Principles of Justice

Jesus and Justice

When we look at the life of Jesus, we find a person whose sole purpose was to bring those around Him closer to His heavenly Father. In looking to His example, we see a life which was wholly committed to bringing the Kingdom of God to earth. In reflecting on His example as portrayed through the Gospels, we can find practical examples how we should treat others. The International Social Justice Commission’s Resource, Jesus and Justice, (available for download on the ISJC’s website) presents four principles which can be seen through the way Jesus lived. It observes that in His dealings with others, Jesus consistently included the excluded, challenged harmful cultural practices, confronted the powerful and advocated for the oppressed[1].

Including the Excluded

The experience of being excluded is one which is not easily forgotten. In a society where the goal of many is to be well-liked (as is often seen in the quest for ‘friends’ on social media), being forgotten or left behind are some of the most powerful and hurtful feelings that can be experienced.

In Jesus’ day, there was no question as to who the social outsiders were. Lepers were not only excluded from society, but were forced to yell ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ on the rare occasions that someone approached them (Leviticus 13:45-46). The extent to which a person suffering from leprosy was excluded was great, and the humiliation associated with contracting the disease must have been traumatic. Yet when Jesus came across a leper, he did not turn his back and choose to associate with the ‘clean’ or ‘healthy’ members of the crowd. Instead, as recorded in Matthew 8:1-4, Jesus touched the leper, skin-to-skin, in front of the entire crowd. Not only did Jesus recognise the man as a person, he did so in front of a large group of people. Similarly, Jesus’ conversation with another leper saw him filled with compassion (Mark 1:40-42), not with the disgust and discomfort which the man would have experienced from other members of society.

Today, those who are excluded are not always as visible. There are groups of people within society who are systemically excluded and, at times, this exclusion hides itself so well that we don’t even notice it. Yet day after day, individuals ­– and sometimes groups – are excluded for a variety of reasons, such as financial status, race, religion, sexual orientation, even citizenship status. At times, the Church itself falls into the trap of failing to recognise people as people and, worse still, perpetuates such exclusion. Yet Jesus’ example shows us a different model. The blatantly excluded were not only shown pity but were recognised by Jesus as people equal to all others.

Challenging Harmful Cultural Practices

As much as we may hate to admit it, we all adhere to an often-unarticulated set of social norms and rules. In order to take part in society, each person allows themself to be guided by those around them in the way they live their day-to-day life. Those who choose to ignore these social norms and cultural practices often become the socially excluded, mentioned in the previous paragraph. While some cultural norms are harmless, others have the capacity to cause damage to other people or to God’s creation.

In Jesus’ day, one such cultural norm was that of the Samaritans, an ethno-religious group, not associating with Jews, and vice versa.

While, at times, it can be believed that racism is a thing of the past, the truth is that it is a problem still experienced by many around the world on a day-to-day basis. Be it through explosive, public protests or subtle, insinuated jokes between friends, racism is a negative, shameful part of the lives of many. Racism is but one example of a cultural practice which has become widely accepted over time.

Jesus was not oblivious to the socially-ordered racial and religious caste system. He came into contact with it every day and, rather than ignoring it, used it to model and explain how his followers should treat others. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) shows him challenging harmful cultural practices. Jesus clearly indicated that the most important factor was the man’s unfortunate situation, not the religion or the race of those passing by. Similarly, through his interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), he was not afraid to challenge social norms and accepted cultural practices, and to demonstrate a new way of thinking and behaving.

Confronting the Powerful

Consistently throughout history, the concept of holding power over another has corrupted human behaviour. Power can manifest itself in various ways, and who ‘the powerful’ is in a given situation is often difficult to identify. In some cases, the government is the powerful, in others, the media. On a more personal scale, an oppressive boss or a difficult friend can be the powerful.

Jesus’ life presents to us a model through which the powerful is boldly confronted. Jesus’ behaviour disturbed and infuriated the religious elite, the Pharisees and the scribes. They were a well-educated, respected, confident and authoritative group – they were the powerful of the day who not only held religious authority but also operated the Jewish court system [2]. Jesus consistently and openly criticised this group and their social structure. He questioned society’s blind acceptance of their teaching and encouraged a new way of thinking and behaving – much to the religious elite’s anger and dismay. Despite the risks to his own reputation and personal safety, Jesus challenged their authority through the way he chose to live, through his acts and words.

Advocating for the Oppressed

Oppression, like power, comes in many forms. Those with whom we come into contact can find themselves oppressed by financial burdens, sickness, social expectation, love of money, mental illness, relationship problems… just to name a few. As believers, we are not immune to being oppressed ourselves. While in Jesus’ day oppression was most blatantly seen in the demon-possessed, today’s burdens can have an equally oppressive nature. Jesus identified the problems which were oppressing those in his time and freed them from such oppression, including both spiritual oppression and the physical causes of oppression such as blindness, leprosy, paralysis etc (Mark 1:22-34). While we may not always be able to free those around us from the things oppressing them, we can do what we can and, at the same time, point them towards the One who can – Jesus himself.

Conclusion

Jesus’ lifestyle – his choices every day – modelled a life of social justice. Today, as his disciples we must follow his example in our own context. By understanding the principles by which Jesus lived, we can begin to understand what God’s Kingdom on earth may look like. By living according to these crucial Kingdom principles and through the power of the Holy Spirit, our community can be changed into one that honours God and sees his justice proclaimed.

 

[1] Jesus and Justice p. 4

[2] Jesus and Justice p. 39

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