Social Justice is not a Bad Word

I grew up in a church suspicious of “social justice.”

Social justice issues just weren’t important, you see. The most important thing was to make converts, and just below that was to get people motivated, Spirit-filled, active in the church, teaching others, and being discipled.

Was there any room for taking on social issues? Marching for civil rights, protesting injustice in public life, standing for the dispossessed? Not really.

It led to an imbalanced Gospel. Worse, in some people (including myself), it actually led to the opposite of social justice. Some of us actually defended social injustice, too often insisting that the status quo must be God’s default setting, and that upsetting the status quo was threatening, radical or destructive.

As Stephen Mattson writes in Sojourners, this view is antithetical to the true message of Christ.

Christians do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’s ministry and watering down his message to one of religious platitudes.

Because everyone is created in the image of God and loved by God, we are responsible for identifying the victimized — not rejecting their existence.

That’s why the New Testament goes into great depth detailing the newfound worth given to the Gentiles, slaves, and women. These countercultural instructions to believers were radically progressive, to the point where the gospel writers had to put them in writing to make sure they were implemented within the newly formed church.

I think many believers get freaked out by social justice issues because they falsely see such issues as secular. Some issues — like environmental care or campus rape awareness — seem to be exclusively the domain of the secular world. But aren’t those issues important enough to warrant a Christian voice?

It wasn’t always this way. The church was once a leading voice in the fight against slavery. The African-American church was the driving force in the modern civil rights movement, and in fact continues to champion several social justice causes.

But more is needed. If American churches were leading drivers in advocating for higher wages for the poor, for example, there would be more pressure — politically and culturally — for true change to begin. As it is, many churches have a very hands-off approach to such things as social safety nets and wages, or (worse) many churches preach for an ever-diminishing safety net.

Such stances run counter to the words and actions and ministry of Christ. May we be bold, as Christ was, and stand up for those who ware marginalized.