“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings… And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” (Nelson Mandela)
Charity is presented almost without exception as a rare virtue in the public space, found only in the best of us. This is why charitable gestures, nowadays, have become discreet sources of self-gratification, and methods of converting material capital into social and image capital. If we, however, replace charity with justice, the ego boost following from the flashy, altruistic gesture dissolves, itself replaced by a sense of duty which we usually instinctively avoid.
From a biblical perspective, justice and charity are both moral duties, privileges, and a source of blessing for those who want to live according to God’s counsel: “He has shown you, O mortal, 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).
Share your food with the hungry
Provide the poor wanderer with shelter
When you see the naked, clothe them
Not to turn away from your own flesh and blood
Loose the chains of injustice
Untie the cords of the yoke
Set the oppressed free
Break every yoke
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
In Micah 6:8 and many other similar biblical passages, justice means “strict equity, absolute fairness, and even redress with regard to the rights of all” in the case of violating human rights or freedoms. To do justice, therefore, means to eradicate, or at least stand up against, any kind of social evil affecting an individual or a category of people. “God’s command that His people ‘do justice’ challenges their societal conscience as
perhaps no other scriptural mandate,” says Calvin B. Rock, former vice-president of the global Adventist Church. It’s easier to offer food or help than to use your words and actions to target the roots, causes, and mechanisms that generate poverty, while at the same time consistently promoting equity, welfare, and the rights of all people.
Popular wisdom already tells us that, to help someone in need, we must not give them a fish but rather teach them how to use a fishing line. We should also not give them a handful of rice but teach them how to grow it. In light of Calvin Rock’s words, however, to do justice goes way beyond popular wisdom. It means making sure that the man you taught how to fish receives access to the fish pond, and the man who learned how to grow rice receives a piece of land for that purpose. This is why social justice is fundamentally different from charity, because it means proactively fighting for the elimination of the causes and mechanisms that perpetuate social injustices, barriers, and walls, prejudices transposed in discriminating practices, greed, and the fight for power, expressed across the array of inhuman actions.
Does such a comprehensive perspective on social responsibility that is aligned with the Bible even exist and can it coexist with the Christian mission of spreading the Gospel “to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Revelation 14:6)?
The revelation of justice
Through the description of the righteous character Job, the Bible offers the quintessence of the principles God deems fundamental for social relationships: Job was honest in his business, he would fight against abuses towards any disadvantaged category (widows, orphans, foreigners) and his thinking was ahead of its time when it came to the relationship between master and slave, whom he considered equal before God. God had already instituted, in ancient Israelite society, a system for protecting the lives and dignity of those in need, which laid down important principles and norms of social justice. A list of bible verses compiled by Howard Culbertson, mission and evangelization professor at the Southern Nazarene University, shows how complex were the measures taken by God to protect the defenceless among His people.
The Bible also offers the examples of men of faith who personally defended social justice. Moses pleaded before the pharaoh for the freedom of the Jewish slaves (see Exodus 4-5). Esther risked her life to save her people when they were in mortal danger due to Haman (the counsellor of King Ahasuerus, or Xerxes I, of Persia) and his political scheming. Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery from her hypocritical accusers (see John 8) and Paul pleaded in his letter to Philemon that the latter would welcome back the fugitive servant Onesimus. At a certain point, God laments the lack of mediators to ask for God’s mercy on behalf of His sinning people (see Isaiah 59:16).
Another important nuance of the bigger picture is provided by the prophets of the Old Testament, who would not keep quiet in the face of injustice. When they witnessed it, they bluntly issued warnings that it went against God’s plan and commandments, and that this would attract His anger and punishment (see Amos 2:6-7; 5:11-25; Micah 2:1-3; Ezekiel 18:5-9, Isaiah 3:14-15; 10:1-4; 58:6-7; Jeremiah 22:16).
Jesus Christ started His public mission in a remarkable way, with a prophetic passage that can be regarded as a harsh admonishment of the social classes that perpetuated abuses in society: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
From that moment on until the end of His mission, Jesus continually manifested His concern for the oppressed, the poor, the hungry, the sick and crippled, the gentiles, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, prisoners, widows, and orphans. He went so far as to define His ministry as being dedicated first and foremost to them. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matthew chapters 5 to 7, Jesus revolutionizes His listeners’ perception of the way in which wronged social classes can affirm their dignity and freedom from their oppressors: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles (see Matthew 5:39-42).
