What is social justice?

“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)

'poor' photo (c) 2006, Tinou Bao - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I was reading a touching story on Christianity Today by Russell Jeung in an article entitled Saved By My Refugee Neighbors in which Mr. Jeung and his family moved into a low-income community in Oakland to try to effect social change there. But instead, he was enveloped with kindness by the residents there. It was he who was transformed more than he transforming them. And even though no Bible passage was cited, you cannot help but realize that he’s truly living out Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

And in the middle of the story, this sentence stuck with me: “… social justice isn’t about asserting [one’s] rights, but about taking responsibility for others.”

It just happened that I discovered Mr. Jeung’s story a couple days after the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA. Although I do not agree with the ruling (and I’ve clearly written about my opinion on this before), part of me feels the pain of the homosexual community for always wanting to be recognized with equal rights. In addition, I was wary of what kind of response that various groups would give. My prayer was that everyone would respond and communicate in grace.

And then, to my dismay, I read someone who posted this: “I do not support homosexuality or homosexual marriage. …… We have a right to speak what we believe, same as you have a right to speak what you believe.” I was sad after reading that last sentence. Why would anyone have the need to emphasize one’s “rights” to speak what one believes? Why is there (on both sides of the DOMA ruling) such a focus on “rights” for themselves?

Again, Mr. Jeung wrote: “… social justice isn’t about asserting [one’s] rights, but about taking responsibility for others.” Can we stop looking to defend our own rights, and start looking at others’? The mark of true social justice is in taking up other people’s causes, not your own. For example:

“Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:9)

Social justice in the Bible is speaking out for others, not for yourself. And it is more than words, but also in deed and in truth:

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)

Social justice is not just a suggestion, but a command. And failing to do social justice is displeasing to God:

“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. … if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.” (Jeremiah 22:3,5)

So let me close with Mr. Jeung’s words yet again, and may we take heart: “… social justice isn’t about asserting [one’s] rights, but about taking responsibility for others.”


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