Why Social Justice? Social Justice as a Theological and Spiritual Practice (Essay for Spiritual Formation Class)

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Introduction                                                                                                                                        

At the core of social justice is engagement with the “least of these,” the realization that life is not as it should be, and the vigorous passion of an active faith.  It is a belief that Christians must challenge, disturb, and threaten the status quo, refusing to be complacent or apathetic and instead protesting on behalf of the innocent. Throughout history, many activists have taken up the cause of social justice. Whether they were interested in ending illiteracy, working among inner-city youth, or helping the disabled and elderly, each person sought to be an incarnational symbol of Christ’s love and mission to this world. According to Dr. Power, the social justice tradition forms its identity through the core values of justice, compassion, and peace or in Hebrew Mishpat, Hesed, and Shalom.[1] It is a topic frequently discussed in the Scriptures particularly through the Biblical prophets Amos and Isaiah, carried over into the life and ministry of Christ, and finally culminated by all Christian disciples whether from the past, present, or future.

Belief in social justice is so central to the Christian faith because it takes Jesus’s injunction to love our neighbours seriously and enhances our faith through service and visible witness to the world around us.  By engaging in causes to end poverty and the various levels of personal and systemic injustices, we are helping to further God’s Kingdom and proclaiming His reign of peace and justice in a tangible way.

The Strengths of Social Justice                                                                                                                  

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster lists six unique strengths of the social justice tradition: the re-ordering and righting of society, expanding the ecclesial theology of the church, promoting relational harmony, building ethical bridges, speaking the language of love, and striving to maintain an impossible ideal.[2] Additionally, social justice is powerful because it has extreme cultural and contemporary relevance, is inclusive, and is communally based.

Firstly, social justice is a belief that is always timely and applicable regardless of which era is practicing it. From as early as Biblical times when the prophets cried out for peace, justice and equality, to the days of John Woolman and others who tirelessly pursued the ending of the slave trade, and even to today’s contemporaries, our world never lacks situations where injustice needs to be stopped and peace promoted.

Secondly, social justice is something that anyone can practice regardless of his or her educational achievements, vocational status, age, or perceived ability. Taking our cue from the Apostle James who writes, that “faith without works is dead,” we all have the opportunity to see ourselves as Christ’s visible body on earth and to serve others as representations of His hands and feet.[3] In its simplest form, whenever we engage in mutually edifying and supportive relationships, we impact the shape of the organizations we work under and help to restructure society.

Thirdly, social justice is not simply a call for pastors to lead their church in a certain way, but a challenge to change the climate and culture of Christ’s communal body. In this way, participants mentor one another, invest in causes they believe strongly in, and find support from others they meet through fellowship, worship and prayer. Therefore, preparing for and practicing social justice does not solely rely on individual efforts, but rather fosters a communal spirit by recognizing that as humans we can achieve much more together than we can apart.

Social Justice’s Significance in Spiritual Formation                                                                          

Richard Foster writes that, “A focus on social justice enhances our ecclesiology, our doctrine of the church.”[4] Although each denomination may understand and react to social justice differently, it is impossible for Christians to follow Christ while being divorced from the idea of helping the poor and marginalized. The entire Gospel is counter-cultural to Western thought because it calls people to live simply, to love one another rather than being self-seeking, and to practice humility rather than pride. In fact, much of what Christians believe about social justice is found in Isaiah 58:5-7 which explains how true worship includes sharing bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into our house.[5] Social justice intentionally seeks out individuals who have less, who are cast to the margins, and who are in need of loving Christ-like support, finding them and making a decision to journey with them. Although many times Christians are tempted to simply see this act as being reserved for overseas missionaries, it is in fact imperative to practice these values even within our own context on a daily basis. Consider a large urban center like Toronto where Tyndale is located. Each time we go downtown we experience many different ethnic and religious cultures, hear several languages being spoken, and witness various types of moral and immoral lifestyles. As practitioners of social justice our role becomes to actively engage with these individuals, learning to understand their stories and backgrounds, and showing Christ’s love to them regardless of whether we may agree or disagree with their moral and spiritual choices.

