The Office of Social Justice works to develop a deeper understanding of and response to God's call to let justice flow like a river in both our personal and communal lives, as well as in the structures of our societies.
Below are some frequently asked questions about social justice, advocacy, and Christian's role in politics.
- What is social justice?
- What does the Bible say about justice?
- What does the Bible say about Christians' role in politics?
- Why should Christians be politically engaged?
- What does social justice have to do with my personal faith?
- Shouldn't the church focus on evangelism and the gospel?
- What do you mean by the term "social justice"? Isn’t the name of OSJ controversial?
- What is advocacy?
- How does advocacy connect to charity?
- Should the church lobby?
- Whose role is it to care for the poor: the government or the church?
- What are "systems," and how do they contribute to injustice?
- What if I find working for systemic change slow, frustrating, and discouraging?
When we talk about social justice, we mean God's original intention for human society: a world where basic needs are met, people flourish, and peace (shalom) reigns. God calls us, the church, to participate in the renewal of society so that all—especially the weak and vulnerable—can enjoy God's good gifts. To do this, the church rightly emphasizes the administration of mercy. But this also involves identifying the root causes of what keeps people poor, hungry, and powerless. The vast web of structural factors that perpetuates these social injustices cannot be overcome without broad systemic reform, and so we witness and work to remove these barriers. If we avoid the issue of structural change, Christians would consign themselves to fighting the symptoms of poverty and hunger instead of getting at the disease itself. While the church is unable to provide relief to the hungry masses of the world, it can certainly advocate for systemic reforms that would significantly improve the lot of millions in poverty. Moreover, if the church would avoid calling for changes to unjust structures, then it would be guilty of proclaiming a truncated gospel. A message that fails to proclaim our radical liberation through Jesus Christ from every configuration of sin greatly limits the stature of our Deliverer (For My Neighbor's Good, Synod 1979, p. 41).
From start to finish, the Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with the world He has created. It speaks of the creation of all things, the fall of all things into sin, the salvation of all things through Jesus Christ, and the eventual reconciliation of all things in the Kingdom of God. The Bible includes stories that illustrate this Good News — stories about a loving and powerful God who cares for the weak, the sinful, and the powerless, and who will bring justice by restoring a right relationship with His creation (for example, see Jeremiah 9:24). The Bible also includes many commands for living as one of the members of God’s creation, teaching us to live in a way that honors and models the way of Jesus. The command over and over is for us to treat other people with love and justice and to act in a way that restores right relationships and honors our loving, powerful, and restoring God. When we do justice we reflect God’s restoration work in us and live more fully as the people who God created us to be. In the words of a 2005 Synodical report, “Pull on the string called ‘justice’ in the pages of the Bible, and soon enough you will get the whole book.” Some helpful citations follow: Deuteronomy 16:20, Psalm 82:2-4, Proverbs 29:7, Proverbs 31:8-9, Isaiah 1:16-17, Isaiah 58:4-11, Jeremiah 22:3, Jeremiah 22:13-17, Amos 5:11-15, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:8, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 4:18-19, Luke 10:30-37, James 1:27, James 5:1-6.
If politics is defined most simply as the way we wield power, then the mandate for Christians to be politically engaged emerges even at the very beginning of the Bible. When God created humans in His image and gave them the mandate to rule over His good creation, He gave us the power and responsibility of stewardship and leadership. God asks us to rule over creation in a way that is fitting with His goodness, mercy, justice, and love; these commands teach us the way in which we must engage in politics. The Bible was written in a vastly different context than our modern political systems. No mention is made of voting, running for office, or advocating for changes in government policy in Scripture. However, the Old Testament includes explicit commands for the way the nation of Israel ought to live, worship, and be governed, and these commands include protection of the poor by the powerful, a certainly-political commandment. In the New Testament, early Christians’ confession that “Jesus is LORD” was a clearly political statement; in so doing, they were claiming that Jesus Christ had ultimate authority, over and above the authority of Caesar, and that they would live their lives accordingly. The Bible also includes many verses giving guidance for the factors which should motivate Christian political engagement, including commands like “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Prov. 31:8). This is possible in our modern context through political advocacy. The two most commonly cited passages on Christians’ relationship with governing authorities, Mark 12:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7, deserve more than a cursory treatment here. For more information on CRC doctrine related to Christian engagement in the world, read through the contemporary testimony Our World Belongs to God, section 53.
