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I was recently asked what my understanding of Jesus’ views on social justice was? I instinctively start from the ‘two great commandments’ Jesus teaches: to love God with all you are, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
I then think of his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus’ conclusion is that, rather than defining who one’s neighbour is (perhaps limiting it to comfortable terms), the better question is to ask whom you can be a neighbour to. This takes us beyond ethnic, religious, social, gender and economic boundaries in our care and concern for others. He is often seen living this out in practice.
I also note Jesus rebuked the hypocrisy of religious leaders for tithing their herbs, but neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. This echoes the concern of the prophets, such as Micah (6:8) and Zechariah (7:9).
More broadly, the Bible describes us as individuals in community. Therefore justice and morality will not just be individual, but will have corporate dimensions, and sometimes even structural aspects.
As one example, think of the book of James. It urges personal care of orphan and widow (1:27), non-discrimination in our church meetings (2:1-5), and deeds (not just talk) in regards to caring for the poor (2:14-17). But there are also warnings against corporate wage theft of a group – the “rich” – akin to a ‘class’ (5:1-5). There is also personal responsibility and mutual obligation, as I have written recently.
What about the relationship between evangelism and social justice?
The Great Commission sets the terms of the mission Christ gave the members of his body, the church. Matthew 28:18-20 says it’s to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught. Essential to the making disciples is proclaiming the gospel of the Lord Jesus as Saviour through his atoning death and resurrection. This calls for repentance and faith in Christ. Nothing else meets ultimate human need.
As noted above, the second Great Command means we ought to love everyone as neighbours, even those who act like enemies. However, I would not refer to this as the mission of the church or individual Christians. Rather it is the very mode of life. We are to love wherever we are. Love always abides.
Because God, in Christ, is concerned for justice, then obeying all Jesus teaches naturally includes concern for what we often call social justice.
But I am not comfortable with the common characterisation of evangelism and social justice as two equal wings of the plane. Rather, as Tim Keller says, evangelism and social justice “…exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship” (Generous Justice, p139). You need both; they are inseparable. But one is more important than the other; they are asymmetrical – unlike two wings of a plane. “Evangelism [speaking gospel words] is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is not true because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal” (p139).