Over the past century the concept of Social Justice has done quite a bit of growing up.
Where it once stood as the ideological and counter-cultural child of a burgeoning Christian movement, contextualized by an age of enlightenment and industrialization, Social Justice now seeks a superfluous relevance among its liberal contemporaries. Born out of the biblical call to ‘love God, and love others’, this adolescent concept has been beaten into submission by the bullies of the global playground – capitalism, globalization, bureaucracy, politicization – and has learnt a valuable lesson about the consequences of upsetting the status quo. For that reason, Social Justice decided somewhere along the way to relegate itself to the fringes of the playground with the other misfits of a post-modern community. This would surely be the best way to avoid the lunch time swirly.
…and that’s where the high school metaphor begins to fall apart.
The point I’m trying to make is that just as a child is quick learn that it takes a lot more than imagination to become an astronaut, so too did the social justice movement learn that it takes more than good intentions to change the world. It would seem that in each case, the consequence of such a revelation was to simply give up trying. Don’t get me wrong, there are kids that grow up to be astronauts and others that grow up to transform society, but generally speaking most of us just talk about it.
But then, that’s precisely what distinguishes those extraordinary individuals, who manage to influence culture and reshape society, from those that don’t. Where the ‘generally speaking’ are content with mere discussion, the ‘grow up to be’ are compelled to activity. The difference, it would seem, is action. Many of us would prefer simply to argue about the plethora of social justice issues, but the great peacemakers of history lived lives that overflowed with justice. Not just in the grand political statements or the captivating stories of social change, but in the simplicity and routine of daily life.
Martin Luther King (Jr.) was a great speaker. In fact, he is probably most remembered for his evocative and passionate address at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington DC. Yet what would make this man great was not his articulate way with words but a prevailing desire for justice and the consistent choice to act upon it. During the Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, this reality eventually compelled Dr King to move himself and his family into a slum in the impoverished community of North Lawndale. The terrible living conditions caused his wife serious emotional stress and his children to constantly suffer from pneumonia. Though the cost may seem great, what it achieved was a personal understanding of the injustice faced by the poorest communities of America. Martin Luther King (Jr.) was no longer talking about justice as a distant and impartial spectator, because now he was personally acquainted with the suffering of the marginalized. It wasn’t a university education that qualified Dr King; it was his choice to challenge everything that society tells us is acceptable and to embrace the vulnerability of others as a means of overcoming injustice.
He chose to make the fight personal.
What Martin Luther King (Jr.) and the many remarkable individuals like him seemed to have understood was the significance of the Incarnation in their pursuit of justice. They recognized the revolutionary consequences of a God who was willing to clothe Himself in humanity; and further than that, they were prepared to do likewise. You see… our Creator was willing to walk in our shoes. He chose to enter our reality, engage in our brokenness, and embrace our suffering. Greater still, He was prepared to bear the consequence of our failure. Now try to comprehend that for just a moment; actually try and wrap the insufficiency of the human mind around the notion that you are so important to your Creator that He would make Himself vulnerable and take the role of a servant so that you might be made whole. If nothing else, this fact should highlight humanity’s inherent worth to God.
Retribution is not justice for it is born out of the pathology of human nature. True justice, that which is exemplified through the life and ministry of Jesus, seeks wholeness. This is the work to which we are called:
“… to loose the chains on injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke.
… to share your food with the hungry
and provide the poor wanderer with shelter;
when you see the naked, to cloth them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.”
Encapsulated in the incarnational ministry of Christ is the indelible understanding that true justice seeks to reconcile and restore.
Now that’s an encouraging thought.