The Cause: Justice for the Poor
What Does Biblical Justice Demand Of Me?
"Learn to do right; seek justice, defend the oppressed." - Isaiah 1:17
Jesus’ life is a profound example of what it means to live committed to social justice. Throughout the New Testament we see Jesus stand for social justice as He embraced those excluded on the basis of social status, gender, ethnicity and age; a powerful demonstration of impartiality and equality. We read of stories where He challenged oppressive systems and confronted powerful brokers of such systems, including tax collectors, rulers, those with political power, and spiritual leaders. He denounced cultural and religious practices that created barriers to fulfilling the commandment to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves’. He advocated on behalf of the poor and the oppressed to the point of equating meeting the needs of the poor with serving Christ himself. This emphasis on love, acceptance, fairness and justice combines together to build our current idea of social justice.
There are over 2,000 verses throughout the Bible that speak to the issues of poverty, justice and fairness. In light of this Biblical weight it would be hard to find a Christian in this day and age who would argue that social justice isn’t an important issue to God and therefore to His church, but what does social justice actually mean for us? What does a life modeled after Christ and founded upon Micah 6:8 “Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’ actually need us to do?
In ‘social justice’ we have two words that are loaded with meaning. Justice speaks of impartial and respectful systems (economic, legal, governmental, corporate and political) that protect the rights of all people equally. Social brings focus to the interdependent relationships we have between each other and with these systems, which can either help or hinder the outworking of equality. Importantly, when the words are combined we see that social justice is about recognising the way our relationships and actions - big and small, individual and collective - have an impact on others, and changing any self-serving actions and systems that may harm others.
A Daily Act
Our daily lives are interwoven in global systems. From the food products or clothes we buy, to the natural resources we use and the multinational companies we support - in our globalised world, all these actions impact other nations, communities and individuals. Some of these systems add to and exacerbate social injustice, although that is not always obvious.
To suggest that we are part of unjust systems can sound improbable when we think of our daily lives and belief in fairness and equality. However the real menace in some global problems is the way in which they are obscured. It is very difficult to see the relationship between the wooden products we furnish our homes with and the resource-dependent communities from which they are sourced. It is not always clear that our favourite brands are evading taxes in developing countries, undermining their development. There are several degrees of separation between the clothes we buy in Australian shops, and the people who made them. However, just because that link can be close to invisible, it doesn’t remove our role or reduce our responsibility as a member of these cause and effect chains that reach around the world.
If we see these linkages more clearly, we are empowered to do more about social justice, act for greater equality, and live with a clearer understanding of how we can create change. Loving justice is therefore not only about trying to ‘fix’ the impacts of inequality that we clearly see in communities overseas, such as poverty, malnutrition, and exploitation. It is also about examining our own role in contributing to unjust systems, and doing what we can in our own lives and communities to promote and advocate for fairness and equality. Addressing some of these issues leads to changes in our personal and collective habits; many of these changes also require a focus on advocacy to see change bought to systems. Combined, advocacy and action has enormous strength to bring far-reaching change.
Defining Social Justice
How can we break down the idea of Social Justice even further? Well it is two concepts rolled together; Structural Justice and Social Responsibility.
Structural Justice is ensuring that the structures and systems that govern at all levels (local and global), are fair, impartial, accessible to all, and do not violate the rights or dignity of less powerful populations in order to protect the interests of the elite (Proverbs 31:9, 22:2, 19:7, Lev 9:15, Deut 1:17). Such structures may include legal systems, tax systems, workplace laws and policies, global economic systems, and the provision of basic services such as education and medical care. Structural justice also includes ensuring adequate social safety nets are available to protect the most vulnerable members of society (Lev 19:10, 23:22).
Social responsibility is about recognising our personal responsibility to ‘Love our neighbor as ourselves’. The parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates that this love for our neighbor requires us to look beyond ourselves, beyond socially constructed categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ to meet the needs of ‘others’ wherever and in whomever we find them, even if it comes at a
cost to us. Rom 13:10, ‘Love does no harm to a neighbor’, further defines our social responsibility towards others as going beyond meeting needs to proactively avoiding any actions or decisions that can cause our neighbors harm. Therefore social responsibility is outworked through the twin actions of giving of ourselves; our resources, our time, our efforts and energy for the sake of others, and the tempering of our self interests; our lifestyles, our decisions and our actions where they intentionally or inadvertently cause others harm.
Achieving structural justice and being active in our social responsibility is necessary if we are to reduce poverty. Poverty is a relational construct. It takes two to make poverty; the exploiter and the exploited, the powerful and powerless, the consumer and producer, the rich and the poor. Poverty alleviation must go beyond addressing the individual and the symptoms of poverty they experience, and seek to bring restoration to the broken structural and personal relational sites that cause it.
Micah 6:8 demands that we humbly choose self sacrifice over injustice.
"He has shown you O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" - Micah 6:8 (NIV)