Category Archives: Social justice

“Your dad should teach you English!” – the ugly face of racial hate

A man came up to us and said loudly to my son, “Your dad should teach you English!”  Then he walked away.

A seemingly innocuous statement made by a complete stranger to my four year old whilst we were standing at the checkout of the Coles supermarket at Castle Towers.  My son just ignored it.  However, the fact it was said to my little boy at a volume loud enough so that everyone could hear it, and in a tone design to demean and condescend, I can’t but conclude that the remark was one which had a racist attitude at it’s heart and it was designed to humiliate myself and my boy.

Maybe this man was having a bad day? Maybe he was just playing a joke? Maybe he was just a jerk?

When I was a young, this kind of behaviour happened enough to maybe think that it was somehow acceptable in the playground or in the street or down at the shops. I’ve even experienced it to a lesser extent by senior clergy in the diocese that I’m a minister in (don’t worry I’m not going to label or name names or shame them … )  However, even though I have been on the receiving end of racism, I was secretly hoping that my kids would never be!  How wrong was I?

I understand that the bible is pretty clear that because of universal sinfulness, all people can and do turn against God and one another (Romans 3:23).  Although we find that God created the different races, languages and cultures (Genesis 11), because we understand that all people are sinful, we know that our sinfulness makes inter-personal relationships less than perfect – which is why some are racist in their sinfulness and imperfection.

I wonder if this is an area that Christians can actually be counter-cultural and helpful here?  Seeing that the end-point of where Christians are heading is heaven where there is:

9 …  a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9)

Lots of Christians are involved in feeding the homeless, supporting fairtrade, lobbying their members of parliament to rectify all manner of social injustices.  However, maybe Christians could be more inclusive, caring, willing to relate to all people, especially to those from different culture to themselves – this would go a long way to closing off a significant blindspot in our generally mono-cultural churches.  The mere fact that I still get people at church saying to me, “I met this guy on the bus from Hong Kong. His name is Ken. Do you know him?”  suggests that even Christians in my own church don’t get it!  And by the way, the answer is “No!”

As Christians, let’s not reinforce racial stereotypes by being unwilling to make relationships with peoples of other cultures. If you show in your life that you don’t care about these sometimes superficial and physical differences, then this is a great model for others. Maybe it could be an opportunity for talking about Jesus?

And on top of all that, even though racists are douche-bags they deserve to hear about Jesus too?

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Three Reasons to be a Community of Justice

This is an excerpt of a sermon preached at St Paul’s Castle Hill on Deuteronomy 15.  This was sermon a series based on Tim Keller’s, “Generous Justice”.

Why should we bother to lift others up when there is so much to be gained by looking after yourself?  Here are three reasons why we should get involved in our church community here tonight.

Œ(1) Everything we have comes from God in the first place.  And one of the reasons he blesses us is so that we can bless other people.

We see that in Deut 15.  For the Israelites, God in his mercy saved them from Egypt.  God has blessed them in so many ways, by freeing them from oppression, giving them the promised land, blessing their inheritance.  And because God has been so generous, they too are to generously cancel debts, generously free their servants, and generously give the needy the hand up they need to get on their own two feet.

God really cares for the poor.  That’s true.  He looks out for the quartet of the vulnerable (See Tim Keller’s, Generous Justice for a definition). We see that in Deuteronomy 15 and also we see that throughout the whole Bible.  But you might well ask, if God so cares for the poor and needy and suffering and oppressed, why doesn’t God do something about it?  Well he does!  He blesses the rich and the rich are meant to pass it on.  That’s how God looks after the poor.  He’s sovereign, but he uses us to exercise his power.   God is concerned for the poor.  He blesses us in order that we lift the burdens of others.  If we hold it tightly to our chest, then that’s disobedience. That’s sin.

(2) Here’s the 2nd reason, because it’s sin be hardhearted and tightfisted towards those suffering in our community.  Look at Deut 15vs9

9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.

