Church and Social Justice
By Lal Dena
Social justice has been a dynamic issue which runs through the pages of the prophetic books in the Old Testament and into the New Testament. It is so important to Christian faith that without it all other forms of piety are insignificant. More particularly in a violent-ridden society like ours, the test of Christian faith and his commitment to Christ in relation to social justice has become an issue which demands constant self-introspection.
As we are all aware, justice, be it from God or civil society is impartial. It renders without favour what is due to each person and this is expressed in political, social, economic, religious and cultural rights. If the Church sets aside all structures and artifices of justice outside its concern, then even the Christian love would become irrelevant to man’s common life.
Social justice must correspond to God’s justice. Then what is God’s justice and what does it mean to a civil society? God is a lover of justice which is his chief attribute. God’s justice centres around man who is created in His own image and His justice must shine like the sun in a society where the God-created man lives.
There are broadly two types of justice within a social system. They are distributive justice and retributive justice. The distributive justice provides the standard of the distribution of the benefits of society whereas the retributive justice provides for the distribution of penalties according to one’s own deserts. The first one implies rewards and the second punishment. Thus, according to Stephen Ch. Mott, “Justice provides the standard by which the benefits and burdens in society are distributed. It regulates from an ethical as well as a legal and customary standpoint the apportioning of wealth, income, punishments, rewards, authority, liberties, rights, duties, advantages, and opportunities. Behind the structuring of these values of society is a view of human good; it is justice which expresses this view.
As to how the benefits of society are to be distributed, Vlastos has put forth five principles. The first principle is ‘to each according to each one’s need.’ This principle was put into practice during the apostolic time of the early Church. “There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to any one as he had need.” (Acts 4:34-35). This is a certain kind of vulgar socialism based on consumerism, not on the socialization of the means of production.
According to this principle, each and every one gets his due share within that society. Here ‘due share’ does not mean equal share. The second principle which says ‘to each according to each one’s merits’ and the third principle ‘to each according to each one’s worth’ are closely related to each other. While every one has equal worth in the eyes of God, every one does not have equal merit. Some are more intelligent than others. This does not mean that social differentiation is to be based on one’s intelligence. It only means that one will get a position or recognition according to his qualification. For example, an illiterate person cannot become a magistrate or a teacher. The fourth principle ‘according to one’s work he puts in’. It is something like ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’ (Gal. 6:7).
There is also another scriptural maxim:- ‘from each according to each one’s ability’ (Acts 11:29). This means that as one receives the benefits of society, one is also under obligation to contribute to the society according to one’s ability. In God’s justice, one cannot remain idle. Every one must work. ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat’(2 Th. 3:10). At the same time, the ability to contribute or meet other’s need is deeply enjoined in God’s justice and material blessings. The last principle ‘to each according to the agreements each one makes’ has secondary importance and is primarily concerned with promise-keeping.
According to the retributive justice, every one is equal before the law. Before the court or the judge, the poor or the rich could not expect special concession. ‘Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Follow justice and justice alone. (Deu. 16:19-20). This means that there should not be any partiality between the poor and the rich. ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly’. (Lev. 19:15). He who violates or breaks the law of his land must get due punishment or penalty. In deciding a legal case, one is therefore not to show any partiality. ‘Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God’. (Deu. 1:17). Justice belongs to God and our justice must therefore correspond to God’s justice. When justice is properly executed in a society, then ‘God’s will is done on earth as it is done in heaven’.
God’s justice is also dynamic. It demands active and bold actions all the time. It is not enough that one has good personal relationship with others. One has to see that justice is maintained within a community. If there is injustice anywhere, one has to assert to remove such injustice. If there is an unjust structure in a society, such structure is to be removed. The Church must have a courage to attack such oppressive social and political structures which give a scope for exploitation of one person by another person. In God’s justice, there is no place for exploitation of any sort. Even if the state or government passes unjust law, the Church as the community of God’s people must have the gutsy to tell the government that it is wrong. For the state or government exists for the good of the people.
The relation between a citizen and a government is not one-way traffic. The government has an obligatory duty to create conditions for the development of good homely life, enlightened culture and spiritual life. It can in no case be an agent of exploitation and injustice. On the other hand, a Christian citizen is taught to be loyal to a government and pay taxes due to it (Romans 13:1-7). But no government can be put in the place of the Living God. Caesar must not usurp power and asks for that which belongs to God. This is precisely the point where the early Christians performed their acts of resistance even at the cost of their lives.
