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OPINION - Why is social justice important?

Annie Sharples, who works for JPIT, for peace and justice, gives her own views on the importance of Christians working for social justice.

Read time: 8 minutes and 53 seconds

Christians have been engaged in social justice probably for as long as Christianity has existed. Christians follow the teaching and example of Jesus, and so much of Jesus’s life was about seeking justice.

so much of Jesus’s life was about seeking justice.

When thinking about justice, the justice system might come to mind, the idea of something being fair or equal, or perhaps a famous campaign or campaigner. All of these things do relate to justice, and are important, but to reach true justice, and the justice that Jesus worked for throughout his whole life, these ideas have to go further.

As Christians, we believe that God knows each of us by name and loves us regardless. We believe that every human being is made in the image of God, and should be able to flourish and live in safety, freedom and peace. For this to be true, we not only need to strive for justice in legal courts, but throughout our whole society.

The Methodist Church offers six Principles for Justice in the 2023 Justice Seeking Church Report. These six principles are very helpful when considering the Christian faith and justice:

God made humans in the image of God, each worthy of equal value and dignity

God desires the flourishing of creation and human community within it

God consistently shows a bias to people experiencing poverty and those who are excluded

God entrusts those in power with a special responsibility for upholding justice

God calls all people and nations actively to work for peace and justice, liberation and transformation

God calls us to live in hope and in ways that reflect God’s character and the pattern of God’s kingdom

every human being is made in the image of God

For many Christians, these six principles are the foundation to their justice seeking as well as their faith. They emphasise God’s unending love regardless of circumstance; and desire for justice, lived out in Jesus.

Jesus’s Manifesto

Jesus didn’t simply treat people fairly, or equally, he intentionally treated people with equity. This means that he took individual circumstances, situations and wider context into account when interacting with people. When Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth, he chose to read these words from Isaiah:

"The spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favour." Luke 4:16-19.

This is sometimes called Jesus’s manifesto or mission statement, because this message is a main theme for the rest of his life. It is about showing the love of God to the poor (poor and outcast in many ways, not just those lacking money), healing and freedom. He didn’t simply promise good news to everyone, he specifically promised good news to the poor, those who are blighted by injustice and unable to live as God intends for us to live. Jesus ate, walked, sat and lived alongside marginalised people, truly listening and understanding the context in which they lived.

Jesus ate, walked, sat and lived alongside marginalised people

The phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ was first used by South African disability rights activists in the 1980s. Though originally used in the context of ableism and disability justice, it can be applied right across all marginalised groups and individuals. How many times do politicians make sweeping and generalised statements about or change policies affecting marginalised groups, without consulting individuals with lived experience of the issue? We need our leaders, and all people, to really get alongside marginalised groups and people, to understand the context and the situation rather than impersonal and detached statistics. Jesus is a prime example of someone who did this, and it is crucial in achieving equity.

This is the third Methodist principle for justice, and means that we, like Jesus, not only need to treat those who are treated unjustly the same as everyone else, but we need to make special efforts to achieve equity. As in the fourth principle, particular responsibility is given and trusted to those in power, either through elections, appointment or happenstance. It is the duty of those who experience privilege, power and advantage to use this for justice, and to show a bias to the excluded, outcast and poor, like Jesus did.

The Beatitudes
(Matthew 5:1-12) also show Jesus’s bias towards the marginalised and his emphasis on seeking justice.

Jesus also consistently overcame divisions and broke down barriers. If we think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where Jesus uses this tale to criticise divisions causing figures of authority, like a Priest, to cross the road and avoid the suffering man. How many of today’s leaders ignore suffering to make their lives easier? The message of the Good Samaritan story is to love your neighbour, and ‘neighbour’ in the widest sense.

Jesus overcame societal barriers when he healed sick people and let them touch him. He healed lepers, who were renowned for spreading their disease. Jesus approached and spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, asking her for water (John 4:1-26), despite the division between Jews and Samaritans. He spent his whole life living out his manifesto in Luke 4, meeting with outcasts and sinners, the poor and the sick.

