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What is social justice?

A conservative Christian who was trying to reconcile his faith with the loaded phrase asked me this. Hearing that question, even as a Christian who has advocated for racial and economic justice for several years, gave me pause. It was as if my years of advocating for the common good was insufficient in developing an adequate definition for social justice, especially as it pertains to the Christian worldview. While I was eventually able to come up with an answer, though incomplete, I realized how difficult it was to define social justice, despite it being a social and political buzz word that dominates our media and political discourse.

While I remain committed to serving others and advocating for justice as a follower of Christ, I have been reconciling with and trying to truly understand what biblical justice looks like, and how such justice differs from the complex and incomplete understanding of social justice from a secular perspective, which in our society, is so often motivated by narrow and fallacious partisan self-interests.

I recently read Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, where he talks about the important role justice plays in the Kingdom of God, and how embracing and enjoying the grace of Jesus Christ, makes us more just humans. Reading this book reintroduced me to the biblical evidence of God’s heart and desire for justice and reminded me of why I am committed to advocating for justice. However, this book also provided me a more complete and holistic approach to justice than what the American political parties offer. Here are four important things Christians should know about biblical justice.

Biblical Social Justice challenges social norms

In James 2:1-13, the disciple James speaks of the sin of partiality, using the example of the preference and awe that is shown to a rich person over a poor person. James then shows how God has chosen those who are poor to be rich in the Kingdom of God. Earlier in chapter 1, James teaches that the rich person should boast in their humiliation because God has exalted the poor, who are marginalized.

James was speaking to a social context that mirrors today’s capitalistic empire, where wealthy people—even within our churches—are seen as more significant and valuable than those devoid of resources. Those experiencing homelessness for example, are repeatedly ignored in our streets, and when they are served meals, are treated as less than human. It is plausible for an empire like America to idolize wealth and demonize poverty and everyone associated with such conditions (i.e.: ethnic and racial minorities and people with criminal backgrounds). Yet the way churches express their discomfort in fellowshipping with people who don’t look like them or make as much money as them demonstrates how deeply American social norms influence and define the practices and lifestyles of many Christians.

Even those who subscribe to a more progressive Christianity fail to transform their practices and lifestyles around these social norms. Justice for a Christian requires challenging and rejecting social norms that show partiality to people with elite status.

Christian Social Justice requires true grace and mercy

It is troubling to hear Christians justify their aversion to tending to the immediate or long-term needs of people whose backs are against the wall in society. So often such Christians refer to people’s possible poor behaviors and practices as reasons not to lend a supportive or helping hand to assist them. The problem is that none of us lead impeccable lives, yet are spared in some way due to privilege, but ultimately, are all saved and sustained because of the grace of God.

How many times do we repeat toxic sins that demonstrate our rejection of God, and yet he continues to spare us and bless us with things that none of us deserve? When we are able to embrace the precious grace and mercy of God, we will be more willing and able to be just.

Christian Social Justice requires destigmatizing people

The presumptions we make about people, individually or collectively, is directly linked to how we will behave toward them. If we consistently subscribe to negative stigmas about people with criminal backgrounds, whatever ministry or service that we do toward the group will be paternalistic, borne out of negativity and in many cases, old-fashioned bigotry. De-stigmatizing people does not require someone to adopt particular political viewpoints, but it does require critical thinking and gracious generosity.

Christian Social Justice requires sacrifice

The sacrifice I am referring to is physical, mental and emotional. It is physical because it requires us to be physically engaged with those who are less fortunate and valued in our society. This means inviting and hosting people with significantly less money or social standing. It is mental because it requires us to abandon our narrow political ideas of what justice is.

In his book Justice, professor Michael Sandel defines three frameworks of justice: 1) the utilitarian worldview, which emphasizes justice for the common good; 2) the liberal framework, which champions individual rights; 3) and the conservative perspective, which emphasizes morality. Our political affiliations have blinded us into seeing justice from one or two frameworks. However, biblical justice is dedicated to helping communities (utilitarian), civil rights for individuals (liberal) and morality (conservative).

We must make the mental and intellectual sacrifice to abandon our narrow political frameworks of justice and embrace the holistic view of biblical justice. Finally, such justice requires emotional sacrifices because it requires us to truly love and care for others, even if it makes us uncomfortable and even when such person or community seems to be unlovable.

When we understand and embrace God’s view of justice, we will realize that while God is deeply concerned about justice, His view of justice requires more than our secular society and provides more hope and liberation than our political parties promise. Living out God’s call for justice will make many of us uncomfortable and will require us to move away from our comfort zones into spaces of vulnerability and risk, yet when we live justly as God has called us to, we will be living our lives toward the eternal home God is preparing for His children that is free of injustice or pain.

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