I still remember when Glen Beck told viewers of his (then) daily FOXNews show something to the effect of: if the pastor of your church talks about the importance of social justice, then you need to find a new church. That was years ago, and I’ve heard it said time and time again by conservative commentators. The phrase social justice has functioned in much the same way the word “woke” now functions. It’s just a way to label and dismiss anyone who does not distill Christianity down into an impotent Americanized Christian fundamentalism or Christian nationalism. This short clip includes a comment I made off the cuff in a recent talk I gave. It wasn’t in my manuscript. I think it gets to the unconscious reason social justice is often so maligned. Consciously, it’s just a culture war thing. Unconsciously, slamming social justice and those who promote is an attempt to create Christianity without suffering, without the cross.
Justice is Where History is Headed
In the bible, to do justice is to surrender to the current of what God is ultimately doing in the world, to surrender to the future God has for us. The prophet Amos wrote: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). The type of justice Amos is talking about refers to the basic human obligations we owe to one another. Justice, in the biblical sense, is not about punishing criminals. It’s about everyone having enough of what they need to flourish, to find wholeness and peace. To pursue justice is to surrender to the flow of where history is headed. This flow is taking all of history somewhere particular, and the name of this destination is justice and peace.
Justice is Relational First, Then Systemic
God’s justice is not primarily systemic. It is relational. Justice is inseparable from rightly ordered relationships of mutual concern and neighboring. This inevitably includes the the creation of just systems to govern how we relate to each other. God cares deeply about justice because justice is connected to right relationships, which is the heart of shalom, or peace. At the same time the systems that structure our society are powerful. They are like Amos’ mighty river that can sweep whole societies into their flow. So the systems do matter. Amos says that the future God has for us involves systems that function like a mighty river that pulls people into a flow toward social justice. He sees a river that will sweep the people off their feet, disarming them, pulling them into a dynamic flow called justice and peace. Faithfulness involves surrendering to this current, learning to flow with God’s spirit, to “let justice roll like a river.”
Justice Is More Central Than Religious Piety
The Hebrew prophets railed against the impulse to make one’s faith about religiosity or piety, while neglecting everyday concerns of justice, especially for those on the margins of society. What good is our piety when our neighbor suffers under oppressive systems from which we benefit? The pursuit of social justice is a defining characteristic of the people of God. There is no piety without justice, especially with regard to the poor. My favorite example of this comes from the prophet Ezekiel’s interpretation of the story of Sodom. While fundamentalists love to point to the story of Sodom as one of judgment around homosexuality, Ezekiel identifies the true reason for God’s displeasure: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy,” (Ezekiel 16:49).
Justice Isn’t Blind, It is Bound
Abraham Joshua Heschel would often say that God doesn’t care about justice as a principle. It’s not that God loves justice for justice’s sake. God loves justice for humanity’s sake. Heschel wrote, “God’s concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to His people and to all men.” God’s heart is not attached to an ideal of justice. God’s heart is attached to people, especially those on margins. God’s desire for justice flows out of God’s love for people. So when people suffer, God moves God’s people to respond. When they do, what they find is that doing justice will always require personal sacrifice. Justice will always require us to operate from a place of neighboring, a place of sacrifice, a place of generosity, mutuality, and love, not from a place of safety and security.
Justice Requires Sacrifice
God wants God’s people to care about justice and to pursue justice. The problem is we all want justice without sacrifice or suffering. We want a perfect system that works in every case. So, we try to take the people out of our systems of justice. We take relationships off the table.
Judges recuse themselves if they know people personally. The rich and poor don’t talk to each other. They live in different neighborhoods, different worlds. Criminal justice systems are supposed to be blind, but they are not blind! They treat people differently because of race, income, status, and so on.
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