Should Christian Believers Care about Social Justice?
By Margaret Knight
When I graduated from college, I got an internship with International Justice Mission, a Christian organization that works with local governments to fight injustices all over the world. I left my home in Southern Indiana and headed to India to work as a legal administrative intern in one of IJM’s field offices that focuses on fighting bonded labor. In order to prepare and equip myself for this work, I learned all I could about India from library books and documentaries, did a Bible study on what the Bible says about social justice, and raised financial support from churches and people who had been part of my spiritual walk since I was a little girl.
While telling fellow believers about my passion for justice and the work I would be doing in India, I found out that some believers were not as supportive as I assumed they would be. Some of them did not understand how working to end bonded labor in India helped further the message of the Gospel. They wanted to know why I was not going to India to evangelize Hindus and Muslims by teaching the Bible. Although I was careful not to show the effect their doubt had on me, I would get angry with these believers. Just as they did not understand what rescuing bonded laborers from debt bondage had to do with the Gospel, I did not understand how they could not see the connection at all. When they questioned IJM’s work, I became flustered and found myself spitting out Bible verses about helping the poor and fighting violence, hoping they would just get it. Looking back, I see now that my desperation and immaturity resulted in me trying to scare them into believing me rather than patiently and graciously making an argument based on biblical truth that justice is God’s passion, too.
It has not been until recently, two years after my return from India, that I think I have a solid answer to their question: Why should Christians care about social justice?
Last summer, I read through the whole Bible chronologically. This was something I had not done before – despite being part of the Church for 25 years. After connecting the prophets’ messages in the Old Testament with Jesus’ teachings and the apostles’ writings in the New Testament, I finally realized the connection between the Gospel and social justice. The truth is this: How I, as a proclaimed follower of Jesus Christ, view and treat the afflicted and needy of this world reflects my heart’s posture towards God. If I love God and truly make Jesus Lord of my life, then I will care about the afflicted and needy. My goal for this blog post is to show you how scripture makes that connection.
Note for the Nonbeliever: If you are not a Christian or a follower of any religion, you are very welcome here. I chose this topic as a blog post because I think caring for the afflicted and needy is something that many members of the Church struggle to see as important to Christianity. Addressing this apathy for social justice is something I am personally passionate about. Please continue reading to learn about what the Bible says about how Christians should serve others. I value and encourage any opinions and questions that may arise out of reading this post.
Many times throughout the Old Testament, Israel would forsake God and worship foreign idols. When Israel abandoned their God, He would call on prophets to confront Israel about their sin, plead with them to repent, and warn them of their impending judgment if they did not return to serving only Him. The prophets would also shame the wealthy and powerful because of their mistreatment and neglect of the poor. Although there are many passages that talk about social injustice, I will discuss my favorite excerpt with you: Isaiah 58:1-11. Because this passage is lengthy, I will break up the discussion into three parts. This week, I will discuss verses 1-5:
(God speaks to Isaiah)
1. “Cry loudly, do not hold back;
Raise your voice like a trumpet,
And declare to My people their transgression
and to the house of Jacob their sins.
2. Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways,
As a nation that has done righteousness
and has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.
They ask Me for just decisions,
They delight in the nearness of God.
(Israel cries out to God)
3. Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?
(God answers Israel)
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire.
And drive hard all your workers.
4. Behold, you fast for contention and strife
and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
5. Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?
Verses 1-5: God despises religious acts of those whose hearts are not devoted to Him but seek only their own desires.
God tells Isaiah to boldly reveal Israel’s sin to them. However, we read that Israel desires to seek God, delight in Him, obey Him, and live under His rule. If this is true, then what is Israel’s sin? Israel complains that God does not take notice of them even though they seem to be doing the right religions acts (i.e. humbling themselves by fasting and praying). I know from personal experience that when you put yourself in a position that will allow you to clearly see your sin or you ask God to reveal your sin to you, He is quick to reply even by our impatient human standards. When Israel asks God why He does not respond to their prayers, God quickly responds by showing the Israelites how they have sinned. He says that they are fasting for their desires (v. 3) and that they act violently and wickedly, stirring up contention and strife, to get what they want (v. 4).
The book of James discusses the evil and conflict that selfishness and hidden motives can bring upon a community:
“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing…What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” James 3:16; 4:1-3.
The Israelites want to satisfy their pleasures, their desires, and their idols. They do not sincerely want God. They are seeking their own gain and are hiding their motives under religious traditions. Even if you bow your head low and dress yourself in sackcloth, if your heart is not whole towards God, He will see and be displeased.
As God told the prophet Samuel,
“God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
The prophet Amos reveals God’s disgust for religious traditions void of true love and devotion for God. After Amos chastises Israel for disobeying God, cheating the poor, breeding corruption, and hating people of integrity and prudence, God adds his own thoughts about His people and their fake religious traditions:
“I hate, I reject your festivals nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them. And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs. I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” Amos 5: 21-24 (my emphasis added).
God is telling the Israelites that, if they really loved Him like they say, then they would be devoted to only Him, not their selfish idols.
Next week in Part 2, we will see from verses 6-8 how pure devotion to God changes us to be concerned about the welfare of others. God delights in His followers who care for the afflicted and needy, and He promises them that, when they care for others who suffer, they are bright lights in a dark world.
Margaret lives in Indianapolis where she is a law student focusing on Criminal and International Law. After graduating from law school, she wants to be an advocate for those who are suffering from injustices, most specifically human trafficking. Margaret enjoys learning how to cultivate a hospitable heart, traveling to new places, and growing in knowledge about God through His Word and life experiences. She has volunteered as Ascent 121’s social media and blog manager since March 2015.