We want every Christian student to pursue the biblical call to social justice. Therefore, a deep understanding of theology and scripture is the foundation for why and how we pursue justice.
Social justice is undeniably a huge theme throughout the Bible. 1 in 10 verses in the synoptic gospels are directly about social justice. The only thing Jesus spoke about more was the Kingdom.
Books and books have been written on the theology of social justice, so what follows is just a very basic framework setting out some key themes, but we’d encourage you to explore the subject further. A good place to start would be our longer guide to the theology of social justice, or scroll down for a short list of further resources.
It makes sense to begin by asking what we mean when we talk about social justice.
A Hebrew word which informs our biblical understanding of justice is tzedek, which can be translated as righteousness or justice and contains within it the idea of right relationships. We were created for four interwoven dimensions of relationship – with God, with others, with self and with creation. Sin has fractured and distorted all of these relationships, but Jesus is reconciling them to, through and in Himself. This restoration of the relationships that we were created for is central to our understanding of what it means to seek justice. When we talk about social justice, then, our focus is especially on seeking to restore between people the kind of relationships that God intended us to be in, whilst acknowledging that our social relationships cannot be addressed in isolation from our relationships with God, ourselves and creation.
But why should Christians care about this?
The church’s mandate to seek justice is rooted in the character of the God that we worship. God is just in the way that he relates to His creation. The God revealed to us in the bible, and supremely in the person of Jesus, is a God who cares about justice – about his creation living in right relationships. God consistently reveals Himself in the Old Testament as being opposed to those who perpetrate injustice and as siding with the victims of oppression. The prophets repeatedly challenged both idolatry and social injustice among God’s people. In the New Testament, Jesus embodies this concern for marginalised people – an apparently illegitimate child refugee who grew up in a politically turbulent colony of a brutal empire and it was overwhelmingly marginalised people who were drawn to his ministry. Jesus calls the people who worship him to reflect His character. If we are seeking to be more Christ-like, we will care more about justice and live more justly.
God created us in his image to reflect his character and steward his creation. The implications of creation on working for justice go beyond the beginning of Genesis, right through to Revelation. After the fall broke our relationships with God, each other, ourselves, and the planet, God put into motion his mission to put to right all that sin had distorted. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension were at the centre of this redemptive mission – a mission that will be brought to consummation when Jesus returns. When we seek justice we are joining in with God’s mission to redeem all things. It’s His mission, but Paul emphasises in places like 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 8 and Philippians 2 that our role is active participation. Seeking justice anticipates the new creation, when Jesus will return, creation will be renewed, and social injustice and inequality will be no more – we point forward to that future hope that we have.
Throughout scripture, God repeatedly commands His people to work for justice – caring for materially poor people; loosing the chains of injustice; loving our enemies; demonstrating our faith by our actions.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God …. and love you neighbour as yourself.’ He used the parable of the Good Samaritan to demonstrate that the call to generous, self-giving love for our neighbour crosses social, religious and racial boundaries to those in need. Loving our neighbour is inextricably bound to loving our God. We cannot do one and not the other.
In the Great Commission of Matthew 28, it is clear that Jesus’ command to teach disciples ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ includes the ethics of love and justice that feature so prominently in Jesus’ life and teaching.
So, the Great Commandment demonstrates that we cannot divorce justice from worship. The Great Commission demonstrates that we cannot divorce worship from mission.
So, we work for justice, first and foremost because we serve a just God, who created us to be in right relationships with Him, each other, ourselves and creation. Personal and institutional sin has fractured those relationships, resulting in horrific injustice in our world. But, through Christ, God is reconciling all things to himself, including those broken relationships. God opposes injustice and calls us to follow Him in his mission to restore creation, and to point towards the New Creation.
Some books and resources we’ve found helpful in exploring the theology of justice and its practical outworkings further:
For a general overview of the biblical call to social justice:
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010)
Jason Fileta (ed.), Live Just.ly (Portland: The Micah Challenge, 2014) and the Live Just.ly video series
For a more practical guide to how to alleviate poverty:
Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2012)
On ethical living:
Ruth Valerio, Just Living: Faith and Community in and Age of Consumerism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)