Adopting Social Justice Into Our Spiritual Lives                                                                                                

Many of us may never become well-known leaders in the social justice arena, however, each one of us has the opportunity to take part in ending injustice primarily through practicing a vibrant prayer life. Foster maintains, “in prayer we wait on the power of God for the evil to dissipate and the good to rise up…from prayer we discern the actions we take to overcome evil with good.”[6] These prayers can take place in various ways including congregationally, through setting aside a day of prayer and fasting within our church or organization, or by practicing “flash prayers” where we pray for the immediate needs of others around us as we notice them in our daily interactions. Foster also recognizes that when we pray, something incredible can happen – our attitudes may begin to shift. We move from hating those who wrong us to “want[ing] to love our enemies [which] demands a power outside of us.”[7] In this way, we can practice being counter-cultural by beginning to show justice even to those who we may believe do not deserve our justice or mercy.

Social justice is also largely centered around relationship building for the cause of peace and harmony. This means that we can choose to respond differently to people who we may never have connected with previously. We can open our hearts to single mothers, to the homeless or to the mentally ill. Furthermore, social justice gives us the opportunity to become ecumenically involved with other churches and denominations by uniting in a single cause. In working together we strengthen our resolve to end poverty or prostitution rather than continuing to marginalize those who do not believe as we do.

The Dangers of Social Justice Theology                                                                                                        

While there are many advantages to engaging in a social justice mindset, dangers can also ensue if we are not careful. For example, becoming too legalistic about social justice may result in a works based theology, which abandons Christ as Saviour and Master and instead only focuses on human efforts. When this happens, churches and individuals have a tendency to ignore the prominent spiritual needs of the people by solely focussing on material issues. Also, activists can face burn-out quite easily because they are often idealistic and thus find it difficult to not have their issues resolved within a short amount of time.

While there is no formula for completely avoiding these challenges, there are several ways to lessen their impact. Firstly, we need to ensure that our efforts for peace building and reconciliation are rooted in Biblical truths and to realize that any actions towards justice must be with the intent of honouring Christ. Secondly, as Dr. Power alludes to in the lecture notes, it is important to choose one main cause that we are passionate about, rather than to fight for all causes.[8]   By choosing to focus on one particular topic, we give ourselves time to develop a theology and ministry practice for that issue, giving it the effort and dedication it truly deserves. Lastly, we must decide personally and congregationally our willingness to compromise our own spiritual and theological viewpoints in an attempt to foster harmonious relationships. Foster suggests that we should not negate cultural practices; however, we must find a balance between theologically safeguarding our positions while also becoming inclusive and accepting.[9]

Conclusion

Social justice is an important expression of the Christian faith because of its involvement in community affairs, its inclusion of all people groups, and its practical response to contemporary issues of injustice. While not all will have the opportunity to lead great movements, social justice is a theology all Christians are called to participate in through our prayers, our actions, and our relationships. Although we may never fully see each wrong being reconciled within our lifetimes, if we truly make social justice a priority, we will begin to see incremental steps propelling us closer to Christ and His Kingdom mission.

Bibliography

Foster, Richard J. 1998. Streams of living water: celebrating the great traditions of Christian  faith. [San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco.

Power, Tom. “Formed By Tradition II.” Lecture, Tyndale Seminary. North York, ON. July 6, 2015.

[1]Tom Power, “Formed by Tradition II” (lecture, Tyndale Seminary, North York, ON, July 6, 2015), 2.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (San Fransico: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 178.

[3] James 2:26.

[4] Foster, Streams, 176.

[5] Isaiah 58:5-7.

[6] Foster, 173.

[7] Ibid, 167.

[8] Tom Power, “Formed By Tradition,” 4.

[9] Foster, 177.

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