practices responding to injustice such as deacons distributing food to widows and orphans (Acts 6:2-3) demonstrate the people of God’s cultural value of social justice throughout history, uniquely standing apart from the world’s social values of status, wealth and power. While social justice was not exclusive to God’s people, in surrounding cultures such as Mesopotamia and Egypt, it seemed to serve the interests of the rulers of the time to satisfy public opinion, perpetrate other injustices, be short-lived or was implemented poorly (Hendrickx, 1985, 3-6). What set the Israelites apart was that that their King was not a god, was not the source of the law, did not create the law and therefore, was not above the law and needed to submit to justice which was inseparable from God’s character (Epsztein, 1986, 105). From the nomadic time of those faithful to God to the days of establishing the nation of Israel, we see justice described, enacted and prioritised by God and intended for His people. God’s ‘mishpath’ is a legal and restorative justice and ‘sedek’ is a relational justice (Hendrickz, 1985, 16-20), both of which are used prolifically in the Old Testament to describe His just nature, actions and gift of justice, a gift of His good intention and plan to enact that intention. God heard His people’s cries when they were enslaved under Egyptian rule (Exo 3:7), He freed them and then compelled them to do the same for others (Exo 22:22). God intended to establish belonging and security for the Israelites in the Promised land (Josh 1:2-3) and instructed them on how to maintain it (Deut 15:4-5). God established a system of justice and reparation through the commandments and judges were entrusted to steward that system (Deut 25:1) saving the people from oppression (Hendrickx, 1985, 16) and mirroring God’s image and His character of justice, compassion, moral clarity and rescue (Haugen, 2009). These values and systems to execute them were unique to the Israelites when compared with contemporary cultures; however, the iniquity of the people to misinterpret and corrupt them was not. Unfortunately, time and again, God’s own people committed ‘hamas’ meaning violence, exploitation, abuse, oppression and betrayal (Hendrickx, 1985, 21-26) by the rich and powerful, towards the poor and vulnerable. As God’s people repented and obeyed the Lord, social justice and equality flourished (2 Kings 23:10), but whenever they turned from their calling, embracing idolatry and corruption (Mic 3:5,9) the most marginalized suffered. All of this prepared the way for the world to see social justice in a new way. Instead of being slaves to the law, where strict codes of conduct could be manipulated for selfish gain (Isa 10:1-2) and values and reality were juxtaposed (Prov 14:20-21, 31), people were about to experience a voluntary servitude that could only result from true freedom and the restoration of all people’s intrinsic value and rights. When many of the Jewish people had given up their faith that God was just, Jesus appeared, fully God and fully human, to re-energise social justice as revolutionary, relational justice. Jesus’ mission to declare good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind and free the oppressed (Luke 4:17-21) wasn’t just a statement but a state of mind which he applied in his life, transforming the lives of others. Radically, culturally different from the religious leaders of the time, Jesus didn’t judge failures of justice by the law, he fulfilled the law by restoring, healing and preventing malfunctions of faith (Volf, 2001). Jesus lived the call for justice through relationship, whether by proximity, dining with the socially segregated (Mark 2:15) and physically touching the untouchables (Matt 8:2-3) or influence, teaching whoever would listen (Mark 6:34) such as he did when he gave the sermon on the Mount. He diagnosed a problem, identified the harmful consequences and gave specific practical guidance on how to transform the situation (Matt 5:3-12). Not only that, but to restore justice completely, Jesus gave up his own life to satisfy the just consequences of sin to relationally reconcile human sinners with the Holy Father (Rom 5:6-11). And while reasonably that should have been the end, Jesus was resurrected to amplify our perception of God’s power and love for us, showing He is not satisfied with justice as a bare minimum standard, but a reasoned and faithful outpouring of justice is one where the Saviour lives, is active and dwells with His people (Acts 2:24). In other words, “Our sins were the judicial ground of the sufferings of Christ, so that they were a satisfaction of justice; and his righteousness is the judicial ground of our acceptance with God, so that our pardon is an act of justice.” (Hodge, 2003, 151). From the indwelling of the Holy Spirit on the day on Pentecost onwards (Acts 2), to the strong, just, moral lifestyle of the Early Church (James 1:27), it is evident that social justice to them was more than just a legal code, a self-seeking tool to manipulate others or pressure from public opinion. Social Justice was and continues to be an integral part of the Christian life.
