Is Social Justice Biblical?

“....I am also pretty sure that the words social justice are not in the Bible,” revealed the email. “And therefore it’s not biblical.” 

When I read my friend's words this past week, it reminded me of a story I heard years ago by an urban ministry pioneer named Ray Bakke. Ray was speaking at a suburban church outside of Chicago, sharing about his work with inner-city youth—job training, tutoring, athletic programs. After he spoke, a gentleman approached him: “Rev Bakke, it sounds like you’re committed to promoting a social gospel,” he questioned with a slight tone of judgment. “How does the true Gospel fit into your mission?”

Pastor Bakke paused for a minute. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” replied the man.

“I’m curious, where do you and your family live?”

The gentleman named an affluent, tree-lined street in a suburban town outside Chicago. 

“Why do you live there?” continued Bakke.

“Great schools,” volunteered the man. “I travel a lot for work, so I feel my wife and children are safe. A terrific public library. The parks are beautiful as well.” 

“I find it fascinating,” replied Bakke. “And I’m not judging you for selecting your neighborhood. But the reasons you’ve cited for living in your community are all social—education, safety, public services.  You spend the bulk of your resources and life energy maintaining these social supports. At the risk of being blunt, I really think you’re the one committed to a social gospel."

I forget how the story ends.  The two men may have continued to argue into the wee hours of the morning. Or maybe the gentleman became a regular donor to Bakke’s ministry. To me, the conversation reveals the stark differences between ministry in more affluent communities andministry in under-resourced communities. In affluent settings many of the social needs of people—good schools, sports leagues, community safety, jobs, nice parks—are provided, which allow churches to focus exclusively on “spiritual issues.”  In under-resourced communities, these social supports simply don’t exist. Since humans are not one-dimensional spiritual beings, social issues must be considered if ministry is to be transformative.

My friend who questioned whether the term social justice is biblical, was ultimately concerned that UrbanPromise is teaching a “social justice” class to our teens this summer.  I’m glad he raised the question. I’m also glad he didn’t walk away from our ministry. A conversation was requested. I complied. We had a lively and informative exchange. 

In my experience we Christians tend to gravitate towards different “camps”—like-minded groups of people whose theology and politics align with others who hold similar beliefs. One camp of Christians may feel their primary job is to get people saved so they can enjoy eternal life with God in heaven. “Jesus is the only thing that matters,” I hear frequently—implying that the social conditions in which people live are of secondary concern to the eternal glory awaiting beyond the grave. Harsh realities of daily life are to be endured because we’re “just passing through”. Jesus is Savior only—not a man who lived, taught, spoke truth to power and cared for the physical lives of real people. This group might argue that it’s important to be charitable, but challenging systems that create adverse conditions is not in the Jesus play book.

Another “camp” of Christians feel that the social conditions in which humans live their lives, and the systems that create them—poverty, violence, racism, systemic injustices—need to be challenged and made more just. After all, Christians are agents of God’s Kingdom and need to play an active role in advancing this realm of peace and justice on earth “as it is in heaven.” Humans are made in the imagio dei—the image of God. Anything that damages or hurts this “image” needs to be confronted and changed. Life on earth matters.  God wants human beings to flourish now—body, mind....and spirit.

So where does that leave us? Should we be teaching our kids about social justice, or should a Christian ministry be focusing simply on the spiritual dimensions of life?

I find myself returning to the Bible during these conversations, fully acknowledging that my interpretation of scripture is biased and influenced by my history, education and the context in which I read it. But even with my biases it’s hard to overlook the two thousand references to justice and poverty in the Bible. Digging deeper into these verses reveals a startling truth: many verses pertain to the “social” conditions of human beings. The book of Leviticus is all about the law—right and fair living between people. Scripture speaks out against “corrupt scales” in the market place (commerce), exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant interest rates (usury), acquiring multiple properties at the expense of the poor (unjust housing), exploiting widows and orphans (misuse of power), welcoming aliens and treating them well (immigration) paying day laborers fairly and quickly (good management) ...It’s there! God seems to care about the nitty-gritty details of human life.  So if the Bible is true, social realities are a concern to God.

And what about Jesus?  Was he concerned only with the spiritual dimensions of people’s life or was he concerned about the social and physical dimensions as well? Jesus healed people (health), he fed people (physical well being), he embraced the outcast and crossed racial/ethnic barriers (advocacy) and he defended women and children in a culture where it was not popular. Jesus also spoke harshly against those who hid behind their religious practices while they “...neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.” It appears that Jesus practiced the social dimensions of justice.

So why have the words “social justice” become so politicized and divisive for Christians? A memorable quote by Archbishop Dom Helder Camara highlights our divergent perspectives:

“When I feed the poor, they call me a Saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry they call me a communist.” 

As Christians, we tend to be much more comfortable with the concept of charity than justice, probably because our solutions of fixing injustice look so different for each of us.  Research does reveal that Christians are some of most generous people—hands down. But discussing injustice can make us uncomfortable—perhaps because addressing root causes can demand more than writing a check and, at times, reveal our own complicity in an injustice...calling us to do some soul searching. 

I’ve always seen UrbanPromise as an organization that doesn’t avoid root causes that keep youth and families in cycles of perpetual poverty.  I believe we need to be equipping young people to live the “abundant” lives that Jesus promised.  Charity has its place, just as an emergency room is critical at a hospital. But long term health calls us to look at factors making unhealthy people. To get to this place, Christians must move beyond political and doctrinal differences and stay focus on what really matters—preparing the whole child to live into the fullness of who God created them to be. 

So my friend is actually correct.  He wins the argument. The literal words “social justice” do not appear in the Bible (at least I can’t find them). But the biblical commands to be “doers of justice” and “minister justice to the poor and needy” certainly compels me to understanding, confronting and acting out their social implications. In some circles our different perspectives might signal the end of our relationship. United as brothers in Christ, I’m hoping the journey of creating a better world is just beginning. 

Bruce Main
Founder & President

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