Biblical Reflections on Social Justice Advocacy
by Commissioner Andrew Kalai
As we contemplate our attitude and actions in regard to social justice advocacy, it is important for Christians to reflect on the teaching of the Bible. Although the specific words, “social justice advocacy” are not used in the biblical text as we use them today, we recognize that the same principle can be found in the scriptures. It is therefore essential to make an attempt to see what parallels may exist in the scriptures. Can we confidently say that the scriptures support the notion of Social Justice and Advocacy?
Political activists may have their own view of social justice advocacy. One would imagine that social scientists will have a different perspective to political activists. Then the so called liberal theologians might have a different paradigm to social justice advocacy. This paper simply expresses a plain man’s own personal biblical reflections on social justice advocacy. It is more an exercise of devotional reflection than an academic essay.
God the Creator
A good starting point for our reflections is with God. As we ponder the notion of social justice advocacy let us look to God for guidance and direction. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1: 1 NIV).
The Bible leaves us no shadow of doubt that God is the Creator of all things - heaven and earth, the seen and the unseen things in the universe. We recognize that God is distinct from His creation yet He is not distant from it. The scriptures affirm that God is present and active in every part of His creation.
Furthermore, the idea of God as the Creator is put succinctly in the second doctrine of the Salvation Army, “We believe that there is only one God who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver and Governor of all things and who is the only proper object of religious worship”.
We recognize that God continues to have power and dominion over His created world. That nothing happens in the world, be that good or evil that falls outside the realm of God’s reign.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
Psalm 139:7-8 (NIV)
One can reflect on some of the human calamities caused by totalitarian governments and corrupt dictators under which literally thousands and millions of human lives have been destroyed. Unbelievers may wonder if such bestial activities ever caught the attention of the Creator God. By the same token skeptics would sometimes say, “If there is a God why is there so much injustice in the world?”
The extermination of 6 million Jews during the Second World War by Nazi Germany, the mass executions and killings under tyrannical dictators like Pol Pot of Cambodia and Idi Amin of Uganda are beyond human comprehension. The political and social injustices of the contemporary global village — human trafficking, the drug trade, war that causes millions of refugees to evacuate their homes — makes the skeptics wonder if God still has any interest in the world.
Upon further reflection on the Bible it is not difficult to deduce that, fundamentally, social injustice is the result of sin in the world. When sin takes full control of the human mind and heart, especially those who possess great political and financial power, the results are often devastating. As Paul says of the wicked in his letter to the Romans: ‘they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless’ (1:31 NIV).
God the Active One
As Christians the pertinent question to ask is, “How does the world survive?” When there appears to be so much evil and injustice, how is it possible that life goes on? The best answer to this question is found in Colossians 1:17 – ‘He is before all things and in him all things hold together’.
The creator God is actively involved in the affairs of the world in spite of all the injustices. Through the Son, God is the preserver and governor of all things. Life goes on. Generations come and go because God is still on the throne. God may not be on the throne of every individual’s life, but on biblical reflection, He is truly on the throne of His creation.
The Lord reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment.
He will judge the world in righteousness;
He will govern the peoples with justice”.
Let us reflect further biblically to see how actively God has been involved in the affairs of humankind. God’s attitude and His actions in dealing with social justice are demonstrated in no better way than the Exodus story.
Exodus 3: 7 - 10: (NIV)
The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey - the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’
God saw and God heard the misery of His people. As Christians let us believe that God sees and God hears the misery of the innocent girl or the innocent boy who is trafficked across national borders. God sees and hears the oppressed people in various lands, especially those who have had to escape tyrannical regimes by living as refugees in foreign countries. God sees and hears the marginalized people throughout the world who can’t seem to break out of the poverty cycle. God sees and hears the cries of people being persecuted by religious fanatics.
Deuteronomy 32: 4 (NIV)
He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.
Christians who want to be involved in Social Justice and Advocacy can look to God and see how the Exodus drama was played out, epitomizing God’s attitude to injustice.
God called Moses and sent him into Egypt. One could say that Moses was a great Social Justice Advocate. Emanating from this idea is that God planned the course of deliverance for the Israelite slaves but used Moses as His agent for bringing that plan to fruition. Is that not a fine example of what God is continuing to do in the world today? That there is injustice but just as God used Moses to bring deliverance to the Israelite slaves, today He wants to use Christians and indeed The Salvation Army to be His agent for bringing deliverance, justice and freedom to modern day slaves.
