I’m ashamed to admit that I came to the table late on the social justice topic. As an aspect of God’s compassionate personality and as a significant portion of our responsibility as his followers, somehow over the years this ubiquitous Bible theme eluded me. I’ve since discovered that with the possible exception of idolatry, the Bible addresses injustice with greater frequency than any other sin.
Though “justice” is mentioned 134 times in the Bible, in my three decades of pastoral ministry I never gave one message on the concept of justice for the poor and powerless. In fact, until just a few years ago, I’d never even heard a message on it. (That’s not coming to the table late – as in during the dessert. That’s arriving after the table has been cleared and the dishes washed and put away!) Nevertheless, to coin a phrase, “Better late than never.”
I’ve never been a big fan of specialized Bibles for certain demographics, like “The Terrible Golfer’s Bible,” “The Angry Woman’s Bible,” “The Teenager Whose Mom Wants Her To Break Up With Her Bad Boyfriend’s Bible,” and the like. But I found The Poverty and Justice Bible, which, for easy reference, highlights nearly all the verses in Scripture that address those themes. It was an eye-opener to me to see how emphatic God is regarding restorative justice. You might want to give it a look.
In addition to that one, I wanted to recommend another book. I’ve read several other good texts on the subject in the last few years, but if you only have time to read one, A Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller should be it. Keller is a brilliant pastor/theologian from Manhattan, whose books, articles, and lectures are some of the best biblical teaching you’ll encounter today. This book is no exception. Here are some excerpts that helped me the most:
The Bible says that God is the defender of the poor; it never says he is the defender of the rich. And while some texts call for justice for members of the well-off classes as well, the calls to render justice to the poor outnumber such passages by a hundred to one. Why? Rich people can certainly be treated unjustly, but philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff says it is a simple fact that the lower classes are “not only disproportionately vulnerable to injustice, but usually disproportionately actual victims of injustice. Injustice is not equally distributed.”
I (Barney) think of the dad who has two sons on the same soccer team; one who is strong and sturdy while the other is frail and prone to injury. Which one does he worry most about?
God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass. Besides the laws of release, there were the laws of “gleaning.” Landowners could not gather all the grain their land could produce. They had to leave some of it for the poor to gather themselves (Leviticus 19: 9- 10; 23: 22). In other words, they were to voluntarily limit their profit-taking.
OK, “limit their profit-taking,” now that’s just crazy talk, un-American!
Jesus taught that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one’s spiritual compass, the heart. . . . If you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.
People changed by grace should go, as it were, on a permanent fast. Self-indulgence and materialism should be given up and replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need.
Fasting food would be a lot easier!
To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need. You will see their tattered clothes and think: “All my righteousness is a filthy rag, but in Christ we can be clothed in his robes of righteousness.” When you come upon those who are economically poor, you cannot say to them, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” because you certainly did not do that spiritually. Jesus intervened for you. And you cannot say, “I won’t help you because you got yourself into this mess,” since God came to earth, moved into your spiritually poor neighborhood, as it were, and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault. In other words, when Christians who understand the gospel see a poor person, they realize they are looking into a mirror. Their hearts must go out to him or her without an ounce of superiority or indifference.
That robs me of what used to be my favorite thought about the poor, “It’s their fault!”
The righteous person is actively generous. It is not enough to say, as one often hears in situations of bereavement, ‘He never did anyone any harm.’ The question one is tempted to ask is, ‘Yes, but did he ever do anyone any good?’”
Shoot, my plan was to just stay out of trouble. Are you saying that I’m supposed to actually help other people who are in trouble?
OK, you get the point. Read this book and share it with others.
3 Replies to “My favorite book on “justice” so far (other than the Bible, of course)”
Thanks Barney- a needed lift. 😀
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Totally agree with you. But hey, it’s not just me. I see that same theme coming out all over the place in Ezekiel – as I’ve highlighted multiple times in my blog. The lack of social justice was one of the primary reasons that Jerusalem was slated for destruction during the Babylonian exile. It definitely gives one pause. So, the thing that bothers me is, why is there such a seeming large number of folks, living an outwardly Christian life, that seem to carry a smugness about them, when uncomfortable topics such as poverty, unemployment, and personal crisis arise? I once worked for a very devout church goer that sort of wore it on his sleeve and would drop little hints about how picture perfect his family situation was. I always wondered what would happen if he was suddenly transplanted to Torrance (LA) California and had to deal with life in your face – would his smug sureness continue. I dunno. I think a disciple’s path leads you into places that aren’t comfortable, where things aren’t pre-fabbed for you. Thanks for posting your blog – it’s good stuff.
Thanks! We can learn tons about God’s idea of social justice from the Word (like you said, Ezekiel, a book I’ve avoided for most of my life.) I’ll have to give it another try. I think we can also learn from our secular friends, the young in particular. In some ways, they seem ahead of us in caring about the justice for the vulnerable. Maybe it’s because they aren’t stricken with the same spiritual smugness and sense of entitlement.