Social Justice and the Art of Listening

The Church and culture are usually at odds. For followers of Jesus, this should be neither surprising nor upsetting. Jesus warned us that our faith and obedience would often bring us into conflict with those around us, and that sometimes we would even be hated because of Him. Yet even if we find ourselves in the heart of a culture war, we are still commanded to love and show grace to others, including our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and even our enemies.

Right now, however, church and culture are constantly talking about the same subject: justice. People from all walks of life and religious backgrounds have a heightened awareness regarding issues of personal, institutional, and systemic injustice. Though some people prefer to pretend these issues do not exist, the discussion is clearly not going to go quietly. Social media is constantly buzzing about it and mainstream media is cashing in on it.

Many of us in the Evangelical world see this as a tremendous opportunity. Our culture, along with people all over the world, are begging the Church to listen and act. What better time than now to demonstrate how current issues like equality, compassionate generosity, and justice are also biblical themes (Imago Dei, tzedakah/philanthropia, mishpat/dikaiosuné). Each of these flow beautifully within the stream of the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In order to make the most of this opportunity we must recapture the discipline of listening, which is impossible to practice if we have already convinced ourselves we have everything right.

I believe evangelicals are on dangerous ground with many of the recent point-by-point “statements” of what a collective “we” affirms and denies. While many of these statements display theological merit in many areas, they can also reek of a divisive sectarianism.

Whether intended or not, the message is often seen NOT as, “We affirm the Bible and deny the world,” but rather, “We affirm our particular way, and deny their different way.”

Or even worse, “We affirm ‘us’ and not ‘them’.”

Those who have argued that social justice and God’s justice are mutually exclusive, or that social justice is only a postmodern construct of liberal politics are incorrect. The term “social justice” is almost 200 years old, and its origins are in the Church. Like many other concepts, some have been guilty of muddying these waters with their own agendas. Nevertheless, social justice has solid roots and bones that are expressly biblical. 

Social and cultural justice are consistent themes of the Scriptures going all the way back to the Pentateuch. Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, dozens are about how the people were supposed to live in right relationships towards others. The ancient Hebrews lived in a world where murder, slavery, abuse of women, incest, idolatry, and child sacrifice were common. God made clear that His people were to live differently. His Laws were innovative and counter-cultural. They were not intended to only reward the powerful. Instead, God’s people were to value human life, foster civility, demand justice, and protect the vulnerable.

Moses described God’s commands regarding justice to the younger generation of Hebrews: 

Deuteronomy 1:16-17: And I charged your judges at that time, “Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it.”

Justice without partiality. Fairness no matter one’s station in life. Listening openly to both citizens and foreigners, even if your own people are in a dispute with outsiders. Even the hardest cases were to be brought to the spiritual leadership of the community. There was no reason to be afraid of any issue, because God is just.

What would the nation and people of Israel have been like had they not walked in the social and cultural commands of God, but instead only focused on the individual? The answer is simple – their culture would have been like all the others. There would have been no difference in them, and to the peoples of the world there would have been no difference in their God.

This is just one of the many, many examples throughout the Scriptures of God speaking directly to the issue of justice on a personal, social, and cultural level. Consider a few others: 

Deuteronomy 27:19: Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Isaiah 1:16: Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Amos 5:24: But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Micah 6:8: 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.

These verses are poignant indeed, and yet they are merely a sampling breadth of social justice texts throughout the Scriptures. Disregarding or softening such texts serves no purpose but to protect one’s own position and maintain unnecessary division. 

Do we really need another “statement”? I’ll leave that to others to decide. For now, however, my prayer is that all of us will put on our best listening ears in this critical moment and not be motivated by fear and self-preservation. Now is not the time to be hard-hearted and tight-fisted towards the plight of our neighbor. Now is the time to listen and act on behalf of justice. 

Further Reading: 

Excellent Rabbinical Article about Justice in the Hebrew Scriptures

Mishnah and Peah: What the Jews knew about the poor has been forgotten.

One thought on “Social Justice and the Art of Listening

  1. Great article, I have never reflected on this aspect of the current trend of ‘social justice’. After reading your article I was surprised by how much “of course I should have known this” there was. I especially liked this part:

    “His Laws were innovative and counter-cultural. They were not intended to only reward the powerful. Instead, God’s people were to value human life, foster civility, demand justice, and protect the vulnerable.”

    I think we are a little lost when it comes to ‘justice’, that is: We use external forces more and more in order to define ‘justice’ as a concept for us, detaching and making ourselves vulnerable to someone else’s justice – instead of taking the responsibility for it ourselves. We are too used to leasing, in lack of a better word, that function out.

    Thanks for the read!

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