“I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social
analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” MLK Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” MLK Jr
Many people want to make a difference in the world by fighting social injustice. Inspired by heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., they hope to right modern-day wrongs ‘out there’ while the main problem lies closer to home – in the hearts of you and I.
First, can people even agree on what is a justice issue? In today’s culture of moral relativism, injustice is often viewed as oppression of the so-called hero who is free to define himself however he wants apart from the natural order and moral law. This hero sees the material world as meaningless matter that he can fashion however he likes as if no consequences will follow his unfettered choices. He defies limits.
The Christian worldview, upheld by MLK Jr., teaches that God is intimately involved with the world He created, so we have strict limits governing how we should treat it, especially our neighbors and our own bodies.
The word justice occurs more than two hundred times in the Old Testament. It basically means to treat people equitably – to give people what they are due, whether punishment, protection, or care. (Prov. 31:9, Zech. 7:10-11) When the word justice is used, the context is about taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, the foreigner, and the poor – the “quartet of the vulnerable”. While justice is the action, mercy, God’s unconditional grace and compassion, is the motivation.
Seesaw or two rails of a train track?
Justice and righteousness are beautifully and powerfully linked in the redemptive heart and plan of God. Sixty of the 145 justice verses in the Bible also include the word righteousness.
Psalms 33:5 states that God “loves righteousness and justice,” and Psalm 89:14 goes on to say, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne”. In Psalm 103:6, we find that “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”
The biblical call to help the helpless and defend the defenseless spans from the prophets to the apostles. While we acknowledge that the chief problem of mankind is alienation from God, Christians are called to bring hope and help to individuals and communities in need. With increased migration and pressing social needs in our cities and communities, the church can stand out by offering lasting, effective solutions.
To avoid error, we must stress the important difference between the Gospel and the implications of the Gospel. The Gospel is the saving work of God to redeem people. When God redeems people, psychological, relational, emotional, and societal transformation occurs. Therefore, it is right to embrace social responsibility as a part of our mission to make disciples of all nations. We find the impetus and heart motivation of our efforts in the following: the scope of Christian love, the implications of divine grace, just treatment of others, and the dimensions of the reign of God.
Like a seesaw, sometimes when social responsibility is emphasized, evangelism and personal conversion are de-emphasized and vice versa. Instead, the church should move forward proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel side by side like two rails on a train track.
Here are a couple of core truths and corresponding motivations that cut to the heart of injustice. If we live these out and teach them, we will sow seeds of social transformation.
Core truth: We are all created in the image of God with inherent worth. (Imago Dei)
When a human life, created in God’s image, is deemed sub-human or less than another human, any horror can follow. The vile mistreatment of African Americans before and during the time of Martin Luther King Jr. is a compelling example. The worldview that redefines personhood denies the God who created us. Divine image gets lost in culture through idolatry and injustice.
“God created man in his own image.” (Gen. 1:27)
Motivation: We are in awe of God and the goodness of God’s creation.
Core truth: God’s grace justifies us and makes us just.
The Gospel addresses not only sins of personal immorality, but it also addresses sins of idolatry and injustice. We should do the same. When we understand that we are saved by God’s grace apart from anything we can do, we are motivated by merciful love to help our neighbors.
Motivation: We experience God’s grace in redemption. He who is forgiven much, loves much.
“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?” Micah 6:8
 Wytsma, Ken Pursuing Justice, chapter 3: The Gospel and Justice
Keller, Tim Generous Justice, p. 49
Photo by my brother, Dan.