Social Justice – Not an optional extra

Social Justice: Not an optional extra
by Casey O’Brien Machado

Recently, at a multi-denominational meeting, I introduced myself to a fellow attendee. Upon explaining my role to him, he responded “Oh, you’re a Social Justice person. I suppose that’s a given – you do belong to The Salvation Army. I am more of a Bible-type person. Our church really focuses on having strong biblical teaching and understanding”.

Perhaps this sentiment is not always articulated as blatantly as it was here, but it is certainly the case that within our churches there are people who we identify as “social justice” or “social issues” type people.

Holiness and Social Justice are inextricably linked

An engagement with social justice is not an optional add-on to our holiness. Rather, it is an essential element of our holiness. True holiness does not exist without engaging with issues of injustice. Therefore, it is problematic to separate those who focus solely on social justice from those who focus solely on biblical understanding. Both are essential elements of our holiness, and as followers of God, we are called to take on “holiness” and all that it encompasses.

As followers of God, our ultimate aim is to emulate Him. He instructs us to “be holy as He is holy”. We see through the Scriptures, time and time again, that when God instructs us to “be holy as He is holy”, the command is followed by a list of ways in which to care for and advocate on behalf of others (for example, in Leviticus 19). The Scriptures also show us that not only is justice something that God appreciates, it is the very “foundation” of who He is (Psalm 89:14). Justice is the physical and visible embodiment of God’s holiness[1]. Therefore, the physical embodiment of our holiness must be justice also.

Engagement with Social Justice is not optional

Social Justice is the outworking of our faith in the most practical of ways. It is the natural expression of our holiness. Engagement with others in a way that brings about Social Justice – that is, in a way that brings about the Kingdom of God – is not an optional extra to being a Christian.

In Isaiah 6, we read the story of Isaiah’s sanctification and anointing. In verse 7, Isaiah is sanctified – made holy – when an angel touches his lips with live coal. Immediately following, in verse 8, Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord saying “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”. Isaiah responds: “Here am I. Send me!”. As soon as Isaiah has been sanctified, God sends him out to mission. Isaiah is not made holy in order to sit around and simply be holy. He is made holy and as a result, is sent out into the world. In the same way, when we are sanctified and our lives are transformed by Christ, this transformation naturally brings about a desire to see others’ lives transformed and sanctified. We are sent out to mission.

A right relationship with God and with one’s neighbour

Today, we speak often of holiness and righteousness as being in a right relationship with God. In Ancient Greek, the use of “righteousness” included an element of Justice. It was “a right relationship with God and with one’s neighbour”. Paul stands in the Old Testament tradition in which ‘justice’ (mishpat) referred not only to addressing social order in a legal sense, but also to God’s right ordering of the cosmos. This ‘right ordering’, as shown in the microcosm of Israel, includes a profound concern for the poor.

This is similar to the Wisdom tradition in which we are called to dynamically align our lives with God’s ordering – which we call ‘holiness’. Therefore, when God calls his people to holiness, as He did throughout Scripture and continues to do today, He calls them to a right relationship with Himself AND a right relationship with their neighbour.

The Salvation Army and Social Holiness

The Salvation Army’s founders, being heavily influenced by John Wesley’s doctrine of Social Holiness, recognised early on that holiness without a concern and action for others was not holiness at all.

The issues begin when the concept of holiness is confused with the concept of personal piety. The Salvation Army’s Handbook of Doctrine states that “A Salvationist understanding of holiness expresses itself as practical and social holiness as well as personal spiritual experience and development”. That is, social holiness (often called social justice) is not an added-on extra. It is an essential element and expression of our holiness.

This concept of social holiness – that is, the “doing” of holiness – does not mean that we claim to gain Salvation by works. Isaiah was not sent out and required to fulfil his mission prior to being sanctified. Rather the “sending out” is a natural flow-on from the sanctification.

A Call to holiness is a call to Social Justice.

As we pursue holiness, not only as individuals but as a unified Army, let us never forget that Social Justice is not simply a “good idea” or a “fad”, nor is it appended to the Christian faith, or an optional extra. It is the very embodiment of God’s holiness, and of His kingdom on earth. It should permeate every interaction, every conversation, every prayer. It is at the very heart of being a follower of God.

(I would like to acknowledge the work of Major Dr. Alan Harley, Major Dr. Terry Grey, and the advice of Major Cec Woodward in the writing of this piece).

[1] Major Dr. Alan Harley

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