Today slavery may be of a different nature but the resulting effect on human lives is in principle the same. Egypt was a very powerful country in terms of political, economic, technology and military might. The Children of Israel were peasants and therefore had little political and economic power. Their co-existence with the Egyptians made them vulnerable. Therein lays the phenomenon of slavery — where those who possess power enslave the powerless.
Moses worked towards bringing justice to one group of people, the Israelites. He also worked against one group of people in order to deliver the Israelites, the Egyptians. Today the world seems a little more complex than that of Moses and the Israelites. Social Justice and Advocacy has to be played out across national boundaries, racial divides, political spectrums, and religious and ideological systems. Overriding all that are the various legal systems compounded by differing cultures of the world.
Furthermore, Social Justice and Advocacy has to be played out across a multitude of complicated individual people, many of whom will do anything, even to the extent of taking life, to protect their schemes and empires. Unfortunately, one has to recognize that those who perpetuate injustice for gain work in reverse order to proponents of social justice and advocacy. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that modern day slave drivers don’t only oppress and exploit the weak and vulnerable but suppress the efforts of civil society engaged in social justice and advocacy.
The notion of global village also translates into global crimes giving rise to global injustice. Like the multi-national corporations of international share-holding with subsidiary companies spread around the globe, ‘criminal gangs’ or mafia seem to work in similar pattern selling injustice to the global market.
As a case in point, the writer comes from a country that sadly is rife with corruption. A few years ago a very prominent government leader described corruption in the country as an epidemic that was endemic and systemic”. Interestingly, in nearly every royal commission of inquiry, there is always a suspicion of international links to perpetrators of corruption in the country.
The prophetic voice of Old Testament
We look at the Old Testament prophets and time and time again they raised their voice against oppression, injustice, dishonesty and corruption against the rulers of the ancient world, including Israel. At different times and eras throughout Bible history, God’s disdain toward perpetrators of injustice, exploitation and oppression has been voiced through various biblical characters, especially the prophets. Following is a collection of Bible references to illustrate what parallels exist if the contemporary church is to serve as a prophetic voice.
Psalms: 34: 15 - 18 (NIV).
The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.
The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Isaiah 3: 13 - 15 (NIV).
The LORD takes his place in court; he rises to judge the people
The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “it is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.
Isaiah 14: 3 - 6 (NIV)
On the day the LORD gives you relief from suffering and turmoil and cruel bondage, you will take up this taunt against the King of Babylon:
How the oppressor has come to an end!
How his fury has ended!
The LORD has broken the rod of the wicked; the scepter of the rulers, which in anger struck down peoples with unceasing blows, and in fury subdued nations with relentless aggression.
Jeremiah 22: 13 - 14 (NIV)
Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.
He says, “I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.” So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.
Habakkuk 2: 6 -12
Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion.
Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain.
Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime.
There is a clear message from the various prophetic voices, as depicted in the Old Testament that the God of justice strongly disproves of injustice. That He abhors injustice, oppression of the poor, the exploitation of the marginalized and vulnerable people - uneducated, children and women.
Sometimes the prophets spoke out in the face of potential personal danger as for the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11: 18-23). He (Jeremiah) had to have a conviction in his heart that his message came from God. Similarly, in the contemporary society, Christians wanting to do social justice advocacy will need to carry a conviction in their heart. They need to know in their heart that this is what God wants them to do.
The church today needs to re-emphasize its prophetic role in social justice advocacy. There is always a danger that the church, and the Army for that matter, may be found wanting due to lack of political will to engage in social justice and advocacy.
Isaiah 5: 7 (NIV)
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Zechariah 7: 10 (NIV)
Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.
Proverbs 14: 31 (NIV)
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
One of the most important reasons why Salvationists want to be engaged in social justice and advocacy is to honor God. It is God’s will that all vulnerable and marginalized people should be allowed to regain their dignity.
The same strong prophetic message needs to be raised against the injustices of the contemporary world; corruption, exploitation, human trafficking and fraudulent businesses all of which is the evil result of selfishness and greed. There is also the poverty cycle which needs breaking down through appropriate means. The Christian thing to do is to help the poor without taking their dignity away.
Every attempt to break down injustice in the society must be accompanied by tangible efforts to build up a just society. For example getting rid of a corrupt government regime without the timely installation of a better one will result in creating a political leadership vacuum.
