In recent years, the phrase “Social Justice Warrior” has started to be used as a sort of insult. While some view it as a positive term for people who are pursuing worthwhile goals and the betterment of society, others see it as referring to oversensitive, reactionary people. But what does the Bible say about social justice?
Generally speaking, the Bible cares a lot about justice. Jesus said that people would be judged on how they treated the poor, the social outcasts, and the hungry (Matt. 25:31-36). The laws of the Torah created an elaborate system to help feed poor people and to get them out of debt (Lev. 19; 23:22; 25). The prophets of the Old Testament demanded that people reform their ways to be more just (Micah 6:8), and the New Testament Church worked against social discrimination based on class, gender, and ethnicity (Acts 2, 10; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22; James 2:1-13).
In our series of blogs and videos on "Christian Service," we have already touched quite a bit on some contemporary social issues - especially as they pertain to race and Christianity in North America, and specifically with Christian rapper Lecrae and his journey in confronting some of the problematic parts of Christian culture. What we have not fully explored yet, however, is the overall theme of how the concept of "Social Justice" fits into the scope of Christian service and mission.
A quick read through the verses and chapters quoted above pretty easily reveals that the Bible has a very strong emphasis on the need for justice. Even the very concept of a final judgment - referred to over and over again the Bible - implies that God will see consequences for the right and wrong choices human beings have made. The Biblical Greek word dikaiosouné (δικαιοσύνη) means both "righteousness" and "justice," as though these concepts are one and the same.
There is, quite frankly, a lot that can be said about justice in the Bible. These following videos may be some helpful looks into these major Biblical themes.
Keep the struggle in mind...
The Bible points us in the direction of Justice and wants us as God's people (and especially as followers of Jesus) to concern ourselves with issues of injustice in the world around us. There is no qualifier on that whatsoever.
However, there are certain limitations on the Christian pursuit of justice that need to be kept in mind. These are not at all meant to nullify the legitimacy of pursuing justice, only to act as realistic counterbalances against over-inflated expectations.
First, human efforts working towards social justice cannot change human nature. Only Christ and the Spirit can change hearts. While it's true that we live in the era where Jesus and the Holy Spirit are working to bring about transformation, repentence, reconciliation, and renewal of humanity, we also have to keep in mind the very stern warnings that the Bible offers us about the perasive human tendency to corruption, selfishness, and moral twistedness. Noble causes and honest motivations can be warped and twisted into something sinister, just as the story of Cain and Abel shows us humanity spiralling from eating the wrong fruit to murder in cold blood in one generation (Genesis 3-4).
There is a dark streak to humanity that prevents "progress" from being a predictable, linear, upward movement. Humanity doesn't just naturally get "better" over time - something about all of us is fundamentally broken beyond our ability to repair. That is what the Bible calls sin, and without the direct intervention of Christ and the Spirit, human efforts cannot fully remove the effects of sin from society. Human beings tend to be self-serving and untrustworthy. Something about humanity is deeply twisted, which prevents us from fully creating paradise on earth. While we can work for change, in a sinful world, evil is to some extent inevitable.
Secondly, the Bible repeatedly returns to the theme of apocalypse. We have already discussed this quite a bit in our series on Daniel & Revelation. But the point remains that human nature tends to lead history in an oppressive direction. Revelation pictures Babylon as a force that continues on in existance long after the demise of the earthly Babylonian empire. It lives on in spirit into the New Testament as the Roman Empire, and beyond that into future history. The story that John tells us in Revelation is about a state of affairs where human evil rises to its full stature and God has to step in to intervene personally.
We are told not to be surprised when we hear about wars and conflicts, or when people behave in coldhearted ways to each other. These are signs of what is to come. (Matt. 24, 2 Tim. 3:1-5) God wants his people to work for justice and to critique the ways of the empires that dominate the world, but we must also do this while recognizing that some evils will only be set right in the final judgment.
In a very powerful sense, the willingness of the early Christians to follow Jesus' example in peacefully and lovingly suffering injustice was an intense implicit condemnation of the Roman Empire's violence, and it inspired many people to join the movement.
This leads us to a third point: the central theme of the Bible is the self-sacrifice of Jesus. One of the most central claims of the Gospel message is that Jesus accepted injustice against himself so he could justify undeserving people freely. This truth seems “unfair” on the surface, but is nonetheless beautiful because Jesus’ followers are also able to forgive injustices committed against themselves. (2 Cor. 5:11-21, Eph. 4:32) The grace that God gives to people is now able to be extended from one human being to another.
But this means that "success" in our quest for justice must be measured by the standard of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Successfully standing for what's right meant that many of the early Christians paid for their witness with their lives. Early Christian witness to justice was often sealed by their enemies' acts of injustice. The fearless way that many early Christians laid down their lives for their faith inspired many to convert and take up their cause. As the Berber African Church father Tertullian (of Carthage) put it, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." (Apologeticus, ch. 50). In a very powerful sense, the willingness of the early Christians to follow Jesus' example in peacefully and lovingly suffering injustice was an intense, implicit condemnation of the Roman Empire's violence, and it inspired many people to join the movement. This did not make the persecution and execution of this minority group morally acceptable at all. These martyrdoms were still a form of injustice that God will bring into judgment in the last days.
The story of the Bible is the story of God giving humans the responsibility to take care of this world, to serve as its rightful rulers (Genesis 1:26-31, Psalm 8:3-8). It’s the story of humans failing in that responsibility, and God’s plan to restore us to that role. We have to understand both our high calling to do what’s right and also our inability to do so without God.
