• A Biblical Framework for Social Justice

    Posted by Jasmin

    5 March, 2014

    Jasmin Howorth was the Communications intern at Micah Challenge in 2013. During her year with us, she felt challenged to delve deeper into what ‘social justice’ meant on a personal and biblical level. The following framework is her reflection on all that she has learnt about social justice in her year with us, and how to practically apply biblical foundations of justice to our modern lives. 

    Social Justice: a biblical framework


    After idolatry, God says more in the Bible about social justice than any other subject, with over 2,000 verses speaking to God’s heart for the poor. So, what does social justice mean in a biblical context? According to Tim Keller, the Hebrew word for “justice” is mishpat and at its most basic level means to treat people equitably. Over and over again throughout the Old Testament mishpat refers to taking up the cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. 

    “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)

    The mishpat, or “justness’” if you like, of a society is measured by how these groups are treated. Therefore neglect shown to any of these groups is seen as not merely a lack of charity, but a violation of justice.

    This understanding of biblical justice can be deepened when looking at a second Hebrew word, tzadequah, which can be translated at “being just” or “being righteous” which refers to a life of right relationship. Tzadequah refers to an individual’s day-to-day living in how they conduct their relationships with family and within society, with fairness, generosity and equity. This relational righteousness stems from being in right relationship with God. When these two words, mishpat and tzadequah are tied together (as they are dozens of times in the Bible) the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice”.

    In viewing social justice through a biblical lens we see that to act justly is not just something you may do, like an act of occasional charity, but rather a way of life that is founded on God’s desire for equality. This out-working of justice can only be considered righteous when it flows directly from an authentic relationship with God and is an example of true and authentic worship.

    The Prophet Micah: an example of true advocacy

    As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said:

    “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you are on the side of the oppressor.”

    Woman in Doti (Photo courtesy of UMN)Woman in Doti (Photo courtesy of UMN)

    Advocacy breaks neutrality, empowering groups and individuals to intercede and speak out on another’s behalf. For a Christian, being an advocate on behalf of the poor and oppressed is an integral part of practicing mishpat and a flow on effect of tzadequah.

    What is more, this kind of active pursuit of justice is a legitimate and authentic way of worshipping God. A Biblical example of this that is equally relevant today is provided in the life of the prophet Micah. 

    When Micah appeared in Jerusalem, the people were experiencing a time of prosperity. However, it was prosperity without equality. This strongly correlates with the society in which we find ourselves today.

    We exist in a world that is enjoying unprecedented wealth, yet an ever-widening chasm between those gaining from that wealth and those suffering without it. The people in Micah’s time felt it entirely possible to continue with everyday life without a second thought for all the greed and extortion that was taking place. In their minds, worship could be confined to the temple and need not influence the rest of their lifestyle.

    We see this same attitude in the minds of many Christians today, being completely blind to their God-given duty to stand up for injustice and an overall failure to comprehend embracing social justice as a legitimate form of worship.

    Worship cannot be confined to simply singing or spiritual disciplines like prayer and bible reading, but involves a desire to do justice and love mercy through a lifestyle of humility. As it says in Amos 5:24; 

    ‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (ESV).

    As the man who came to deliver this message, Micah would have been an uncomfortable presence for the people of his generation and in some ways a perfect example of the kind of advocates we should be today.

    In the same way the context of Micah so closely aligns with the context of today, so must we adopt the same approach to Micah in speaking truth and justice into a self-centered society, no matter how uncomfortable it makes our peers.

    This is true advocacy. 

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    Jasmin Howorth was the Communications intern at Micah Challenge in 2013.