Social justice and the church: Without justice how can you love?


20 February marks International Social Justice Day. Selected by the UN in 2007, it is a day to promote "access to social well-being and justice for all". But exactly what does that mean? What does a socially just society look like? What should the Church be doing about this? What kind of issues does it involve?

To help answer these questions, Christian Today spoke to the coordinator for the Social Justice Office of the Christian Reformed Church, Peter Vander Meulen.

CT: How would you define what social justice is?

PVM: Well for a start, I'm not entirely sure if it means the same thing to Christians as it does to those in the world.

The definition we use tends to be worded differently depending on the audience. A good all round definition is that, you know you have a reasonably just society if the people are able to participate in social interaction using the full extent of their gifts, if they have their basic needs met, and following from those things if they have meaningful work.

This is an image of social justice based on the idea that people are created in God's image, and they have a set of rights, so it's a rights based definition. They have rights because they are made in God's image. We have obligations to each other because we are made in God's image. It is rooted in the fact that we are all small images of God.

Everyone we sit next to in church or a civic meeting is an eternal being and so has to be treated in a way that I would treat myself or my children. It is a definition rooted in the divinity of each human being, and it's also a definition that is linked to the common good. We live in community, the trinity is a community. If our communities inhibit certain groups of people, certain classes or types of people, it is not a socially just community.

In a religious context, to a religious audience, I will often talk about the Hebrew word shalom, and how it means having right relationships. Peaceful relationships between people, between people and God, and between people and the Earth.

Those are the two basic things, a common good, rooted in our image of God.

We have rights as human beings and consequently a just society honours and protects those rights, for each and every person.

CT: In terms of practical reality, how should that kind of justice be expressing itself? If a church is looking to help create a more socially just world, what should it be doing?

PVM: The church that is most socially just is the church that is as widely inclusive as possible. It is the church that views and values each and every person as an image of God. A church like that does not make distinctions based on class or creed or sexual orientation or anything like that. We as individuals should be welcoming and loving to everyone who crosses our path.

An example of this would be the alcoholics anonymous group. Just like there the only requirement is people wanting to change, the only requirement for membership in a church that I would describe as socially just is a desire to get closer to God and live together in community.

Of course churches have doctrines. Churches have definitions of sinful behaviour, but they don't need to inhibit a just and welcoming community where anyone can come in and feel like they've met Christ. That's very different from what we see in a lot of our churches.

It isn't a rules based justice. It's a justice based on how we treat individuals that are in our communities and that are passing through our communities. That last one means the alien and the immigrant, and that's what we're working on right now.

Some churches are really good at that. We have churches that have spent thousands of dollars on undocumented people, who are here without the proper papers. When they get caught, they have all these court costs, they fight deportation, and churches rally around them: "you won't deport this person, we love this person, they take communion with us, they worship with us," so they're very good at that kind of thing.

But so often, when you go a step further and say "you know what, there are millions of people being deported right now in the US because we have an immoral, broken immigration system" and then you ask them "will you band together as Christians, with others, and help change that system because of the love of God?" they'll say "whoa, that's pretty political".

We'll respond by saying "yeah that's the definition of politics, the kinds of rules we create to try and build a just society, and our immigration system is broken, and you're seeing the evidence of that in your church. Why don't we fix it together?"

That's the bit that a lot of churches don't get. To have that tough conversation in a church, and come to an agreement about what kind of public square action we need to take for a more just and loving society. That's something that's difficult to do.

You have to put your relationship with God and your fellow church members above your political affiliation. That's where we get screwed up so often in the US. We tend to identify politically first, and then we pick a church based on our policies. That's just backwards.

CT: What other policies do you think need more of a Christian social justice angle?

PVM: Virtually every political issue that comes up in the public square has a strong religious and spiritual base to it. Budgets especially, federal budgets, state budgets. But there are degrees, you can't fight every battle. I think the church gets involved, as it should, in aid of those who have no power, who are oppressed, and who have little voice.

We ought to be specialists in terms of prison issues, people in our criminal justice system, especially the poor and so often people of colour. Criminals are people who are indeed deeply rejected in our society, maybe for good reasons, but they still need us. Anything that deals with people who have no power or little status in the community, those should be the issues that the church champions.

That's why we're working on immigration, and why so many churches are working on prison reform, on criminal justice reform, and on restorative justice. That is a great biblical concept of rather than punishing people, getting them to work to restore the community and in turn restore them to the community. A restorative justice approach to criminal justice is a great thing for churches to be involved in.

There are also lots of evangelical churches are very heavily involved in opposing human trafficking. For us, big concerns are often anything that involve children and old people as they are particularly vulnerable people.

Also in many cases women, and particularly pregnant women, can be very vulnerable. Women and children in many societies are the least powerful, and how international organisations treat them ought to be our concern.

It's not just justice for humanity, it's also justice for God's entire creation. Part of our justice work is treating the rest of creation justly. It's not just us who he created.

