He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
We didn’t talk much about justice growing up; at least not in the way I often hear it talked about now. We didn’t talk about giving hope to the oppressed, bringing poverty to an end, or changing social and political structures to eliminate disadvantages for those in need. As I went off to college, I immediately dropped into a Christian community where this was one of the most discussed issues, and it scared me. One source of my fear was intimidation; I was immediately entering into discussions and debates with people who had studied the subject at some length and had a far more nuanced understanding of the issue than I had. Another source of my fear was how I understood the message coming from one side of the debate: I had been born at a huge advantage simply because of who my family was, and I needed to intentionally give up those advantages to others who did not have similar family backgrounds for the sake of justice. And I needed to do it now. I didn’t (and still don’t) really know what any of that means and it certainly was not the best message I could have received from the discussion. However, it was a message that most certainly was being communicated, and many of my friends felt the same way I did. We felt like we had three options – agree, and take action to remove our “advantages,” though none of us knew what that meant; fall back and hide from the discussion; or lash out against those who were delivering this message and, in a sense, defend our families and our upbringing. At various times I tried all three tactics and accomplished nothing, except to bring about a profound confusion in my own mind about what the idea of “social justice” actually meant. In honesty, I still haven’t really grasped the concept, but God has taught me a few things since.
God is a God of justice, and we are commanded to play a role in supporting that justice in this world. It is true that some of us have been born with certain advantages that others haven’t. I was born in a loving, Christian family with good educational opportunities and with a broad base of support. I grew up with advantages like freedom to attend quality schooling, enough money to buy food and clothing, and parents that were actively engaged in teaching me and helping me to grow as a person. My family was far from rich, but this is more than many children can hope for. For example, I have students in my youth group now who were born in a country that hated them simply because of who their family was, they were driven from their homes while family and friends were killed, they marched through dangerous jungles so that they could live in cramped and dangerous refugee camps, and eventually relocated to a city with a completely different language and culture with nothing except about a $4,000 debt incurred in getting them there. No objective person looks at those two situations and says that the disparity in opportunity is fair.
The question we have to wrestle with is this: what do we do about it. I still believe that striving to give up everything I have been given is wrong; that is bad stewardship and shows a disrespect for the blessings that God has given me. However, I am called to “do justice, and to love kindness.” How can I use the gifts and blessings that God has given me to support and care for those around me who are in need? This is a question that needs to be asked often; not only now, but when I am looking to buy a new car, or home furnishings, or clothes: just because I can afford it on my income does not mean that is how God wants me to spend my income. As Christians, we should be marked by our generosity – our giving should not simply be about giving that 10% in the offering plate every Sunday, it should be that, PLUS other needs that present themselves. Maybe that means supporting a missionary that is working internationally, maybe that means supporting a local organization working with the poor. That might mean volunteering time to do some hands-on justice. It almost certainly means building intentional relationships to encourage and support others. Tim Keller comments on Jonathan Edwards’ view on the subject, saying;
Real love entails risk and sacrifice. Edwards responds that when you say, “I can’t help anyone,” you usually mean, “I can’t help anyone without burdening myself, cutting in to how I live my life.” But, Edwards argues, that’s exactly what Biblical love requires.
-Tim Keller, Generous Justice
As I said earlier, I was not taught about formal “social justice” growing up. But, you know what; I was taught that there was right and wrong, fair and unfair. I was taught that we were called to love and care for anyone who was in need. That lesson extended to our neighbors, when they were going through a tough time; to the illegal immigrant that moved into the community; to the hitchhiker on the side of the road; to the beggar we saw on the sidewalk. God gave us everything we have, including and especially the incredible grace we have received in the forgiveness of our sins and the regeneration of our dark, sinful souls into what God has and continues to create in us-something clean and pure and pleasing to Him. We don’t seek to bring justice to others out of obligation, but as a continuation of what God has done in us. We were poor, wretched, and blind, and Jesus Christ has given us everything! Now we can humbly go and bring those blessings to others.