3. Faith, Reason and Justice
The Christian life is intertwined with social justice to a level where the two are meaningless without the other, as James says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2:17-18). Faith and reason compliment each other, as God has gifted a complex ability to reason and solve problems, this gift should be employed as Christians seek to think through, question and reflect on their faith (2 Tim 2:7). Reason also affects the way we understand and apply justice with a Christian perspective and the critical analysis of God’s Word, and our modern cultural context is necessary to determine what is truly right and just (2 Tim 3:16-17). These three essential elements interplay in the Christian life to emulate the life of Jesus and promote human flourishing (Volf, 2001). Because of Paul’s writing about human rights, The Early Church were counter-cultural in their approach to justice, stemming from a radical love and genuine care for all people. Notably, the Christians of Corinth saved the city from the plague in 252AD (Parrish, 2015) in a selfless act which was unheard of at the time, as the culture literally ‘avoided this like the plague’. As Christianity began to increase in popularity, the Roman emperor Constantine converted and condoned the worship of the one true God, bringing in in era which opposed infanticide, the degradation of women, gladiatorial combat, and slavery, (Parrish, 2015) transforming Roman culture, laws, social life and the Church. In the Middle Ages Christian monasteries established formal hospitals and education. Monks taught that classical philosophy and theology were able to be reconciled as well as academics and practical skills like agriculture and the arts (Parrish, 2015). This paved the way for reason and argument to be valued alongside faith and social justice. In the Reformation, education continued to be prioritised as printing was popularised and the Bible was mass produced, enabling more people access to the Word of God. Martin Luther opposed the selling of indulgences as a means of exploiting the poor and reformed the way faith, reason and justice were viewed at the time (Parrish, 2015). John Calvin believed that the Church was no longer fulfilling it’s calling from Christ – to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, exercise church discipline, and care for the poor. So, he set about holding the government accountable to the high standards necessary to care for its poor and reforming the church to do the same (Tuininga, 2018). Christian revivals in America and England sought to build social spaces such as parks and libraries, establish universities, promote just values through literature like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriett Beecher Stowe and create a foundation for ethical politics as in the American Declaration of Independence. Howard, Fry, Fliedner, Nightingale and Cooper are among many passionate Christians who reformed prisons, healthcare and child labour laws while Wesley, Whitfield and Wilberforce were the first to regulate and then later to abolish slavery based on compassionate Christian beliefs (Parrish, 2015). More recently Missionary and Philanthropic organisations such as the Salvation Army, Barnardo’s, the Red Cross, YMCA, and CMS were formed to promote faith, reason and justice around the world. These organisations have significantly transformed cultural mindsets, poverty and the treatment of the poor, inclusion, aid, hospitality, education, medicine and cultural practises such as widow-burning and child sacrifice (Parrish, 2015). In the last century Martin Luther King Jnr campaigned for the civil rights of African American citizens through peaceful means and in Australia Frank Engel and other Christian leaders and organisations opposed assimilation and supported the rights of Indigenous people to their own culture and their traditional land (Taffe, 2014). Today the likes of Liz Bohannon, who established Sseko designs as a means of promoting opportunities for women in East Africa to end the cycle of poverty and create a more equitable society (Bohannon, 2019) and Robin Seyfert, founder of Basha which provides training, employment, children’s programs and other support to women and their families who are at risk or have been sexually exploited (Seyfert, 2019) continue the legacy left before them to live lives of faith, reason and justice. While many more examples remain, these few show the incredible dedication Christian men and women have displayed to engaging with faith, reason and justice and advocating for them to be agents of change in traditionally non-Christian or secular cultures. These examples also show the interplay between faith, reason and justice which support, influence, create and confirm one another as if they were three strands of the same cord, woven for strength and are not easily broken (Ecc 4:12).