There is an important theme that runs through the Bible - and it shapes much of the story of Israel and the early Church struggling against the powers of the world: Babylon. Babylon was an ancient empire that destroyed the kingdom of Judah and took them away from their homeland as exiles. The stories of Daniel, Esther, of the Second Temple era of Judaism, the New Testament church, and the book of Revelation all trade heavily on this theme of exile under the rule of a corrupt foreign power, and practicing what The Bible Project calls "loyal subversion."
The idea is that God's people will demonstrate a limited loyalty to Babylon - seeking the good of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) but also being willing to stand up and critique the same establishment when it fails to live up to God's higher ideals. This is why in Romans 13, Paul is able to advise Christians to obey and honor the Roman Emperor, even if they outright condemn the actions and beliefs of the empire. They are meant to respect the established system, but only to the extent that the system does not conflict with God's definition of justice. Believers are loyal citizens invested in the well-being of their society, whose investment and good-behavior also empowers them to morally criticize the empire. It is very similar to the advice that Peter gives in 1 Peter 2, in the famous "Peculiar People" passage we covered in our last post.
Social issues are complex. Sometimes there are not clear answers or solutions. Sometimes, the sinfulness of this world creates situations where there isn’t really a healthy way forward (Judges 19-21). The Christian hope is that one day God will bring judgment, set straight our mistakes, and make our imperfect efforts complete. Until that day, we must recognize that our best efforts may not always produce perfect results, but that the arrival of the Kingdom of God will see justice perfectly restored, and it will make our efforts worthwhile.
We are all part of the problem. The Messiah is the truest social justice warrior. Follow him.
- Genesis 3-4 contains the famous stories of Adam and Eve's temptation, and then the violent and tragic story of their sons, Cain and Abel. Skim over the story in these two chapters. Within one generation of sin beginning, how would you describe the changes in human nature? What is sin like? What does it do to the human heart?
- Is there anything that we can do in our own human efforts to change this fundamental nature of sin? Why or why not?
- Does this have any implications for how we approach questions of justice? What does the prevalence of sin mean for human societies?
- In Leviticus, there are a number of laws about justice, poverty, and wealth. For each of the following examples, summarize what the people in those days were required today, and then try to think of what a modern equivalent would look like. Are there ways that these practices would work or not work in the modern world?
- Micah 6:8 is a famous passage about justice. What are ways you already put this into practice in your life? What are some things you could start doing that reflect these values?
- One lesser-known but very important theme in the Bible is the theme of the "Divine Council." God has given other spiritual beings like angels some level of control and influence over life on earth. Adventists know this theme as "The Great Controversy."
- Read Psalm 82. We may have heard about people crying out to God because of injustice in the world, but here is an instance where God is crying out against the lesser spiritual beings for the ways they perpetuate injustice. What does this tell us about the causes of injustice in the world?
- Read Colossians 2:8-15. What does this verse say that Jesus did to the spiritual powers that cause evil in the world? What did Jesus' death on the cross do to the evil spiritual powers?
- Read Ephesians 3:6-13. Here, Paul explains that God has joined togehter different ethnic groups (Jews, Gentiles) into one church community, in order to demonstrate God's wisdom to "unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." How does this passage relate to Psalm 82 and Colossians 2:8-15 that we read just before? When the church lives justly, does it prove that the evil powers are right, or that God is right?
- We tend to look at the Ephesians 6 "Armor of God" passage in isolation. Look at the broader context in Ephesians 6:1-20. What does it say about the family and household in relation to the evil powers that work in the world? What issues of justice noticeably come up in this passage?
- Discuss the significance of the section in 6:5-9 about servants and masters. How does the fact of God's judgment apply to Paul's instruction to masters? What does he instsruct them to do?
- When we get to Ephesians 6:10-20, we see the theme of evil spirits being brought up again. How does living a life of righteousness and justice help Christians in the struggle against the evil powers?
- In Matthew 25:31-16 Jesus gives a parable about final judgment. What are some of the factors that Jesus says will be important when evaluating how people lived their lives?
- Note the sections in 25:35-40, and 25:42-45. Who does Jesus identify himself with? In light of this, how should we treat people?
- There are numerous passages in the New Testament that tell us a lot about how the early church viewed issues like poverty, class, and ethnic conflict. Some of these passages are Acts 2, 10; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22; James 2:1-13. Answer the following questions:
- In the first part of Acts 2, where did the new believers in Jerusalem come from? How many places in the world did they identify with?
- Towards the ending of Acts 2, how did the early church in Jerusalem organize and use their resources? What kinds of sacrifices did they make for each other?
- In Acts 10, Peter is sent by God to preach the gospel to Cornelius, who is a Roman soldier. Cornelius is part of the military force that has conquered Peter's homeland and people. Peter, and other Jewish people like him, often resented and rejected outsiders, and would have had multiple reasons to distrust, fear, and even hate someone like Cornelius. What events take place in this story that would have surprised Peter? What does this mean for us today?
- What does Galatians 3:28 say? What do you think it means for the church in general? How should this verse affect the way we live?
- In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul talks about the unity of the Jews and Gentiles (non-Jewish people). How does Paul say God ended the hostility between Jewish and Gentile people? What did Jesus do to accomplish this? What role does the Holy Spirit play in that?
- What does James 2:1-13 say about things like poverty, favouritism, discrimination, mercy, and judgement?