Politics is essentially about how we use power to order our local, national, and international communities. As Christians, we believe there is potential to use political power in a positive, constructive, creative, and God-glorifying way. In fact, Romans 13 reminds us that governments are ordained by God to do good (vs. 4). However, politics can be wielded for good or for evil -- for purposes that delight our loving God or purposes that add to the brokenness of the world. We all live in political systems, whether we’re aware of them or not, and the way political power is used in those systems matters. Political decisions affect everyone’s lives, in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes hidden. Seen in this light, political engagement is an important Christian undertaking and certainly something suitable for conversation in the church. Our faith reminds us that justice, love, and mercy must be important considerations in a conversation about how we engage politics. Ultimately, Christians ought to be politically engaged in order to bear witness to our loving God in the systems which affect human lives. Christians ought to be politically engaged in order to remind governments to do good, as God ordained them to do -- especially on behalf of those who experience oppression as a result of the way that political power has been wielded.
In Isaiah 58, a beautiful chapter describing individuals’ pursuit of righteousness before God, the prophet describes people’s personal devotion and piety, an inner faith that lacked outward manifestation. Their fasting was not pleasing to the LORD, Isaiah writes, and their prayers were not heard. Instead, the LORD says, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free… is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…?” The text continues to describe these actions of social justice, and then describes the resulting intimacy with God: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard” (Isa. 58:6-8). Similarly, the book of James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jas. 2:14-17).
Aren't politics outside the scope of that call? To answer this question, we must address its underlying assumption: that the gospel is distinct from the world we inhabit and its political and social systems, and that evangelism is simply about believing the right thing in our minds and hearts. However, this is not the teaching of the Bible, nor the position of the CRCNA. As a 1979 synodical report explained, the gospel would be truncated without its message of radical liberation through Jesus Christ from every configuration of sin. This includes a necessary call to challenge sin not just in our personal lives, but in the unjust societal structures which stand against the righteousness of the Kingdom of God. Faith without works is dead (James 2:17) — and thus, the Good News is not only about having a change of heart through faith, but about changing the world as we live out our faith. The disconnect between evangelism and social action is a false one: in the words of John Perkins, “It is time for the church -- yes, the whole church -- to take the whole gospel on a whole mission to the whole world. It is time for us to prove that the purpose of the gospel is to reconcile alienated people to God and to each other, across racial, cultural, social, and economic barriers.” When Jesus announced his earthly ministry in Nazareth, he quoted Isaiah, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). The gospel message that Jesus preached was one that had relevance to people’s earthly state and challenged the injustices and sins of the world, promising redemption and renewal through faith in him. The gospel message preached by the modern church must model the message of Jesus, which means it must be a message of redemption for much more than just human souls. In our modern context, politics can be part of that redemptive process. Evangelism and disciple-making are central to the church’s ministry, and are absolutely vital for the church to maintain its distinctiveness as the body of Christ. But as Ron Sider once explained, “Evangelism and social action are inseparable. They are two sides of the same coin.” Our political engagement must be rooted in the love of Christ and the promise of His coming Kingdom. In that way, politics are actually part of evangelism and sharing the gospel: through pursuing justice and righteousness in political systems, we help spread the Good News that Christ will return and restore all things.
The term “social justice” emerges out of Scripture, and was actually originally coined by the church: a Jesuit monk based the phrase on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. Contrary to some misconceptions, “social justice” is a concept deeply rooted in the historic, Biblically orthodox traditions of the Christian faith. When we talk about “social justice” in a Reformed context, we are referring to God’s original intention for human society: a world where basic needs are provided for in love, where people flourish, and where shalom reigns in the Kingdom of God. This vision of shalom is a vision of “the way things ought to be,” or the way God created the world to be before sin. As Cornelius Plantinga writes, “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight… the webbing-together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” Social justice refers to the pursuit of shalom in human, social relationships. There are many types of justice (retributive, restorative, etc.). The significance of social justice is that it references the pursuit of shalom — righteousness, harmony, and “the way things ought to be” — specifically in our human interactions and societal structures. The CRCNA rightly emphasizes the pursuit of God’s shalom in all areas. However, the choice of the specific term in the name for the OSJ acknowledges the mandate of the OSJ, which focuses the office on addressing societal structures and injustices which hinder human flourishing. One final note of clarification: technically, the full name is the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action (OSJHA). However, because the activities of the office extend beyond issues related just to hunger and poverty, the shortened term is more commonly used.
Advocacy is standing with and speaking alongside people who are most impacted by systems and public policies that powerful people control. The church’s voice in public policy dialogue is unique and critical, because churches are communities that include those who are most vulnerable as well as those who are most powerful. Those voices together can speak important truths that would otherwise be kept silent. When churches advocate they bring a unique Christian perspective, a real human perspective, and a perspective grounded in Biblical principles.