The modus operandi of Church in dealing with social injustices must be based on Jesus’ model and politics. Jesus resisted the social, legal and political customs that prevented men from enjoying God’s gift of life. He invited tax-collectors to his table, and showed that they had a part in the fellowship of God’s people; he healed the son of a Roman centurion, he opposed the nationalist Zealot party; he refused to countenance hatred for the enemy; he broke the ritual laws of the Pharisees and chided them for excluding God’s people from His blessing; he held up as an example to them of a good Jew a good Samaritan; he talked with Samaritans and touched lepers; he drove the money-changers out of the temples and rebuked the rich supporters of the temple treasury, giving from their abundance.
In short, Jesus resisted evil in the temptation, illness and demon-possession. When he was tried and struck on the face, Jesus protested and retorted, “If I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:23). It is thus clear that Jesus’ teaching and action was not non-resistance. But it was non-retaliation to evil in like kind; not to use its weapons. As we are all aware, society is seriously contaminated by sin. Crime, immorality and disrespect for authority are breaking out everywhere. Every institution is being disfigured by sin. One view is that until and unless the members of society are changed, there can be no qualitative justice in the society. Our personalities and values are moulded by our society.
We come to this world naked, crying and helpless in the three worlds of Karl Kopper’s definition: the first world being the world of nature, the physical world; the second being the world of the mind; and the third, the world of human nature which is most crucial and includes kinship relations, forms of social organization, government, law, custom, learning, religion and language. In other words, we are born and brought up in our own cultures. What we are as an individual is the result of this socialization process in our own cultural background. The basic issue here is the question of priority, which is whether the Church is to begin with an individual or to confront the structures of society directly. The biblical verdict in this regard is very clear.
The biblical image of the social influence of Christians individually or collectively is found in Jesus’ statement: “You are the light of the world and the city set upon a hill” (Mat. 5:14). The Christian community as a city shedding light in the world speaks of their social impact around them. Light represents a positive and aggressive force combating darkness. Light is also seen as the breaking of chains of oppression and exploitation in society. It is a force for justice, an image of triumph and dignity. This is exactly what the Church should be. In other words, the Church should be positive and aggressive, if need be, to bring about the reign of God’s justice in society. What is required and demanded of the Church today is that it must always try, come what may, to change corruptive structures of society or renew structures in close conformity with biblical teachings.
If living condition in a particular society is unjust and unbearable, the logical option is to go to law courts. This involves different stages of actions; endurance, dialogue, strikes, processions and civil disobedience. The purpose of civil disobedience is to make an illegitimate law ineffective and unoperationable. But when every possible disobedient recourse is exhausted, as Francis Schaeffer argues, there does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. Should I use force to protect my own pride, property and life? Jesus’ model appears to rule out even self-defense.
God’s justice is also creative. It is not like the preserving justice of the Aristotle’s type which judges people according to their former position in society. If they were not equal before, they would not get equal treatment. But God’s creative justice does not make any pre-condition. It makes man a new man. It creates a free people out of slavery.
While God’s retributive justice treats everybody equally, His distributive justice is in favour of the poor and the oppressed. God’s concern for the poor is well focused both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Let us cite only few examples. Deu. 15:11: There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you be openhanded towards the poor and the needy in your land. Job 29:16. I was a father to the needy. Psalm 10:18- Defending the fatherless and the oppressed. Psalm 35:10- You rescue the poor from those too strong for them; the poor and the needy from those who rob them. Psalm 103:6 – The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. Luke 4:18- 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. 2 Cor. 9:9- He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor, etc.
Who is the poor in the eyes of God? If a person becomes poor because he does not work, God will not protect and bless him. God helps only those who help themselves. He who does not work shall not eat either. The poor who becomes poor because of exploitation and circumstances beyond his control needs our protection and help. Poverty is after all a social evil. It is a problem of unjust economic relationship. The Church is meant to be a structure to ensure just relationships, be it social, economic or political. It can in no way be the cause or means of perpetuating injustice and poverty.
To quote Vishal Mangalwadi, ‘the Church is the antidote to poverty, because it was meant to be a community bound by self-sacrificing love’. As we all know, men are endowed with different levels of faculties – intelligence and abilities. By nature some are stronger than others and some are better well-placed in society by virtue of their merit. We cannot redistribute or equalize wealth, income or rewards. But it is the bounden duty of the rich to help the poor and the disadvantaged people in society.
If one occupies a higher position in society by holding higher responsibility or job, heavier is his burden and concern for the poor. What does it mean to you and me when Jesus says: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”. (Mat. 25:35-36).
To conclude, if the Church really understands what God’s justice is and what it means to a society, there is no other option for it than to follow God’s example in its day to day activities. To compromise means to yield to temptation.
The writer, author of eight books and numerous articles, is a professor at the history department in Manipur university, India. He was also president of Northeast India History Association, visiting professor at Dibrugarh University, Assam, and visiting fellow at Korea Foundation, South Korea.