Continued below...

Christianity OPINION - Why is social justice important?

God’s Household

Jesus’s teachings show us what the Kingdom, or Household, of God might look like. Theologian, Letty Russell (1), chooses to use the word ‘Household’ instead of ‘Kingdom’, to avoid patriarchal language of domination and subordination. She says:

You cannot have justice without peace, love without justice, inclusion without kindness

A metaphor often used in the parables to convey the message of God’s hospitality is the household, or oikos. Domestic images of the kingdom abound in the Gospels, especially the images of table fellowship… And the word 'household' is sometimes used interchangeably with “kingdom” to indicate the place where God’s will is done" (eg Mark 3:24-25).

We can also use the words ‘dream’ or ‘vision’ of God when talking about this, as theologian Verna Dozier (2) offered in her book The Dream of God.

God’s Household is overflowing with love, inclusion, kindness, peace and joy, all of which when truly found, mean justice. This works the other way round too, true justice, by definition, must include all of these things. You cannot have justice without peace, love without justice, inclusion without kindness, true justice means true joy and flourishing.

Jesus consistently linked his teaching on the dream of God to a call to repentance. In Mark 1:15 Jesus said “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. This idea of repentance included asking for forgiveness for sins and turning away from sin, and through this turning away from sin, a turning towards God, by following the teachings of Jesus.

We cannot truly repent while supporting unjust systems

So, in order for us to reach God’s vision, we must all seek justice, peace, love and follow the teaching of Jesus. Interestingly, this can then be applied to the poor, the outcasts and the marginalised that Jesus spoke of. These can all be translations of ‘sinner’, and apply to all of us as no one is without sin. And thus the stories of Jesus bringing the poor and the outcast into his arms and to his table, can be applied to all of us.

We cannot truly repent while supporting unjust systems, being complicit in violence and inequality, and allowing injustice to grow. Critically, we must ask ourselves, how does being part of God’s Household change what we do and how we live? And the answer must be, we will follow the teachings and life of Jesus, with his priority for justice, as outlined in the Six Principles for Justice.

Evangelism and justice

Another core call of Jesus is to expand God’s Household, to find and reach more disciples of Jesus. Jesus told his first disciples to ‘go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15). Christians are called to evangelism as well as to seek justice, and these two things go hand in hand. Evangelism and justice must go together, as without a priority for justice you cannot truly evangelise.

Christians are called to evangelism as well as to seek justice, and these two things go hand in hand.

To proclaim the good news, share God’s love and Jesus’s message, we must share the story of Jesus and the invitation to God’s Household, which cannot be done without sharing God’s desire for justice.

Sharing the Christian faith should not be about increasing the number of people in the pews or on church committees, or making sure our denominations don’t die out. Yes, these things feel extremely important for the life of our churches and for wider Christianity, but they should not be our primary reason for sharing God’s love. Evangelism should not be based on reaching heaven, or done by making people fearful of going to hell. Evangelism should be positive, friendly, open and inviting, sharing the good news of God’s love and Jesus’s message. Evangelism should be about justice and joy. Furthermore, evangelism can be made easier through the seeking of justice, because if Christians are seen to be doing justice because of their faith, then others who have a passion for justice, perhaps for other reasons, might also find a home in God’s family.

Do justice

We are called to ‘do justice’, as in Micah 6:8. For Jesus, and so for Christians, justice was, and has to be, something that we actively work for and believe in, rather than something we passively or abstractly agree with. For Christians, seeking justice is a task we are called to do – do justice. Jesus spent his whole life doing justice, by living as the six principles outlined above. And so must we.

Annie works for JPIT, but all views expressed in this article are her own.

(1) Letty Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretations of the Church (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 129

(2) Verna Dozier, The Dream of God (Cambridge, Mass, Cowley, 1991)