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Social Justice Themes

 

The call to Social Justice is a call to not only be concerned about our own pain but the pain of others, especially those suffering injustice
 

Rationale

In the beginning, God saw all that he had made and saw that it was good, indeed, very good.  When sin came into the world, with it came death and all the evils related to it. One aspect of this suffering is our own personal experience of suffering, which raises questions about God's goodness, his power and indeed his existence. Beyond our own personal experience, are those larger Social Justice issues which involve not just a few people, but in some cases millions of people and which call us to stand up and be Christ's agents in the world. In Christ dying on the cross, God has not a philosophical answer to pain and suffering but he took action to set all people free. As he was sent by the Father, so we have been sent into the world to also take action, John 20:19-23. This unit focuses on these issues, particularly those which are caused by injustice, past and present, and asks what should we do?

 

***Justice is a very large theme in the Bible. Terms like justice, just and related words like righteousness and justified appear over 100 times in the OT and are prominent in the NT as well. It is a very rich concept, describing both God’s nature and actions and how God would have us to live. The modern term Social Justice is not Biblical in origin nor does it mean precisely the same thing as the Biblical concept of Justice. Social Justice is a conflation of two ideas. One is that there are many Social needs to which we should respond. The term Justice has the idea of doing what is right. By joining them together, the idea is that the Social needs which abound are in fact issues relating to what is right, often in the sense that something has been done which is wrong, or Unjust, and which has caused the Social needs. Hence, responding to these needs is not primarily a matter of compassion or even love but of Justice. The consequence of this conflation is that as with all matters of Justice, governments are called on to use whatever power they have to rectify the Injustice, which will not be done fully until there is no more Social need. (See the video from PragerU, What is Social Justice?, in the resource section for a helpful short discussion)
 
The Biblical concept of Justice is not unrelated to the above but the differences need to be kept in mind so that our approach is thoroughly Biblical and not simply an echo of the world. The following 9 aspects of Justice in the Bible should be kept in mind (see  J. B. Payne, “Justice,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 634. for the full discussion)
 
  1. The first meaning is to be straight and can refer to a physical object (Levitivcus 19:36, weights and measures)
  2. Next, it means to conform to an accepted code of conduct or set of rules ( Dt 16:18,20)
  3. Since God is the highest standard it comes to mean God’s will and conformity to his will ( Dt 32:4)
  4. It thus becomes the standard by which God judges our behaviour (Gn 18:19)
  5. Which leads to God’s act of punishing the breaking of his will or laws (Exodus 9:27, referring to the plagues God visited on Egypt)
  6. The other side of this is God’s actions in vindicating or rescuing those who have been wronged (Judges 5:11, referring to God delivering his people)
  7. An extension of this is God’s not only saving those who have been wronged but forgiving those who have acted unjustly but who turn to him for forgiveness (Psalm 51:14, referring to David’s plea to be forgiven)
  8. This finds its full expression in the NT where God, through Jesus dying on the cross, justifies those who are unjust and yet remains just himself. It is the death of Jesus on the cross which allows God to do both (Romans 3:26)
  9. The final extension is that to do justice is to intervene on behalf on the weak and downtrodden and in general help the poor. This last meaning involves first that group who have been disenfranchised because of injustice, for example, widows and the poor and needy, (Jer 22:16), were easily taken advantage of by the rich and powerful, and second those who had had no injustice done to them but still need help. In this last sense, justice comes to be identical with mercy, compassion and love.
 
It is in this last sense that the Biblical idea of Justice most nearly approximates to the idea behind Social Justice. The chief distinction being that not all Social needs are matters of Justice or derive from Injustice, yet God would have us to reach out in compassion, mercy and love and that in so doing we fulfill the real root of God’s justice, which is his love. It is because God loves us that he always does what is right, and it is because we love him and love our neighbour that we also should do what is right, because we understand that God’s laws have been given precisely because they are good for us and so are expressions of his love towards us.
 
 

Key Concepts

  • God created all things good
  • Pain and suffering came because of sin
  • Jesus came to set the captives free, both metaphorically and literally
  • We are the Body of Christ, sent to continue the mission for which Jesus was sent into the world
  • God is a God of justice, one expression of which is to reach out to those in need and to set free those who require deliverance from injustice
  • The term Social Justice combines both of these ideas, but tends to conflate them as if every issue has both elements
  • What are the key issues today?
  • What should we do?
  • Jesus came to bring us life, John 10:10. However, the ultimate expression of this is in eternity, so how does preaching the gospel relate to these questions?
 

Scripture References

Isaiah 1:16-17 - the kind of worship God requires is one which does good, seeks justice, removes oppression (see also Amos 5:21-24)
Isaiah 42:1-9 - the Messiah will bring justice (in all its forms) to the nations
Micah 6:8 - what does God require from us?
Matthew 23:23 - the false righteousness of the pharisees
Revelation 19:1-2 - the judgements at the end of the age 
Matthew 5 -7 - the Sermon on the Mount as the Christian guide to righteousness and especially The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-11, as the heart attitude God wants
Luke 4:14-21 - the mission of Jesus
Jesus Feeds 5,000 People (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15) - showing his concern for our physical as well as spiritual needs
Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan
Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43 - Blind Bartimaeus; the healing miracles of Jesus in general are all expressions of God’s concern for our needs in this life
Isaiah 58 - the true fasting and Sabbath the Lord desires; this is a major emphasis in the prophets, that true worship is not about ceremony or how we dress or talk and even what we say we believe, but is about deeds of righteousness (justice)
John 20:19-23 - we are sent even as Jesus was sent by the Father; the mission of Jesus is to undo all the effects of sin. This will not happen fully until he returns, but it begins now, both by people coming into a relationship with God through Jesus, and so experiencing the life to come now, and by seeking to give expression to kingdom values by trying to make this world a better place.
 

Resources

The campaign against slavery in the 19th century by William Wilberforce and others in England and the Abolition movement in the USA as an example of Christianity and social change (see How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J Schmidt)
Martin Luther King and the Black Civil Rights movement in the USA
Websites for any of the many NGO's involved in Social Justice issues (see Resources for Mission unit for fuller listing):
Books
 

Ideas/Strategies for Lessons

Get in guest speaker from any relevant organisation e.g. Salvation Army
Brainstorm: What is a Social Justice issue? How do you define it? What was done in the past? What is being done now? How does the preaching of the Gospel relate to these issues? How does it relate to the Biblical concept of justice.
Choose an issue and make it a focus, or assign an issue to a student or student  who must prepare and then lead a discussion group in a seminar format. Possible issues include:
Poverty
Homelessness
Refugees in general
Boat people
Current European refugee crisis
Religious persecution
Child sex trade
Exploitation of women in the sex industry in general
Child slavery
Economic slavery
Racism
Social issues of the Aboriginal community
Political persecution
Same Sex marriage and other related issues
***All of these issues have more than one side to the story, and it is not always clear what is the Christian thing to do. A simplistic approach should be avoided. Our students need to think things through at a deeper level and not be carried away by rhetoric