Social Justice as Faithful Consistency

"We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it."

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

We can’t help but think it—“if it was going on now, I would have done the right thing.” If I was born in the 1800s, I would have helped people escape slavery. I’d keep the lamps lit and the fires burning in guest rooms. I’d put sword-surpassing pen to paper and push the lines of abolition forward. 

Or if the call to gospel ministry came for me as it did for Amy Carmichael, I’d say yes unflinchingly. At least, I hope I would. 

Amy’s story is the first missionary account I remember hearing. I sat on the rough carpet of a church basement and listened, entranced, as a Sunday school teacher told how Amy stained her skin with coffee to slip almost unnoticed into temples and through streets, rescuing little girls. I remember breathlessly repeating Amy’s story word-for-word to my parents while Sunday lunch got cold on our plates. 

Yet in a secret part of my childish heart, I was afraid that God would call me to a strange and difficult place. And I would have to go. 

My favorite Bible story as a child was that of Moses, the man plucked from the reeds and the grasp of evil and told to go speak. 

My sister’s favorite story was Jonah, the man who tried to refuse that call and, for his pains, had his whole life swallowed in one enormous symbol of salvation. 

As a child, it seemed almost inevitable that, eventually, I would have to say that wonderful, excruciating “yes” while my community, country, family, or my own common sense roared and howled “no.” I wanted to be heroic like that, to be so sure of my calling that fear, falsehood, or the tide of other wills could not shake me. That steadfastness, I thought, must be the core—the bones and roots—of faith. God takes the wild, sickly heart, grafts it into the healthy Root of Jesse, trellises it on the strong support of Scripture, and teaches it to grow upright. We love because God first loved us. We are capable of fidelity because God is faithful to prodigals. 

It is that fidelity, I argue, in the hearts of those concerned with social justice. 

Following the Call

Regrettably, “social justice” is a polarized and polarizing word, verbal territory claimed by the left-aligned or progressive “side.”

As a young-adult congregant, I observe the trend of young adults who were raised in conservative or moderate households migrating toward the left end of the political spectrum. 

A recent conversation with a politically diverse group of friends surfaced an interesting truth: the driving force behind the migration of young Christians from their conservative-leaning churches and communities toward the left is a sense of unshakable moral obligation to participate in social justice. 

Young adults, in college or at work, often suddenly encounter more information and more people than at any other time in their life. The brokenness of the world roils before them. Their hearts are shaped to be merciful, so they join the chorus of the hurting. Support for social policies that care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and defend the oppressed seems an obvious imperative that brooks little excuse or argument. Isn’t social justice just the real-world application of Matthew 25—care for the sick, the hungry, and the imprisoned? 

As Shiao Chong explains in his op-ed reflecting on Synod 2017, the command or obligation to act in compassion is an aspect of righteousness as is meant by the Hebrew word often translated as “justice”—tzedakah. The biblical conception of justice or righteousness binds together lawfulness and compassion—care of the weak or “those who have less.” Compassion is to shape the righteous life with the same fidelity and rigor as lawful obedience or fairness, for the traits are bound together.  

But a Christian concerned with social justice is often seen as a “bleeding heart,” for compassion is considered a soft thing compared to the “strong” virtues of fairness, obedience, or lawfulness. Lawfulness, however, is not in conflict with mercy. As Chong points out, biblical justice or righteousness is the union of these attributes. Christ’s sacrifice is the perfect example of righteous justice, being both perfect obedience and fulfillment of the law and the ultimate act of unearned, salvific, merciful charity. And it is this righteousness of both unerring obedience and ultimate generosity to which we are called as Christ imitators.  

The conviction that one is following the commands of Christ does not, however, erase the pain of broken relationships and lost respect. Often the wise elders who taught young Christians compassion now dismiss or attack them as "social justice warriors." To dismiss or attack compassion, however, is to dismiss or attack half of righteous justice. 

Two Halves of a Whole

I do not seek to ignore the vitriol and accusations of hard-heartedness (and worse) spewed at conservative Christians. Both sides seem to ignore half of Christ in their imitation, to the great detriment of the church.The corrosion of political polarization that works to crumble the Church has been the theme of much of my writing and prayer. Halving our Christian calling to righteousness in this way is an obvious attack on the efficacy of The Church.

The Christian virtues spring from the same source—our commitment to obedience and witness. Compassion is a function of righteousness that derives from the same faithfulness as lawfulness, fairness, or equity. Though those fighting for justice for the wronged or care for the suffering might oppose and reject the human establishment, they do so out of uncompromising adherence to the law and commands of God.  

An unchanging, immovable, consistent desire to act in faithfulness prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to attempt the assassination of Hitler and to courageously call the church to discipleship. Indeed, the “cloud of witnesses” is populated by people who simply refused to check their spiritual commitments at the door. Stalwart consistency is a trait of orthodoxy.