Advocacy, like charity, is a way to live out Jesus’ commands to love and take care of our neighbors. Done well, acts of mercy that we would generally consider charity, or acts of aid that we would call relief, can lead to individual and community transformation. However, there is a difference. Charity is generally understood as the provision of goods or services to people who need them, with the control of the service remaining in the hands of the providers. Although this model of service can help acknowledge the image of God in the people being served, charity usually fails to acknowledge the deeper, structural roots of issues which create the need for service in the first place. On the other hand, advocacy focuses on the root causes of injustices, and aims for the community affected to be involved in making the desired change. At its best, advocacy is a stepping stone for social change and transformation, empowering the powerless and bringing people together into a more just and righteous relationship with each other. At best, advocacy and charity go hand-in-hand. The Hebrew word for charity, “tsedakah,” comes from the idea that righteous anger at injustice provokes one to address that injustice. This means that we should take care of those whose needs are immediate and pressing — giving food to the hungry right now, clothing the naked right now, taking care of the sick right now. This is charity. But it also means that we must ask the deeper questions: why are these people hungry? Why do they have no clothing? Why are they sick? What has dehumanized and oppressed them so that they cannot take care of themselves? When we begin to address these root causes and do something to change them, we are involving ourselves in the work of social justice and advocacy. Both of these actions are acts of love; both are important to living out our faith.
Since input from every sector, especially those sectors close to the poor, is critical for good policy to emerge, the laws of the U.S. and Canada allow and encourage churches to give their input. This can include speaking about specific bills or legislative proposals, as long as the work does not use a substantial percentage of a church’s overall resources. It can also include supporting and holding accountable elected leaders to live up to the expectations of Romans 13: to be God’s servants for people’s good. Lobbying is a critical way that Christians act as good stewards of the power that has been entrusted to them in a world full of inequality.
God is the one who cares for the poor, just as He cares for everything He has created. To do so, He uses a variety of agencies, including His global church and the governments established on the earth as political authorities. Each has a role to fill, and their work intersects in various ways. Both of these institutions reflect some of God’s glory; however, both also reflect some of the brokenness that results from sin. How a government treats the poor and the weak is a key indicator of a society’s commitment to justice. Many of the prophets and psalms reveal God’s intention for the powerful in society to care for justice, particularly for the oppressed (see Psalm 72 and Isaiah 1:4-23 for examples). As the Church, the body of Christ empowered in ministry by the Holy Spirit, we are to care for the poor as Jesus commanded, but also to support that work when it is done by other hands. Sometimes political systems are the cause of oppression and injustice. When this is the case, Christians ought to advocate the government on behalf of the poor, weak, and oppressed, because it is through policy that the oppression will end. Other times, the Church is equipped uniquely to care for the poor in a way that governments cannot do. We as the body of Christ are to reflect God’s glory, bear witness to His grace, and work together with those outside the Church -- including the government, when appropriate -- to do God’s will in the world.
“Systems” are structures which shape society — domestic governance systems; global systems of trade, aid, and debt; economic policies both international and domestic; systems of discrimination based on race, class, gender, culture, and legal status; and legal systems at home and internationally, for example. These are the “big picture” systems which we often take for granted in day-to-day life. As one old joke explains it, two fish are swimming along when one turns to the other and asks, “How’s the water?” Dumbly, the second fish stares back at her. “What’s water?” he responds. The same is often true for “systems” — few of us pay much attention to the design of neighborhoods, the complications of the legal system, or the trade patterns of a globalized world on a day-to-day basis. We simply live in them, living within their constraints as faithfully as we can. But the challenge of advocacy is to take a step back, look at the systems in which we function, and question if the injustices we see and deal with in our everyday life are rooted in deeper, systemic brokenness. This approach does not advocate for anarchy or the overthrow of all societal structures; government certainly serves an important and redemptive role in human society. However, Christians can recognize that all systems are fallen and perpetuate some form of injustice. Some systems are so broken that they are the roots of oppression and marginalization in our daily life. In order to truly do justice and love mercy, Christians ought to examine the systemic roots of injustice and do our best to change them.
Working for systematic change is a task that will never be completed fully until the day when righteousness and peace embrace in the Kingdom of God. But though it is a lofty and impossible-sounding calling, systematic change is not a waste of time, money, or energy. Actually, working to address the root causes of injustice, poverty, hunger, and other social issues will help to eliminate, in the long-term, the costs and pain of fighting the symptoms of these injustices. As Synod’s 1979 report “For My Neighbor’s Good” explained, “We work to reform the structures that keep people hungry and impoverished so that all — especially the powerless and vulnerable -- can enjoy God’s good gifts.” This is one of the most noble and faithful tasks we could ever pursue, even if we never see the end of it.