Social Justice Needs the Cross
When you hear the term “social justice” what comes to mind? The definition of this term can be pretty difficult to nail down. For every political, theological, and humanistic perspective there are differing definitions. And the extent of each perspective can differ. That is, should our goal be a totally realized fair society? And how is that justice dispensed? Is justice primarily retributive (punishment rightly given) or distributive (provision for those in need)? Are we talking justice in the arena of health care, tax policies, education funding, or immigration? Furthermore, the emotional nature of this issue sometimes makes it difficult to discern the best way to approach it. Seeing rows of sidewalk squatters and multiple tent villages around Honolulu, not to mention the suffering we do not see (sex-trafficking victims, the sick, the lonely) makes the Christian heart cry out for justice. But where to begin?
Clarity for the Christian is vital if we are to engage our society and those who are downcast. We need a biblical concern for the community. And most importantly, if we are to approach this biblically, action must be taken in light of the Gospel; otherwise our efforts could, in fact, be counterproductive – all in the name of Jesus Christ.
I’ll admit upfront that I, in no way, have this figured out. I cannot answer many of the questions raised concerning social justice. But let’s at least get the thinking process started with what the Scriptures say.
I think it’s helpful first to define who the needy truly are. In his article “An Evangelical Response To The Preaching of Amos” (Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 28:4, Dec. 1985) Thomas John Finley explains four words that describe “the poor” in Israel (from the book of Amos). The first word (Amos 2:6, 5:12) designates those who are innocent or righteous (in the eyes of the law), yet have experienced oppression of some kind. Simply put, these are innocent victims. The second term describes those who are needy or have a lack. They may lack food, water, basic necessities, or legal assistance before the courts. The best way to describe the third word (4:1) for poor is that they are the “have nots”. To be poor is a relative term in any society. So this word connotes a need, yet a relative one within its community. The fourth word for poor (2:7) means “afflicted” or “helpless”. These individuals have been overrun by the powerful and are, therefore, helpless, needy, and poor. Its connection to other Old Testament texts gives it the idea of suffering.
These words and their meanings give us, at least, some starting point toward which we can aim our ministry. When emotion or public opinion or those claiming to have need cloud our judgment, God’s word can help us discern who truly are needy from those who are misguided or attempting to take advantage of the well-intentioned.
Our hearts must be guided by God Himself, who established laws in His word to protect the poor. For example, indebted individuals who sell themselves into slavery were not to be treated as slaves, but as hired hands and only for a temporary period of time (Leviticus 25:39-43). Partiality and bribes were forbidden, while due process of law was required for all (Deuteronomy 10:17-19). Robbery and extortion (a type of oppression) was forbidden (Leviticus 6:1ff.). It was unlawful to charge the poor interest when lending them money (Exodus 22:25). Within this sampling of laws one can easily see the protective heart of God towards the poor. And we must have the same heart.
Our ultimate example is Christ Himself who, in His earthly ministry, modeled compassion, help, and love to the lowly. The leper in Christ’s time was to live outside the city in isolation since he was considered ceremonially unclean. He was to out himself to society, tearing his clothes, uncovering his hair, and crying, “Unclean! Unclean!” to all those around him (Leviticus 13:45-46). He was to stay several feet away from any person at all times. This was nothing short of legal banishment. And in a society where one’s physical condition (health, etc.) was believed to correspond to one’s spiritual condition, the leper was seen as wicked, shameful, and sinful. He was not allowed to worship with the community, work in the community, nor socialize with the community. He was to be avoided at all costs and left for dead.
If there was one who was considered victim, oppressed, suffering, and poor it was the leper. Yet we see the Messiah (Matthew 8:1-4) approach this poor man (a shocking scene!), reach out His hand in compassion (Mark 1:41), and touch him. And immediately the leper is helped. He is healed. And Jesus does this over and over again, to all who are sick, poor, outcast, and needy. This is the heart of Christ for the downcast and lowly and it must be our heart as well. If we are to be Christlike, we cannot avoid it.
But we also cannot avoid the fact that this is not the ultimate work Christ came to do. He was merciful, yes, and helping, yes. But He did not stop at the flesh or the emotions. His most glorious work was done on the cross when He died for the souls of sinners. His greatest work is a heart and soul work. And so the work of God and the work of Christ must ultimately point to this.
Do not miss the point that all that God and Christ are doing for the lowly are prefiguring what happens in salvation. The Gospel restores, rescues, delivers, and saves. And whereas earthly help is profitable for this life only, the Gospel gives help for this life and the life to come. This is the point and purpose of social justice: to point the way to the cross and the Gospel, which is our ultimate help. Without the centrality of the Gospel in social justice we are missing the point. Social justice begins with the Gospel and flows from the Gospel.
My pastor has said, “If you don’t point them to Christ you don’t help them.” He’s right. To give money, to provide necessities, to give support, but to ignore the cross does disservice to and ignores the work for which Christ ultimately came. In fact, in Christ souls already are neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian nor Scythian, slave nor free, “but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11; Galatians 3:28). Christ’s work in the Gospel is ultimate social justice and God is the greatest pursuer of social justice. What we will never see in our lifetime (“for you always have the poor with you”, Mark 14:7) God will finish. He will restore all things and bring justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1-2).
Now what does this look like in your context? That’s your job and your church’s job to figure out. Churches need to meditate on the Gospel and let it teach us and move us to be more generous, compassionate, and merciful as Christ is to us. We need to study our community and discern the truly needy. We must pray for wisdom, give sacrificially, and discuss tactics that are workable where we live (which may include partnering with mercy ministries who are like-minded in the centrality of the Gospel). So I say yes to social justice. But social justice needs the cross.
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