Reclaiming Social Justice

Last night, I shared a small stage with a handful of city leaders in a discussion about social justice and the role of the church in the achievement thereof. The notion of “social justice” is hotly contested within the church, with some saying that it is a secular distraction while others claiming its centrality to the faith. For what it’s worth, these contrasting viewpoints come from the “evangelical” side of the church. The conversation last night was from the same side of the church, albeit in a process of discovery around the idea.

“Justice” is inherently biblical. The term alone is mentioned twice as many times in the Bible as “love” or “heaven” — and seven times more often than “hell.” It could be said that the Bible is explicitly about about justice. If it’s so important to God then why is so hotly contested in and throughout the church?

Let’s start with what “justice” means, namely, “in right relationship.” Justice means to be made right in and among God’s people. The formula for achieving this is not static. It may include confession, conviction, and penance. It may also include forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Likely, it’s all of that together in a messy arrangement of human togetherness fueled by love.

What struck me last night was, despite the cultural schism around the phrase “social justice,” I witnessed a spiritual longing for making things right in a broken world. This was highly encouraging. To hear a white, mid-60s southern baptist confess his realization of white privilege was unexpected. What was profound, however, was the rejection of guilt around that realization, and instead owning his elevated social status as a resource from which he should draw to help repair injustices old and new.

Reclaiming social justice as a Christian or even secular norm cannot happen from a place of guilt or compulsion. Shaming someone into reparations or redistribution of wealth is ineffective and counterproductive. Instead, we must look at the blamelessness of Christ and his unjust conviction on our behalf. His sacrifice came from a place of ultimate privilege. As the son of God, he could have passed the cup, giving into temptation. Instead, he bridges the divide of justice and mercy, forgoing his own best interests on our behalf so that we might be restored to a right relationship with God.

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