In the country from which the writer comes, a community outreach program in one of the cities succeeded in getting a number of sex workers to give up their trade. Some of them ended up going to the local Army corps. But unfortunately the program did not go far enough to assist the women to acquire an alternative source of income, which resulted in some of them returning to their old trade.
It is important that the breaking down of the old order is held in tandem with setting up of new one.
Jesus the Active One
Let us now turn to the New Testament and draw lessons from the ministry of the God incarnate in Jesus Christ. As an introduction to his public ministry, Jesus had this to say;
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4: 18 - 19. (NIV)
There is a strong message in Jesus’ quotation of the prophet Isaiah as to the purpose of his mission. The poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed get a very special mention in his statement. It was as if Jesus wanted his followers as well as the general public to understand from the outset that social justice advocacy was a part of his ministry.
When one reflects further on the life and ministry of Jesus, a significant pattern emerges on how he handled social justice advocacy. Without engaging in radical political activism he raised his voice for those who had become victims of injustice. Jesus chose peace and harmony as his weapons for fighting injustice.
Jesus did not engage in confrontation with the Romans, but he seemed quite willing to criticize the Jewish authorities even in public. One would wonder if Jesus approved of the Roman government’s social justice system at least in the context of first century Palestine.
Buying and selling of slaves was very much an integral part of the ancient world; its economy and government depended on slave labor. It also seemed a positive way of survival for the poor as their welfare was left in the hands of their wealthy masters.
There is reason to think that in first century Palestine Jesus perhaps saw more religious injustice than political or governmental injustice. One would need to bear in mind the world view of the ancient world was different to that of the 21st century. Their social norms and values would not all be the same as that propagated by UNHCR today: “All human beings are entitled to their human rights without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, ethnicity, age, language, religion, political or other opinion.” (Core concepts of the Millennium Development Goals, p40)
The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) demonstrates Jesus’ attitude to what we might call socio-religious injustice and his skill in handling a potentially an explosive situation. Jesus knew his Bible well and the crime of adultery applied to both parties engaged in such an act as spelt out in Leviticus 20: 10-12 NIV;
‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
If a man sleeps with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
If a man sleeps with his daughter in law, both of them must be put to death.’
The big question is why was only the woman brought to ‘trial’ and not the man? Was it a case of discrimination against women? Was it a matter of misconstruing the law by a group of men for the sake of satisfying their own bigotry? Whatever the reason, it was a clear case of injustice. A poor woman, helpless and powerless, unable to speak up for her rights, and no one in the mob prepared to listen to her story.
Jesus was prepared to identify with the ‘woman caught in adultery’ as a matter of social justice advocacy. There is an important object lesson in this story. Firstly, Jesus did not point his finger at the accusers but started to write on the ground with it. Jesus’ instinct told him there was tension in the air. He realized that it was best to let the tension cool off a little before he could proceed. It seems the few moments Jesus took to write diffused enough tension for him to take the next step. In contemporary society one has to learn to work around corrupt governments, underground illegal schemes and organized crime gangs in an attempt to do social justice and advocacy. This requires tact and a high level of diplomacy plus co-operation with appropriate agencies.
Secondly, Jesus invited the ‘sinless’ one to cast the first stone, probably reflecting on Deutronomy17:7 NIV – ‘The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death’.
One wonders if any of the mob where actually eye witnesses. Or were they acting on hearsay for the sake of trapping Jesus? One needs to be as wise as a serpent to say the right things in undertaking advocacy.
Engaging in social justice and advocacy is not a new phenomenon for The Salvation Army. However there needs to be a strong reminder given to every Salvationist that it is quite biblical for Christians to be involved in advocacy. People who believe in God’s justice and righteousness would want to engage in social justice and advocacy, for there is no other way to creating a just society.
The notion of social justice and advocacy is a mammoth undertaking. The costs are enormous in terms of money, time and energy. The psychological and emotional drain on those who are actively involved in advocacy is no doubt burdensome. But on the basis of God’s actions as evidenced in the Bible, plus the prophetic voice of the Old Testament, as well as the ministry of Jesus, the Christian is called to engage in social justice and advocacy.
Questions for discussion
Why didn’t Jesus, and Paul for that matter, condemn slavery?
Is there a danger that engaging in social justice and advocacy too strongly can take away the cutting edge of the Army’s evangelical thrust?
Is the Army’s apolitical stand an affront to social justice and advocacy?