At the 79th General Convention, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry kicked off the campaign “Becoming the Beloved Community,” and The Episcopal Church’s participation in the larger interreligious ‘Jesus Movement’. There will be a churchwide focus on what we can do to become the ‘beloved community’ and live more fully into the teachings of Jesus; one of the hallmarks of the Jesus Movement is ensuring there is a just society for all people.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, social justice is “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” Aristotle, in The Politics, said ‘justice’ ensured that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles and received what was their due from society. Joseph Joubert, a French moralist and essayist, said it more succinctly, “Justice is truth in action.”
Over the years, these benefits and rights have come to include public education, access to health care, social security, the right to organize, and a broader spectrum of other public service: the citizen has the responsibility to vote, pay equitable taxes, defend the country, and work for the common good of all citizens. A progressive tax structure and regulation of markets have been developed to help distribute wealth more equally and give more people access to property ownership and job security.
Who could be against justice? If there’s one thing that the laws and prophets – and especially Jesus – agreed on, it’s justice for all, regardless of a person’s background or social status. Some Christians believe that justice is strictly the punishment of wrongdoing, as in our court systems. They would insist that helping the needy through generous giving should be called mercy, compassion or charity – not justice.
In English, however, the word “charity” conveys a good, but elective, activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity. In Matthew 6:1-2, gifts to the poor are called “acts of righteousness.” Not giving generously, then, is not stinginess but unrighteousness, a violation of God’s law. In the book of Job, we see Job call every failure to help the poor a sin, offensive to God’s splendor (Job 31:23) and deserving of judgment and punishment (Job 31:28). Remarkably, Job is asserting that it would be a sin against God to think of one’s goods as belonging to himself alone. To not ‘share his bread’ and assets with the poor would be unrighteous, a sin against God – a violation of God’s justice.
Despite the effort to differentiate between “justice” as legal fairness and sharing as “charity,” numerous Scripture passages make radical generosity necessary to live justly. Just persons live a life of honesty, equity and generosity in every aspect of their life.
If you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice is inescapable. We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but practicing generosity and an interest in social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable.
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus angrily challenges the religious authorities, mocking them for their self-aggrandizing, self-promoting ways. He alienated the elite by spending time with and showing favor to the poor and marginalized; he talked to women, ate without regard for the dietary rules, he healed those considered unclean and returned them to wholeness. He questioned current laws and challenged the status quo. And as a result, he became the target of those in authority. Ultimately, those authorities killed him.
Are you ready to take those steps necessary to carry out the teachings of Jesus?
Nevertheless, Jesus showed us that there are times when we must stand up and express ‘truth to power’ in constructive, meaningful, unyielding ways despite the possible consequences. Consider how often, and in how many ways, Jesus expressed anger in the Gospels. He was clear and direct, bringing about justice or revealing malice or ignorance. He made no personal attacks, but sought to uncover the evil behind the actions. There is no record of Jesus being angered by a personal offense, no matter how wrong, unjust or violent it may have been. He lived and taught that the one who is persecuting us is also created in the image of God and loved by God, and in that reality, we CAN love our enemy.
Just as God is righteously angered over oppression and injustice, so we should be. Learning how to balance these teachings and actions is a lifelong process for those who choose to follow in God’s ways. The Good Samaritan wasn’t good because of his origins or because he was traveling. Instead, he looked around him, around where he lived and worked and traveled, saw a human in need, and got involved. He gave up time, money, and most likely status and respect in doing so. As he went about his day, he loved someone and righted an injustice.
There are many ways people of faith can be involved in helping set things right. We can encourage our government to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe those in need; we can advocate for those suffering from mental illness, work for a fair and rehabilitative prison system; we can work with youth who need an adult mentor, visit the sick or infirmed – the need for the love of Jesus, for real justice is everywhere.
As we near a new ecclesiastical year, it is a good season for each of us to ask ourselves: How can our love of Jesus be channeled into loving action? We, as members of the Diocese of Southern Ohio, have an obligation to work for social justice in the world about us, just as Jesus did. And like Jesus, we should be angry at many instances of injustice that prompt us to speak truth in love to our friends, our neighbors, our legislators, our nation and the world.
We would do well to remember what Micah 6:6-8 says:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The Good Samaritan was one person – one person who made a difference in the life of one man. Think about what a group of Christians could do if they combined their time and energy to right the injustices in the world. Are you ready to take those steps necessary to carry out the teachings of Jesus? Are you ready to ‘strive to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God’?
The Rev. Deniray Mueller serves as Legislative Liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.