4. Personal Response
Injustice is unconscious (Samson, 2007, 47) but it is not invisible. In our modern Australian culture it’s normal not to think about the consequences of everyday tasks – purchasing clothes, filling up at the petrol station, eating a hamburger, cleaning the bathroom, walking to work and countless others – but it is our unconscious actions that can have the most devastating and far-reaching consequences. Taking the time to use our God given reason to follow an action to its end can change lives, for example, purchasing jeans at one store or another may perpetrate slave labour in a sweatshop or strengthen a struggling economy providing jobs to those who otherwise would be forced into slavery. Then using faith to apply that knowledge wisely, seek the good of others and make disciples, we can find solutions to the problems we didn’t know were there and transform lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. Responding with justice means we can take steps to form new systems, restore hope and create change in different ways, whether procedural, restorative, retributive, redemptive or distributive (Maiese, 2003). Once this has occurred, we can also implement pro-active justice to prevent further injustice in the future with solutions like positive discrimination where workplaces with low Indigenous representation may specifically hire or give preference to Indigenous applicants or community preventative policing where neighbourhoods would ensure clean up and maintenance of all properties, even abandoned ones, to deter vandals and petty crime. Injustice is not invisible, but we can be blinded to it whether by choice or circumstance. Australian culture often shields us from injustice through media coverage, convenience and education; however, more and more voices are being heard in an effort to fight for developing countries, minorities, refugees, the environment and the vulnerable. Once you see, you are responsible. Once you are aware, you are able to advocate. Peace or ‘shalom’ exists when we deal with the things that cause unrest and we live up to our responsibilities (Samson, 2007, 178). Upstream prevention and downstream care are two key factors necessary for transformative change in the area of social justice. I would go on to argue that for true transformation and innovation to occur, reason and faith are necessary, and they are so intimately connected with justice and an essential part of the Christian life. Micah 6:8 declares “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This call to act, love and walk is a practical yet deeply philosophical and theological embodiment of the interplay of faith, reason and justice. Most importantly, it leaves no excuse for inaction, “Evil need nothing more to accomplish its end, than good men who look on and do nothing.” (Aked, 1916). The passage in Micah gives us something to do and our world leaves us much to look on. And we must do something, not just think something, solely using our reason or make something religious instead of seeking a relationship with God, relegating our faith to death by idleness (Samson, 2007, 79). Our response to injustice should not only be actively living out faith, reason and justice together, but also as the passage suggests, living humbly. This humility invites grace into devastating problems which affect real people. Our response must include listening, empathy and acceptance at its core. Christian influence is powerful but should be balanced without judgement, acknowledging the views of others in our pluralistic society. Our influence, including the apologetic methods we use to communicate the benefits of God’s desire and parameters for society, should be attractive and compelling but not at the cost of imposition or indifference. Even Christian approaches to justice, from conservative, emphasising equal liberty, to liberal who advocate for equal worth or a radical approach which is concerned with structures and immediacy (O’Donoghue, Moore, Habel, Crotty, Crotty, 1993, 10-13) need to be humbly considered to find a solution that meets the needs of the people affected. We should respond to God’s call for justice, mercy and humility with faith and reason, revealing the invisible and making conscious the unconscious.
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Social justice has a broad and deep Biblical basis, from Creation to Revelation and is an integral part of the Christian life, inseparable from faith. The interplay between faith, reason and justice, can be seen throughout history and is a response to injustice and evil that mirrors God’s own heart. God established the law to affirm the equal value and rights of all people yet the fracture of relationship with God and the disobedience caused by sin meant that people fell short in implementing social justice. Because of Jesus, humans are able to experience justice and grace and now restore and redeem others in His name. These Biblical values form a lens through which we see the world and all its problems and solutions as well as our responsibility of guilt and making right the injustice we see. The strong legacy of Christian figures engaged in justice throughout history and today, provide a wealth of wisdom and experience useful in many circumstances and contexts. Their example, along with solid schools of thought on methods of implementing justice and living alongside those with different ideas pave the way for all Christians to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (Mic 6:8). Ultimately, Christians need to approach the problem of social justice through relationship with God and His creation, trusting in His plan for redemption and restoration. This relationship fuels the responses of faith, reason and justice which overflow into the lives of a family member, a stranger, a community and beyond. The Christian is empowered to set wrongs right, challenge thinking and persuade decision making only when connected to the source of faith, reason and justice, our Lord Jesus Christ.
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