As for the level on which He chose to act, although He did not avoid rebuking or correcting those in power (He called Herod Antipas “a fox” in Luke 13:32, and corrected Pilate during his trial in John 19:11), Jesus made sure to clarify, every time He got the chance, that His Kingdom was not of this world. It is a kingdom of grace, which He inaugurated through His coming. This is why, despite Jewish expectations for the Messiah to use force to inaugurate God’s Kingdom, Jesus refused this political approach, and this refusal became one of the reasons why He was rejected by the nation He came to truly liberate. There is a clear parallel between these pictures and some Christian spiritual leaders’ efforts to influence state authorities to enact their biblical interpretations. This makes the efforts of the latter drift away from Jesus’ example and resemble instead that of the Jewish leaders.
Jesus’ interactions with the people around Him revealed the ideal of God’s rule, the principles of the law and of His divine character. Justice and mercy, to which love is added, are at the core of God’s law and rule, and Jesus underlined this (see Matthew 23:23). Therefore, “It is no part of Christ’s mission to compel men” He sought “to win by the revealing of His love.”
However, Jesus’ decision not to interfere with Roman law does not in any way demonstrate His denial of social justice. His entire mission pointed to the contrary. The nature of God’s Kingdom includes social justice that each of His followers must cherish, practice, defend, and promote. Under these circumstances, the only valid conclusion that these observations generate is that Jesus was not a political revolutionary, nor did He support the idea that His followers must ensure or control the government. An alliance between the church and the political powers that be is always risky.
Jesus’ example was, nevertheless, revolutionary, because His life’s message constantly admonished the abuses of those in power and defended the weak. The parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37) unequivocally showed that no follower of Jesus can hide behind a “more important or holier” mission when they need to care for a wronged person. Overall, Jesus’ life sowed the seeds of a radical change of perspective in social relationships, which germinated and led over time to broader and deeper understandings of how God wants us to become part of His plan to protect those who cannot defend themselves. For Him, the proclamation of the gospel of salvation by grace—by faith—and the deliverance from the “yoke of bondage” of the oppressed are two parts of the same agenda; two hands working together.
The hands that work together
Out of the many biographies of Christians who understood that freeing the soul from the slavery of sin and releasing the body from the slavery of injustice are both precious to God, the lives of William Wilberforce and William Carey testify to the impact of people who care both about the restoration of the soul of the lost and about the restoration of justice for the wronged.
In 1875, William Wilberforce, at that time a young member of the British Parliament, became a born again Christian. The seriousness with which he approached his relationship with God, in an era when religious enthusiasm was ridiculed in the social circles William frequented, is a testimony in favour of Wilberforce’s strong character. Under the influence of the faith that had transformed his life, William Wilberforce was moved by the situation of the slaves the British Empire dealt in, and decided to get involved in the fight for the abolition of slavery. He did not suspect then that he would only see the fruits of this decision three days before he passed away.
However, Wilberforce’s patience and perseverance matched the difficulty of the task he took on. After around three decades of effort, in 1809, the slave trade was abolished in Great Britain. And the abolishment of slavery was finally achieved in 1833, after thousands of petitions addressed to the British Parliament and after more than 50 years of speeches, protests, product boycotts, flyers, magazines, and books published on the matter.
William Carey, the father of modern missionary work, remains an example of combining evangelism efforts with social activism. In an India marked by inhuman practices such as infant marriage, slavery, infanticide, and the burning of widows and lepers, Carey did not consider his mission to be simply to preach the gospel. Consistently applying his strategy that consisted of prayer, evangelism, documenting social injustice, publication, and collaboration with other protagonists of social reform, Carey was able to see, after 30 years of hard work, the adoption of the law banning the burning of Indian widows alive.
Wilberforce and Carey, among others, have the merit of having understood that they should not give up when faced with two big temptations of those who work for people: to believe that they can rapidly end injustice, or that they cannot change anything at all. To paraphrase theologian Miroslav Volf from Yale University, such a balance, that is worth embracing, is possible only when Christian communities simultaneously focus on three action plans: vigorously working to obtain limited achievable changes, continuing to express their disapproval of social evils however unstoppable they appear, and celebrating the victory of good and justice, wherever it might be obtained, and regardless of who obtains it.
Norel Iacob is the editor-in-chief of Signs of the Times and ST Network.