Let’s just pause for a second.  What are the things that you are holding on to with tight fists and hard hearts?  Imagine if you didn’t get the most expensive phone on the market just because everyone else thinks its cool.  Imagine if you didn’t  buy the latest tech gadget? Or the new set of Summer clothes?  What are the reasons you are being tight-fisted and hard-hearted?  Do you just want to look cool?  Do you just want to feel good about yourself? Or is it that you’re just too busyto care about those who are suffering or needy or oppressed or hurt amongst us?  According to Deuteronomy 15, when we act with tight-fists and hard-hearts by giving nothing to our needy brothers and sisters – you will be found guilty of sin.

Let that sink in for a moment.  For whatever reason for why you don’t get involved in lifting the burdens of those in our community – if it ultimately comes down to being tight-fisted and hard-hearted, then your inaction is in rebellion to the God you are praying to tonight, singing to tonight and hearing from tonight. You will be found guilty of sin.

And I could point that out and make you squirm and make you feel guilty.  However, that’s hardly going to motivate you to be open-handed for the long-term.

(3)Ž So let me show you the third and most compelling reason why we lift the burdens of others is Deuteronomy 15 verse 15:

15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

The reason we stop and help others is because that is what God has done for us. The reason why we lift burdens is because we’re motivated by grace.  For the OT Israelites, God has lifted them up out of slavery in Egypt and put them in the Promised Land.  Here’s the model – it’s one of grace – God has been graciously generous towards us – therefore, we should be graciously generous towards others.

This same reasoning in Deuteronomy is also found in 2 Corinthians 8:9.  Paul writes to take a collection for another church in an area that has been hit by famine.  He wants to encourage all the new churches in the Archain region to give to help relieve their suffering. So how does he motivate?

9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Our model and our motivation comes from the great salvation that has come to us through Jesus. For us, in Jesus, God has lifted us up out of slavery to sin and so the expectation is that we lift others up out of poverty – their spiritual poverty as well as their financial, relational, physical poverty.  Now the spiritual salvation, we’re familiar with it – we sing about it, we preach about it – every week.  The story of us being lifted up out of our sin – the stories of the relief people felt when they met Jesus for the first time and had this heavy spiritual burden lifted from their shoulders. This story of spiritual redemption is familiar.  If that is familiar, if we are a true community of justice described in the Bible,  then it should follow that stories of practical and financial redemption should be just as common.  God’s salvation of his people should find an echo in their physical salvation – if we are a true community of justice.  We’re the conduits of that mercy. We’re the ones who love them as Jesus has loved them.

More Social Justice Thoughts (who should we help?)

There is no doubt that the idea of caring for the poor, needy, and oppressed is biblical. However, how do we do social justice in a way which is not just guilt-laden and heavy-handed? The problem is that every day we are confronted by a world racked by sin and decay – a world that groans for liberation (Romans 8:22). And even Jesus himself stated that in comparison to his physical presence, we will always have the poor amongst us (Matthew 26:11;John 12:8). We feel the burden of caring for all those people in need and at the same time until Jesus returns, the work of social justice will never be completed. So how do we decide what how we should adequately direct our limited resources to the task of social justice?

The idea of propinquity can help make godly decisions in this situation.[1] The word, propinquity, just means nearness. For example, I have a higher propinquity to the people working in my office than other people who work in another suburb – in terms of physical nearness. However, propinquity is not just physical, it can also be relational. For example, I have a higher propinquity to my niece in the U.S. than I do to the sales assistant I am buying groceries from at my local shops in Sydney, Australia – in terms of relational nearness even though I am not physically near my niece. I wonder if this idea of propinquity helps shed light on how we might decide where we spend our limited time and energy and other resources for social justice.

