A week ago Sunday I led an Adult Christian forum between services at a Denver church with a real heart for social justice. My topic was “The Gospel Imperative to Do Social Justice: Living into God’s Vision of Shalom.”
I chose two Bible verses to highlight:
ISAIAH 1:17 (NRSV)
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
MICAH 6:8 (NRSV)
He had told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness [mercy],
and to walk humbly with your God?
These verses from the Old Testament prophets comprehensively name the things that we must do to engage social justice. Their teachings are straightforward: seek justice, and give aid to the oppressed.
In scripture, as in real life, teachings are always given within contexts. Isaiah and Micah gave the teachings in these verses while telling the Israelites to stop their ways of life that were full of conflict, enmity, and ill will, and to turn towards the righteous ways of God.
Doing justice and showing mercy always point towards our neighbors and must be done in community and with community. You can’t do justice and show mercy sitting alone in your house, even if you have great online connections. Rescuing, defending, pleading require presence – your humanity showing up in person to respond to another’s needs – your humanity connecting to another’s humanity.
You also can’t do justice and show mercy going it alone. You need allies for courage, strength, and support to persevere. Justice is long-term work. For a Christian who promises to follow Jesus, it is our life’s work. There is an Ashanti proverb that says: “Bannu ye. If you want to go fast, go alone; but it you want to go far, go with a team.” Don’t be the flash in the pan.
There are many ways to know God, and each of us, shaped with different characteristics of God, respond to God in different ways. Some of us know God through social justice work, which brings us close to the heart of God – to Jesus and Jesus’ example of his life’s ministry. Scripture is very clear in naming those to whom we must show justice and mercy: the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the victim.
Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador was martyred the day after he called for soldiers to disobey orders that violated human rights. Romero was a speaker of truth to power, protesting his government’s policies of torture, terror, and assassination.
Pope John Paul VI said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Peace in English, Shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Arabic. Peace means much more than the absence of conflict. In biblical terms, peace encompasses a safety and security that is exemplified by the Good Samaritan who rescued a stranger in dire need, paid for the stranger’s care and recovery, and was willing to return to pay more for the stranger’s care. The peace of God, which we exchange in the Eucharistic mass, is a promise of safety, security, and true neighborliness of the kind that Jesus manifested.
In God’s vision of Shalom, mercy [kindness] to the oppressed, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the victim, is an extension of the love in Jesus’ New Commandment [John 13:34 (NRSV)] “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus’ example of love is the ultimate standard to which we are called.
We are called to show love not just to the literal categories of the orphan, the widow, the alien, the poor, the victim, but also to those who are represented by these iconic categories – the ones who have been abandoned by society, friendless and lacking love, and the ones who are poor in spirit, disillusioned, depressed, and lacking hope.
Towards the end of the adult forum, a young person bravely shared the pain and despair about the absence of social justice that had become constant companions, as that young person read the news and followed friends’ stories of being judged, ostracized, and abandoned. The question inherent in the pain-filled sharing, which very appropriately was brought to the church community in the adult forum, was “What can I do? Where is the hope?”
My response, then and now, is about beginning. Individually and in a short period, we cannot see the fruits of our justice work and the kindness we have shown to others. But we can begin the journey towards hope.
We begin with prayer, in conversation with God, and in conversation with our communities through shared prayer and worship. And we walk towards the light. We walk towards the saving grace and peace of Jesus, who is the light of the world. As we walk in the light, our spirits are lifted and we gain strength from the communion of saints among whom we walk. When we feel like we are in the deepest darkness of our lives and souls, that is when we most need to walk towards the light.
We can be light for one another.