We are treating creation badly and have been for some time now. I won't get into climate change and things like that in detail now, but if we believe that God created and loves this world, we have a strong responsibility to act fairly and justly towards the creation he gave us. That may mean changing how we live, how much energy we consume, what technology we use, all those kinds of things.

There are also of course a large number of people in vulnerable areas that will be affected negatively by a changing climate. That is where I spend a lot of my time, places like Kenya and many other parts of Africa.

We have a responsibility to ameliorate those situations, because the people living there, they didn't cause that situation. That was us.

That is an ethical issue that Christians ought to be leading the way in. Unfortunately we're not, we're just fighting amongst ourselves about whether it's happening, whether we're responsible, and what's required of us.

CT: Where in the Bible do you draw your inspiration from?

PVM: Micah 6:8 is one that comes very quickly to mind: "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." I'm also remembering an incident in Matthew where Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth where he essentially gives his mission statement, free the captives, good news to the poor, and light to the peoples.

We also talk a lot about the difference between righteousness and justice. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. In many other languages, the word "righteousness" is translated as "justice" like in French and Spanish for example. So you could just as easily say "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice".

There are a lot of verses that we translate as righteousness which have come to mean personal piety. A personally good life. What it could as just as well mean, and what we think it means, is to live a life supporting justice.

We tend to say to people that they should look at those righteousness passages and see what they look like, what flavour they have, if you use the word justice there instead.

CT: What do you do to advance the cause of these various concerns?

PVM: Well, we have three pieces to the strategy. The first is education. As a church we have 250,000 members and we work with various coalitions. The first thing all these people need is to be made aware about what is happening in the world. Because of that, we do a lot of education.

We have a large website with a lot of information. We do lots of adult education. On the issue of immigration we have an entire course that churches can go through. We're also working on that for climate change and creation stewardship issues. Education is our number one priority.

The second thing people do then is enable people to take action. Once people are aware of what's happening, it's likely people will want to do something about these things. So we also do action alerts.

Currently, we're working on immigration, and there are seventy or so church congregations that have gone through the immigration course. In each of those churches there are about twenty people who are active in trying to get their local representative to act correctly when it comes to legislation.

We co-ordinate church wide action alerts when a particular piece of legislation comes to the floor. Our members will respond to the alert, and they will co-ordinate their response with other churches as well as other civic groups.

We also do direct advocacy with grass-top people. So we have a person in Washington DC who attends many of the meetings of coalitions working on things like ending the embargo to Cuba. That's one of our issues, we believe it's an immoral embargo, it is hurting old folks and children and so we're working to end it.

Our person in Washington there is a volunteer, a retired executive with lots of connections, and he makes sure the voice of the Christian Reformed Church is heard.

So those three things, education, co-ordinated activist action, and actual lobbying or advocating directly as a church institution in Washington DC.

CT: Would you say that the death penalty is a social justice issue?

PVM: It certainly is. It's a tremendous social justice concern in the US. The only problem is our church has been unable to come to an agreement on whether or not it should be abolished.

It is a deep embarrassment to our notions of ethics and justice, as well as an indictment of our legal system, the fact that we still have a death penalty in most states and a federal death penalty. And the fact is that over and over again it falls disproportionately on people who are poor and people of colour.

There are a whole host of biblical and ethical issues that repeatedly show that the death penalty just makes no sense. But politically it is a hot potato. A resolution was introduced in our church synod two years ago that said we are going to work towards ending the death penalty, and it did not pass.

So we have an internal discussion still going on about the death penalty. But that's the reality about working with a community. Communities need to have conversations, and one of the things we try to do through our education process is to help churches have those tough conversations. That's one thing I wish we could do better.

If social justice workers could figure out better ways of having good conversations about these tough, difficult, ethical issues, that would be a gift we could give the church. But we have a lot of trouble with that.

CT: What do you think is the biggest barrier to more Christians being involved in social justice?

PVB: The big problem for evangelicalism, particularly in the US, we somehow have substituted love as the highest calling and we often think that justice isn't important for Christians any more.

We've gotten that from the New Testament, as the English translation of the Bible so often uses the word righteousness where it could use justice, and righteousness is often taken to mean personal piety.

So we see this command to love, and we think that this somehow supersedes justice. People will dismiss justice as Old Testament, and focus on love as being New Testament.

But without justice, how can you love? If you love a person, you will want them to live in a just society.

Too often what we've done is abdicate responsibility and just brushed it aside saying "well, my personal responsibility is just to love so I'll get on with that" - whatever that means!

Evangelicalism gave a big contribution to this, so often talking about agape as the highest form of love. And that self-sacrificial love is important, but it is all underpinned by this great sense of justice that is a deep part of God's plan for us.

That has been conveniently forgotten by a lot of evangelicals. It's all about love. But as far as I'm concerned, love and justice goes together. You can't have one without the other.