Interestingly, the idea of propinquity for Christian action is key to many of the “social justice” passages we find in the NT.[2]

  1. Galatians 6:10 – we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.  There is a priority of obligation to those in the church.
  2. 1 Timothy 5:8 – if a Christian doesn’t look after their family then you haven’t got much claim on being Christian.  The highest priority goes to our immediate family.
  3. 1 John3:16-17; 4:7-11 – If God’s love resides in you then you will love one another. The “one another” aspect is what I want to draw to here.  The idea is not everyone but those who have a higher propinquity.
  4. 2 Cor 8:1-15 – Gracious generosity is key.  And this generosity comes as a voluntary act of sharing resources with Christians who don’t have enough – ie they had a high relational nearness.

Moreover, I think you’ll find that even the OT “social justice” passages also have the idea of propinquity embedded in it.

  1. Jeremiah 22 – The king called to administer justice to the people of Israel.
  2. Isaiah 58 – the people of Israel are called to be just and fair to one another instead of just participating in meaningless rituals.
  3. Micah 6:8 – in it’s original context, the command to “do justice” is primarily to do with the people of Israel acting justly within the land.

For the biblical thrust is not so much always give everything to every person in need. It is wrong to believe that “God’s people always had a responsibility to see that everyone in society was cared for at a basic level.”[3] From the Bible, it would be very difficult to say that God’s people were responsible for the material needs of everyone in every place.  Instead, there is a priority that seems to be driven by propinquity – a priority of obligation for those most near, both physically and/or relationally.

What does this mean for me and my church? I think there a couple of things we could draw from this:

  1. We are morally obligated to those with the highest propinquity (ie those most near to us). Remembering that propinquity can mean physical and/or relational nearness.  This would mean that we are obligated to care for those not only in our nuclear family, our church family and those who are physically near us.  Moral obligation to those of high propinquity could also mean we should care for those we are relationally near to yet not physically near – eg a partner church in another country.  However, it means we have less obligation to those who have low propinquity.  Say for example, with the recent “Make Joseph Kony Famous”, although it seems like a good cause and it seems compelling, it would be a lesser priority than those with a higher propinquity.
  2. We ought to be concerned for those not near us remembering that God is still sovereign.  Even if some social justice issues may have a low propinquity to us, we should still be concerned for the needs of those suffering.  After all, since God is still sovereign we can definitely pray for those who we may not be able to help at this time.  Moreover, even if something has a lower propinquity, you can still choose to help – the God of grace taught us grace and shows us grace in Jesus so we can also show grace to others.
  3. Grace and love are always better motivators than guilt and shame. I can’t stress this enough!  If love and grace were not driving our response to the needs of the world then our motivations for social justice inevitably come from guilt and shame – which quickly become overburdening. Moreover, if we want to see the Christian church do more for the poor and oppressed then it is much more empowering and biblical to use love and grace as our motivating principle than guilt.
  4. Discipline and discernment is required in social justice or we succumb to the “tyranny of the urgent”. We have limited time, energy, and other resources so we actually do need to prioritize what we do with them. The idea of propinquity can help us here.  Moreover, “if we do not keep people’s eternal plight in mind, then immediate needs will force their way to the top of our agenda, and we will betray the gospel and the people we profess to love.  The most loving thing we can do for the poor is to proclaim the good news of eternal salvation through Christ.” [4]

End notes:

[1] The idea of propinquity is an adaptation of the moral proximity principle recently articulated by Kevin deYoung and Greg Gilbert – in What is the mission of the church? and on Kevin’s blog.

[2] When I mean “social justice passage(s)”, I am referring to the passages Christians most commonly refer to when speaking about Social Justice.

[3] Stearns, The Whole in our Gospel, 123.

[4] Chester and Timmis, Total Church, 78.

Thoughts on Social Justice

Social justice is something which is really on the mind of many evangelical churches in Australia.  The one I’m a minister at not withstanding!  The interest in social justice has been growing over the past 5 years – in Sydney, we’re probably 5-8 years behind the rest of the evangelical world. And honestly, social justice is a hot topic and is bound to stay that way for a few more years to come.

Any way, tonight we have a meeting of St Paul’s young adults at the first ever Hands and Feet gathering!  This is tremendously exciting, so I thought I had better gather some of my thoughts before I front up to 50-100 (who knows how many will actually turn up on this rainy Thursday night).

