Outsourcing social justice: How a neglected Bible text challenges the church

Justice is in short supply these days.

In the same week that Harvey Weinstein was finally charged after accusations of sexual misconduct by over 75 women, the US government admitted it had 'lost track' of almost 1,500 unaccompanied minors who had been detained after crossing its borders.

We have our own immigration issues to deal with of course. And the Windrush generation has suffered the full consequences of that.

ReutersProtesters rallied against the treatment of the Windrush generation.

It's easy to read the headlines and shake our heads in disbelief. We may feel shocked; we may feel compassion. We may even feel moved to act but most often we feel helpless. What difference could we make anyway?

Tucked away in a corner of Proverbs 31, a chapter largely remembered for its description of a noble woman, is a challenge to speak up: 'Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.'

The recent Barna report on the UK church noted that, 'Social justice and mission are central ideas in the conversation about the church's contributions to society, yet Christians continue to grapple with how to balance these objectives.'

However, we know that the pursuit of justice is deeply biblical. So what does the Lord require of us? 'To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God' (Micah 6:8).

To 'act justly' sounds like something we can do quite quietly. Perhaps it's even just a British sense of fairness that we like to think we already embody. And that sounds a lot less interventionist than the call of Proverbs 31.

But our justice system, our welfare system, our health system – institutions created to take care of us and each other – are stretched to their limits, and we risk losing track of our most vulnerable.

Many of our churches and other organisations provide foodbanks for those at a point of crisis. These were initially set up to provide an emergency supply of food and are now becoming a regular service to the working poor. The majority of families surveyed by Wandsworth Foodbank in 2017/18 were in working households (56 per cent), highlighting that paid work is not a guaranteed way out of poverty. One person said: 'I've got a job now so what I was on before, Income Support, they've stopped it. But it's been two weeks and I haven't got Working Tax Credit yet either. The lady on the phone said she doesn't know when she can activate it; it could take up to weeks, months.'

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) statistics show that in London alone, 37 per cent of children (700,000 in total) are now in poverty. This in one of the richest cities in the world. One in 10 referrals to Wandsworth Foodbank came from a school or children's centre. And one in three children in Wandsworth is considered to be living in poverty.

The New York Times wrote at length last week of Britain's austerity and how it's changing the face of our country: 'After eight years of budget cutting, Britain is looking less like the rest of Europe and more like the United States, with a shrinking welfare state and spreading poverty.'

In the midst of this many of our churches have responded radically to deep need and generally our churches are good in a crisis. But what about you and me – are we just outsourcing our pursuit of justice?

The woman in Proverbs 31 is described as a hard worker, rising early, overseeing her business, making good investments and running her household well. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

What if she was held out less as a role model for the Christian wife and mother, and more as an example of an attentive, entrepreneurial, wise and compassionate justice-seeker, seen and known in her community for her prosperity and generosity?

Many of us have greater influence in our businesses and communities than we dare to imagine. It might be easier to write a cheque for charity but each of us in our workplaces has the opportunity to speak up. Or not; after all someone sat through more than one meeting deciding on cladding for social housing which was negligent and costly.

As Christians we've never had a choice in who we describe as our neighbour: it's the one in need in front of us. While the pundits are distracted by Brexit, and we're all rightly up in arms about what Facebook has been doing with our data, there are many all around us without a voice, for whom we could be speaking up.

We've seen students in the US, in the midst of tragedy, speaking up against gun violence. And it took the courage of many young women speaking up which led to the arrest of serial sex offender Larry Nassar, and now Harvey Weinstein.

What if those students become tomorrow's politicians? What if the advocates of MeToo become police officers, social workers, artists and writers, who protect, support and provoke us into speaking up too?

Our history tells of MPs like William Wilberforce and writers like Hannah More who took what they did seriously and used it to speak up for the most destitute of their time. Recently British journalists exposed the Windrush scandal, with far-reaching consequences for many who are otherwise powerless and voiceless. Whatever your day job, you do have a part to play. It takes as many bankers, accountants and lawyers to see justice prevail as it does teachers, nurses and pastors – remember Lehman Brothers?

If we all took our own roles more seriously, believed that together we do make a difference, and chose to speak up whenever the opportunity arose, we could change the world for those most in need. And we would be stepping into the footsteps of those whose pursuit of justice will surely be heard.

Karen Sturrock is a lawyer turned copywriter. Follow her on Twitter @karenlsturrock