Engaging in social justice can be challenging, difficult, and risky work. It is easy to understand why many present-day Christians have relinquished this responsibility and redefined the gospel so that it is not about social justice at all.
Some Christians think that it is enough to care for those in need and participate in acts of mercy and charity. Ministering to those in need is certainly an essential part of the Christian life, but it is not the only essential part. Working for a just world is also a non-negotiable component of discipleship to Jesus.
The following story highlights the difference:
Once there was a town built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river.
One person was dead, so they buried that one. One was alive, but very sick, so they put that person in the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they placed with a family that cared for the child and took the child to school.
From that day forward, a number of bodies came floating down the river and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to the hospital, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead.
This went on for years. Each week brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each week, but also developed more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some even gave up their jobs so they could devote themselves to this work full time. The townspeople began to even feel a certain healthy pride in their generosity and care for them.
However, during all those years and despite all their generosity, no one thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from sight what was above them, and find out why all those bodies kept floating down the river.
Herein is the difference between private charity and social justice, between doing acts of mercy and confronting systems of injustice. Private charity responds to the needs of the homeless and the poor, but social justice tries to get at the reasons why there are homeless and poor people in the first place and offer constructive solutions.
While charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about trying to change the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Charity is about helping the victims of war, while social justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war.
Social justice tackles such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, heath care, violence, immigration, and the environment. It takes on huge, blind economic, political, social, and religious systems that deprive some even as they unduly privilege others—systems in which we are all complicit.
This, I believe, is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). He certainly had more in view than private charity and personal piety, as important as these are.
The word translated “righteousness” can also be translated “justice.” Justice in the Hebrew-Christian tradition differs significantly from the way many employ the term today to mean “getting what one deserves.”
According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, the meaning of “justice/righteousness” is principally about actions that sustain and improve community well-being, particularly those that show special attentiveness to the poor and needy. The Hebrew prophets railed against religious and political leaders who spurned justice, but yet were very pious and religious (Isa. 1, Amos 5, etc.).
Social justice is not about what is legal; rather, it concerns what is good, fair, gracious, and just. It’s committed to the dignity of all people and to eliminating the causes of oppression, poverty, and injustice. Its focus is the common good, not private interest. It’s centered on God’s kingdom on earth, not the afterlife.
The late social prophet William Sloan Coffin noted that public good does not necessarily follow on the heels of private virtue. A person’s moral character in and of itself is insufficient to serve the cause of justice.
It takes great courage to challenge the status quo and speak truth to power. Real virtue is bound to the pursuit of restorative justice—the well-being and life enhancement of the community. Without this quality our faith fails and falls under the judgment of God.
(The above piece was adapted from chapter 6, “The Upside-Down Kingdom (Beatitudes)” in my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Each article of each chapter is followed by “Going Deeper” comments and questions making it a good resource for reading and study groups, as well as for personal reflection.)
Chuck Queen is a Baptist pastor and the author of A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel. He blogs at A Fresh Perspective.