Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Strange Tension of Biblical Social Justice

Social justice is a hot-button issue on Christian university campuses, it seems. In both my experiences at Sioux Falls and Bethel seminaries, it would seem that a deep concern for social justice issues is the trend (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word, unfortunately). In my experience over the last several years, most students' ideas of what social justice is usually translates to liberal politics, or as Phil Johnson puts it (at right):

But a little deeper thought about what social justice looks like in scripture should give us a bit of a different perspective. I've been thinking about this issue for a while, mostly because I am faced with it as the popular trend whenever I go to school. Most of my professors seem to feel that social justice concerns are the primary issue the church is facing right now, and specifically that the church, quite frankly, sucks at it (although I've dispelled this myth here and here). My "deeper thoughts" about this topic have centered around two areas: social justice for the world, and social justice for Christians.

First of all, we can certainly affirm that God values social justice. He does not like oppression or inequality, or poverty, or unfair laws, etc. He values freedom, equality, fairness, and charity. This is observable in scripture in a myriad of ways. In Amos 5 God refuses to receive the sacrifices of his people precisely because the rich were walking on the backs of the poor. There was no fairness, no equality. The rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. So because of this, God basically cuts his people off. In Luke 4 Jesus proclaims that he has come to the world to set the captives free, liberate the oppressed, and bring good news to the poor. Even a cursory glimpse of his life and ministry shows how he reached out and ministered to the least of these. John the Baptist instructs those who participated in his baptism (particularly the tax collectors and Roman soldiers) that one of the main behavior modifications that should be present as a result of their repentance is fairness and equity in their dealings with others. To be sure, social justice issues are big deals to God and his people.

Over and above God's valuing of social justice is his command to his people to pursue social justice causes as well. We are to have the same attitude as Jesus, our example, and stand up for the cause of the oppressed and the captive, and those who have been treated unfairly and unjustly. This is where many of my professors and classmates would say the church has dropped the ball (although, again, this is not true). And the typical belief of these folks is that the government needs to pick up where the church left off.

The interesting thing, when it comes to social justice for believers, however, is that it would seem that it is something that we are not supposed to pursue for ourselves. In other words, scripture seems to say that when we are treated unfairly, or are taken advantage of, or are held in inequality, we are not to try to rectify our situation in the same way that we would for those oppressed people of the world. For example, what would Jesus have me do if I, as his follower, were treated unfairly in some way? Would he have me demand fairness for myself? Would he have me stand up for my rights? That's certainly not what Jesus did when he was "oppressed" (to put it lightly). Instead of standing up for his rights, Jesus suffered. He took what was given to him. He didn't fight to be treated fair, or even with justice, and it seems to me that scripture teaches Christians to not demand justice for themselves.

Why not? I think part of the answer is that our satisfaction - our joy - is not found in justice or fairness for ourselves, or our "rights." Rather, our satisfaction and joy are found in God. Therefore, when our rights are trampled on and when we are treated like garbage, and when the wicked flourish while we waste away, we can remain satisfied, knowing that we belong to God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously says that if a person (presumably one of his followers) is struck on the face, he should offer the other cheek as well. What? You mean he shouldn't confront the guy and say, "What gives you the right to treat me so badly? I'm going to report you to the authorities!" Similarly, Jesus says that if someone demands your robe, you should offer him your tunic as well? "Huh? Why? It's my tunic, for crying out loud! The guy isn't entitled to my robe, let alone my tunic!" Jesus also says that if someone asks you to go with him one mile, go with him two. Jesus said this because there was a Roman law that stated a Roman soldier could legally require anyone to carry his armor for up to one Roman mile. Jesus is saying that instead of demanding your rights be respected, and that the Roman soldier had no right to ask you to take his armor for any distance, instead, submit to him and and suffer. That's pretty radical, and it's part of the counter-cultural-ness of being a follower of Jesus. I would even dare to say that part of being a Christian is sacrificing your rights and gladly putting up with unfairness and inequality.

So there's at least some tension between the kind of justice we are to give others, and the kind we are to demand for ourselves. How do we balance standing up for justice for the oppressed and yet not demand it for ourselves? There's a significant line that needs to be walked that, when crossed, could lead to selfishness and pride. It's also an interesting paradox that fits nicely with Jesus' words about the last being first, and that he who would be great must first be the servant of all. Maybe when it comes to social justice issues, the point is that we put ourselves low by not demanding our rights, while standing up for the rights of others.

I've only just begun thinking about this, so sorry if my thoughts are a bit disjointed and hard to follow! At the least, it's given me something to think about and flesh out further as time goes on.

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