(If you read my first article in this series, you can skip the introduction and pick up with new content after the line.)
Lately, the term “social justice” has been criticized heavily by more conservative-leaning Christians. They insist it has no place in the modern practice (or even parlance) 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 believe in social justice and even be a Christian.
I have spoken with several pastors who have been confronted by congregants or even their 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 social media posts or lose significant funding from their sending church.
In condemning this so-called false gospel, 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 bad word 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).
If arguments from the Old Testament aren’t persuasive, perhaps considering the person and work of Jesus is more helpful. The author of Hebrews calls Jesus “the author and perfector of our faith,” so his witness is meaningful. The call to “fix our eyes” on Him is, presumably, not for worship and admiration alone, but to inspire imitation in us.
Jesus’ Mission Statement
The first words out of Jesus’ mouth at his ministry launch were not subtle:
“The Spirit of the Lord the Eternal One is on Me.
Why? Because the Eternal designated Me
to be His representative to the poor, to preach good news to them.
He sent Me to tell those who are held captive that they can now be set free,
and to tell the blind that they can now see.
He sent Me to liberate those held down by oppression.
In short, the Spirit is upon Me to proclaim that now is the time;
this is the jubilee season of the Eternal One’s grace.” (Luke 4:18-19, THE VOICE)
After quoting Isaiah there, Jesus rolls up the scroll and says that the verse is talking about him. Right off the top, his mission and vision for his ministry is pronounced — to represent the poor (emphasis mine), to preach Good news, to insist on freedom for the captive and oppressed. Did Jesus come to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10)? Of course! But Jesus did not see his missions as mutually exclusive. Nor should we. This is instructive to folks who insist the work of the Church is spiritual, not social.
Jesus drew no such lines. The social work is spiritual work.
When we preach the same things, and live out the same things, we are not imitating dangerous liberation theologians, we’re imitating Jesus — the Liberating King Himself. When you speak up for oppressed people — minorities, human trafficking victims, refugees, the unborn — you’re not buying into a Marxist agenda, you’re buying into Jesus’ agenda. Jesus went first.
Judgement for the Unjust
The religious of Jesus’ day didn’t get it, either. They favored a ceremonial faith that did little to help others. Here’s what Jesus had to say to them about their outward religious professions which were emptied of acts of justice for their neighbor:
“Well, now that you mention it, watch out, all you religious scholars! Judgment will come on you too! You load other people down with unbearable burdens of rules and regulations, but you don’t lift a finger to help others.” (Luke 11:46, THE VOICE)
Or consider this warning:
“So woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees. You hypocrites! You tithe from your luxuries and your spices, giving away a tenth of your mint, your dill, and your cumin. But you have ignored the essentials of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness. It is practice of the latter that makes sense of the former.” (Matthew 23:23, THE VOICE)
Time and time again, Jesus reserves some of his harshest language for those who play church really well but don’t do a thing to combat inequality or meet human needs.
Perhaps most famous is his Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25, where it is those who have fed the hungry, provided water for the thirsty, clothed the naked, comforted the sick, welcomed the stranger, and expressed solidarity with the captive who are called the “sheep.“ They are heavily rewarded because “whatever you did for the last of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
By contrast, the goats do not respond to these same needs, leaving the stranger unwelcome and the hungry un-fed and the sick un-cared for. Because they did not act justly, they are left weeping and gnashing their teeth. They talked a big game, but did nothing.
Jesus says to them, “depart from me.”
Jesus Raised the Ante
There was predictable (and fair) critique of my Israel Believed in Social Justice
article. It appeared to some that I was simply plucking useful, justice-oriented passages from the Old Testament. My intent was not to ignore hard topics. I just don’t think the Old Testament adequately addresses them.
I think Jesus does.
Here are three points of tension in the old covenant that I think the new covenant informs:
1. What about the injustice of God-ordained genocide?
Rightly, some questioned the consistency of my argument when in the Old Testament God mandated the elimination of whole towns. Where was the justice for the Canaanites, for instance? These are troubling passages indeed, and I’m no Old Testament scholar. But this I do know — Jesus changes the rules. Justice in His teaching is not retributive, but restorative.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Jesus’ teaching of enemy love is a new mandate, and one we should be living by. Therefore, questions of Old Testament justice are not irrelevant, but they are also not comprehensive. Jesus has given us a new covenant with a new definition of justice.
2. What about the injustice of capital punishment?
Again, Jesus turns a “You’ve heard it said” into a “But I say.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.“ (Matthew 5:38-42)
Again, it’s restorative, not retributive. While capital punishment is invoked in the old covenant, you don’t find it in the new.
3. What about the injustice of racism?
For every welcome of Ruth or mandate to care for the foreigner, there is also explicit racism in the Old Testament. Intermarrying was disallowed, for example. “Othering” was a thing, for sure. But again, the new covenant abolishes this:
Peter’s vision and interaction with Cornelius (Acts 10) is a clear rebuke of all racism. Clearly, Paul’s view of racism is equally clear:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.“ (Galatians 3:26-29, NIV)
This, of course, does not mean there are not races, it just means that for anyone who claims to be in Christ, there should be no hint of racism and no sense of ethnic superiority (nor misogyny).
It’s Pauline and Jesus-y to combat racism in the name of justice, not Marxist.
Jesus’ Incarnational Ministry of Solidarity
If all of this isn’t enough to convince us that Jesus is serious about his mission to liberate the poor and oppressed, and moreover to convince us that Jesus takes things a layer deeper than the Old Testament, we would do well to underscore all of his teaching and practice with the reality that when God incarnated God-self into a human form, God did so not as a rich and powerful ruler, but as a humble and impoverished servant depending upon the generosity of others and sharing a common purse with friends.
He chose solidarity in the incarnation.
Jesus also chose solidarity with those who suffer through his own suffering. I am all for atonement theory, but that wasn’t all that was going on in the crucifixion. Jesus was saving us, yes, but was He not also showing us that he really is with us, even in suffering? That has been a message cherished by oppressed people for ages.
When Jesus invited us to take up our own cross daily (Luke 9:23), he was inviting us to stand in solidarity with human suffering (and with him) as well.
In his teaching, his healing, his life, and his ministry — and even in his death — Jesus demonstrates time and time again that justice issues really are Jesus issues.
I don’t understand how anyone could argue otherwise.
Or why they would want to.