The teachings of Thomas Aquinas were one of the great influences on the 18th-century Christian scholar who shaped the concept of “social justice.” Orderly and consistent faith was so important to Thomas Aquinas that he undertook the writing of his massive Summa Theologica—a systematic theology. 

Aquinas says in the Summa, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.”

Both have labored. And, applying Aquinas’  logic, we must recognize that the core of the difference between the social policies of the progressive Christian and the conservative one is not a dichotomy between rigorous consistency and capitulation to emotional impulses. Both have labored. The difference lies, therefore, not in commitment but in mode of application—favoring one of the two aspects of righteous justice.

However, “social justice” cannot be the sole property of progressive or conservative Christians any more than any doctrinal truth or command of Christ can be rightfully subjugated in service of an earthly end or a human will. Neither aspect of righteousness can be shirked. We are called to the hard task of compassion and lawfulness

Redemption Rebuilds Us

I have recently heard the phrase “majoring on the majors” used as an escape route from conversations on world-shaping issues such as social justice. We cannot simply ignore the questions. There are no questions, even fraught political and social ones, to which the hard calling of righteousness is not applicable. 

To believe in redemption is to believe that there is no part of the “new man” (Eph. 4:24) the cleansing water of resurrection does not reach. Our votes, our passions, our relationships, our day-to-day are all cleansed and reborn. 

The radical faithfulness of heroic Christianity and its impossible combination of lawfulness and compassion is terrifying, and it will often appear radical and disruptive. Self-interest cannot dissuade its sacrificial compassion, and no earthly authority can override its fidelity to God’s truth and law. It does not tend to win friends, and it often results in loss and hardship.

Thankfully, redemption rebuilds us. It transforms our will and hopes such that obedience and the furtherment of Christ’s kingdom are worth anything we have to give up. 

As a child, I would sit, wedged in a corner between a bookshelf and a desk, hiding from my parents and my chores to read just one more story from the biographies of martyrs and missionaries. One story remains uniquely vivid in my mind. Perpetua was a young noblewoman who met a brutal fate in a gladiatorial arena. Despite her father’s pleas to renounce the name “Christian” for the sake of her newborn son, she said she could not be called by another name, just as the water bucket on the table could not be called anything besides “water bucket.” She was Christ’s; nothing could make her otherwise. 

The work of faithfulness in a broken world, regardless of whether it is called “social justice” or something else, cannot be made something other than faithful, and any Christian, regardless of auxiliary labels, can participate in it. 

About the Author

Emily Joy Stroble is a graduate of Calvin College, art maker, mocha drinker, and reader of many books. A regular contributor to The Banner and perpetual student of the world, Emily lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

Emily, thank you so much. This is brilliant. Like you, I would like to believe that I would have done the right thing had I lived in some other era. But the question I must ask myself regarding the injustices including ableism, racism, sexism today is this, "Am I doing the right thing now by working against injustice and for justice? Am I embracing and seeking to implement the gospel call for justice, and am I doing so humbly, lovingly, wisely, and courageously? Am I living out the topsy-turvy vision that our Lord's mother was given when she was still pregnant with him?" Here's an exerpt of that vision:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53 NIV)

This article was long on emotion but short on facts. If God were interested in Social Justice then why don't we see any of that exhibited in the O.T. when the Jews are slaves in Egypt or in exile? Why isn't it present during the Roman occupation or the focus of any of Jesus' teachings? Why isn't it in any of the Pauline writings, letters of Peter and John etc? Whenever God is telling His people about justice and mercy He is talking to them about exercising these qualities within the covenant community. When Jonah was called to Nineveh he wasn't called there in order to give them a lecture about how their societal structures weren't honoring God but about their need to repent of their sin in order to avoid God's judgement.

This should be the message of the church today still. The gospel message is to, "repent and be baptized for the remission of sins". And not to march in the streets, break windows, beat up on people who aren't politically correct. The world will never be changed by our social justice stance but by the preaching of the word of God, that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. The world isn't going to hell in a handbasket because of injustice but because the pure unadulterated preaching of the gospel has been contanminated and confused with Marxist/Hegelian ideology. Jesus, Ezekiel, Daniel, Paul, John, Isaiah, Samson, Abraham etc weren't the first Marxists. There is no nascent Marxism in their lives.

I resent going to church and being lectured on politics in the same way that I resent going to a sporting even and being lectured on BLM. The pulpit isn't the place for sermons on wokeness. The Sunday sermon is where I should hear the word of God and not a Leftist political diatribe.

Julian,

You are correct in saying that we have to be discerning about the marxist/utopian underpinnings of some contemporary social justice movements.  I also agree that the gospel must remain primary.  But I'm not sure why you say that God's concern for justice is not exhibited in the Old Testament.  I think, for instance of Jeremiah 22, where God is speaking about Josiah to Josiah's son:

“Does it make you a king

to have more and more cedar?