Well here goes …

What is social justice? 

For some, social justice is an umbrella category that captures every kind of good deed imaginable.  I’m not exactly sure that is particularly helpful.  Instead, I’m going to opt for a loose definition which is “when we care and have concern for the needs of those around us, especially to those who are less able to to help themselves.”

My understanding is that the term, social justice, is not necessarily derived from a Biblical idea, phrase or verse.  However, since it is now in circulation and used, I think we best roll with it and get on with it!

Biblical motivations for Social Justice?  

In broad Biblical categories, we do social justice because we are:

  1. “Doing Justice” – Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 22 and Isaiah 58 are the main passages that help us here.  From these passages, caring for the poor, the hungry and the oppressed is a biblical thing to do.   In fact, God’s people ought to hate oppression, corruption, unfairness, and ought to love helping the weak, giving to the needy and address situations of obvious injustice. However, Christians need to be very careful that we don’t make the Bible say more about “doing justice” than it does.  When reading even the main social justice passages, “doing justice” is really not the main storyline of the bible.  Rather the entire Biblical narrative is chiefly concerned with how a holy and perfect God can dwell with an holy people.  One aspect of holy living is compassion and doing justice, but this doesn’t make it the central theme of the Bible.  In fact, if your understanding of the Biblical narrative does not centre around Jesus and what he has done, then the chances are you’ve probably got it all wrong.
  2. “Loving our neighbours” – Leviticus 19 and Luke:25-37 are the main passages here. When we read the Bible, we are called to love our neighbours – all of them. As Kevin DeYong and Greg Gilbert say, when we speak only in terms of “justice” to motivate people to social justice, then we are sometimes unnecessarily motivating people to action by stirring up guilt where it may not belong. For example, to pick up a hot social justice issue at the moment – Making Joseph Kony famous.  Yes he’s been indicted for terrible crimes against humanity.  Yes he is probably still perpetrating terrible crimes against innocent children.  However, besides the fact that the campaign seems to actually be targeting US citizens to petition the US government, I’ve found the video to be guilt-inducing to action rather than love-for-my-neighbour-motivating. Maybe, I’m wrong but guilt is never a good long-term motivator for action. (Don’t get me wrong, I think they are trying to do a good thing!) Instead. maybe we should be encouraging our church to “love wildly, sacrificially and creatively here, there and every where”? (What is the Mission of the Church, 192).
  3. “Gracious generosity” – 2 Corinthians 8-9 is most helpful here. If we truly believe the gospel of God’s grace, we’ll be transformed to show grace to others.  Rather than guilt motivating us to social justice, it’s probably more healthy if it came as a grace-based response to grace.

There are no doubt more passages and themes we could look at, but this is a good start.  Anyway, see you tonight at Hands and Feet – 8pm in the church foyer.

Love in evangelism and social justice

In Luke 10:29, after hearing the Parable of the good Samaratin, a lawyer asks Jesus “Who is my neigbour?”  Jesus makes it clear that just as the Samaritan in the parable loved “the injured man”, we as Christians are called to love all people as our neighbours.  For when we love others we are moving from how the world sees people to see how God sees them.

There is no doubt that we care for people’s needs because we love them.  But it is also worth sharpening this thought to evangelism – for the end is not just meeting people’s immediate physical, social, emotional need.  As J.I. Packer writes, “The nature of love is to do good and to relieve need.  If then, our neighbour is unconverted, we are to show love … by seeking to share with him the good news without which he will perish.  So we find Paul warning and teaching ‘everyone’ (Colossians 1:28) not merely because he was an apostle, but because every man was he neighbour.” (Packer, Evangelism and the Soverienty of God, 108-9)

Or as John Piper said at Laussanne III, “For Christ’s sake, we Christians care about all suffering especially eternal suffering… Christ is calling us to pull these together.”

And “pulling these together” can often seem easier said than done but we must do it.