Lately, the term “social justice” has been criticized heavily by more conservative-leaning Christians. They insist it has no place in the modern parlance (much less the practice) of the Church. They assert it is a creation of the leftist elite bent on taking down Christianity. I’ve entertained arguments that you can’t advocate for social justice and even be a Christian.
I have also spoken with several pastors who have been confronted by fellow congregants and even church leaders (senior pastors, elders, etc.) about applying the Gospel to issues under this “social justice” banner. Some have been asked to resign and some have been cautioned about their social media posts or participating in protests. One young pastor and his wife, about to set off onto the mission field, were told to remove certain online opinions or they would lose significant funding from their sending church.
In condemning this so-called heresy, these leaders ignore about four thousand years of biblical history as well as two thousand subsequent years when the people of God are consistently noted for their determination to make the lives of the people around them better and more fair (which is what social justice is).
Let me say it as plainly as I can — the people of God have always lived out a justice-oriented Gospel as an essential fruit of the faith they hold. If you think “social justice” is a false teaching originating from the dark mind of Karl Marx and his cronies, consider these biblical mandates for the people of God (given centuries and even millennia before Marx was a glimmer in his mother’s eye).
Justice for the Poor
Caring for the poor has always been a command of God to God’s people.
It starts for the people of Israel in the Law.
“…there will always be poor people throughout the country. That’s why I’m giving you this command: give generously to your fellow Israelite, to the poor and needy in the land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, THE VOICE)
I’ve heard people use Jesus’ quoting of this verse (Matthew 26:11) as an argument for not helping the poor, but it’s clear that the intent here is to provide for those in need. That’s what Israel understood, plainly.
Therefore, they lived it out.
Take the beautiful story of Ruth, for instance. After following her mother-in-law back to Israel from Moab, Ruth is sent to the fields to follow those harvesting grain. One of the ways Israel provided for the hungry was by allowing them to pick up what fell to the side. Ruth got everything she needed from this “welfare” system (see Ruth 2).
(This helpful article points out, among other things, that Marxism would’ve been the government taking the whole field and dividing it up equally, something God did not command. I acknowledge government-mandated sharing and God-mandated sharing are two different things, although one wonders why many want the government to be more ‘godly’ in some areas, but not the issue of providing for the poor.)
Justice for the Immigrant & Refugee
It wasn’t just the hungry that Israel was to care for. They were to welcome the stranger among them (Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 19:34, others). Ruth, again, serves as a great example of this, but she is not an exception. Rather, she is the rule.
This teaching is clear in the Old Testament law:
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, English Standard Version)
Lest you assume this is undisputed and widely accepted theology in the Church today, it is worth noting that I caused no small amount of problems for myself by asking my church in 2016/2017 if we planned to address the growing refugee crisis. I was told we’d “only upset half the congregation,” and later (due to this and other unwelcome questions) was asked to resign.
Long before America was divided over images of kids in cages, Israel was told by God to actively welcome strangers.
I guess God didn’t care who was upset about it.
Justice, in General
As for “justice” in general, it is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament (over 100 times in the New International Version). There are cries for justice around unfair sentencing and judgments and favoring the rich and powerful as far back as Leviticus, which was, you probably know, the law of the land.
“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15, ESV)
Partiality based on race, socio-economics, or citizenship is all expressly forbidden in the Scriptures. This has numerous implications for modern life, not the least of which are sentencing irregularities, the for-profit prison system, and the shrouded racism embedded in modern economics. There’s really no intellectually honest argument to the contrary.
What God Says to the Unjust
If the mandate toward acts of justice isn’t plain enough already, you should hear how God responds when Israel disobeys. The Prophets in Israel spoke for God on this point.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24, ESV)
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV)
“How awful it will be for those who mandate wickedness
and legalize oppression, denying justice to the needy,
Taking away the rights of the poor among My people.
Such leaders intend to make helpless widows and orphans their prey.
How will you opportunists handle the day of reckoning?
What will you do when trouble comes from far away?
Will you run away from the disaster you caused?
Who will help you? Where will you leave all your wealth?” (Isaiah 10:1-2, THE VOICE)
Or consider the “Great Requirement” of Micah 6:8.
“What does the Lord require of you? Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”