Did not your father have food and drink?

He did what was right and just,

so all went well with him.

He defended the cause of the poor and needy,

and so all went well.

Is that not what it means to know me?”

declares the Lord.

Jeff Brower Jeremiah is only addressing the Covenant community. He isn't giving a perscrition of universal justice to reign everywhere, including pagan lands. Like I said. There is no where any evidence of the Jewish people attempting to bring about some kind of universal justice in any of the lands to which they were exiled. If Jesus and the apostles were concerned about social justice they certainly lived in an environment that was in need of it but none of them ever addressed the secular authorities and told them how God wanted things to work. I'll let the Bible speak for itself and you'll see that the Bible speaks only to the covenant people and gives instruction on how believers are to live, while exhorting believers to not be like the heathen around them:

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; 2And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.

3But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; 4Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks. 5For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

6Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. 7Be not ye therefore partakers with them.

Children of Light

8For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: 9(For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) 10Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. 11And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. 12For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. 13But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Ephesians 5:1-13

If you look at the Social Justice movement you will see that it has nothing to do about justice. It is in fact anti-justice. The Social Justice movement is just another man centered religion where the individual earns salvation by works. It no different from Islam, Jewish religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Native spirituality (pantheism) etc. We as believers are told to have nothing to do with them. 

When it comes to the issue of what exactly our interactions as Christians should be with non-believers it should focus exclusively on this:

14For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matt. 22:14 The Bible doesn't give Christians the authority or insight into what would be considered God's view on immigration, taxes, monetary theory, or even what form a marriage ceremony should take. When the Bible talks about the stranger who lives amongst us it does so exclusively in reference to Israel's living in Egypt. Just as the Bible doesn't offer a t emplate for calculus so it also doesn't offer one for immigration. Immigration is exclusively the provenance of Caeser. 

The new Social Justice movement is the new discrimination, and is calling for seperate graduation ceremonies for Blacks, along with separate campus housing facilities, mandatory percentage of Black operated concession stands on campus, and finds companies like Coca Cola demanding that law firms they do business with maintain a certain percentage of Blacks lawyers on staff. This is outright discrimination. Hiring should be based exclusively on merit and not any immutable characteristics. 

"Social justice" divides the world into two parts- the oppressor and the oppressed. In this regard, it is a form of Marxism. As it is not rooted in Scripture, it is no coincidence that its adherence does not fight for - the unborn, boys and men, the necessity of the family, freedom of expression, putting a stop to Critical Theory, individual responsibility, self-control and numerous other causes. Under the guise of "justice", its sole objective is to remove Christianity from western culture and bring it to ruin. 

The marks of the true Church, as outlined in the Belgic Confession XXIX, are:

- if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. 

Jesus did nothing to change the culture in which he lived, despite having the power to do so. We are all captive in the culture we live and our forebearers were no different. As it can never be proven, to claim, "I would have done better than them", makes no sense.

Yes, there are injustices in the world, but none can be addressed until its "warriors" have a pure heart and from my own experience, most are long on passion and short on Biblical knowledge. 

"It is not good to have zeal without knowledge." - Proverbs 19:2 

It really saddens me that the denomination of which I have been a member all my life has become a voice of division and accepting of secular ideology.

Romans 12:2. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Is there anyone willing and able to define the difference between "justice" and "social-justice". The adjective seems to dimnish the meaning and force of the word "justice". Everything I know about Social Jusice suggests to me it becoming its own religious system. Shouldn't we be a little more circumspect in simply accepting this concept as the world defines it. I, for one reject virtually every premise of the SJW movement as an incepidly destructive ideology. Our Christian heritage of creation care, husbandry, and stewardship are all justice issues...what does word "social" add to the discussion. Alas, a great deal. That little word is the channel through which we thoughtlessly import notions that undermine the basic tenents of a biblical worldview. However, to suggest a thing is now unacceptable. 

There is little real world evidence that people on the political left have a greater concern for the poor and injustice. In fact Arthur Brooks has made a compelling argument in his book "Who Really Cares?" that the opposite is true in that people on the political right, regarless of income level, statistically give more in terms of money and time. 

Ms. Stroble isn't wrong in the sense that there can be an age tension. As much of academia tends to be left-of-center, I suppose younger graduates are more likely to adopt ideas promoted by their professors. This isn't to say that they are right or wrong, only that they've more recently encountered these ideas. However there is also a big class distinction: churches that are more blue collar tend to be more conservative, for example. I've also encountered cases where young people who grew up in left leaning families become conservative.

What the CRCNA has lacked in recent decades is leadership that is able to live into these tensions and work as much as practical across political lines for the greater work of the church. It's simply poor leadership to choose "sides" on many of these issues.  I believe it was the late news anchor Walter Cronkite who said something along the lines that everyone is biased, but the challenge of good journalism is to try to be fair. I would suggest this is true of ministry as well. 

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