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God’s People Bringing Justice to the Oppressed

“We don’t want to cause division. We don’t want to appear too political. There are just some conversations that Christians shouldn’t partake in. Social justice is something that is political and left-leaning. The church is not the place to talk about these things. We don’t want to cause division.” 

These are a few of the excuses I have heard first-hand from church-goers and leaders who get uncomfortable with the topic of social justice. In addition, church members who are high financial donors have threatened to withhold funding to churches, schools and projects that are, in their minds, focused on “divisive issues” such as racial equity. Board meetings have become places where strategic games are played beforehand to keep transformative change stalled again and again. 

This week’s Sabbath School lesson focused on God’s people partnering with Him to bring justice to the oppressed. As Monday’s lesson admonishes, “God exhibits special care and concern for the justice of vulnerable groups of people…the Psalms inspire faithful people to raise their voice against every oppression” (emphasis added). Yet it seems that some in the church shirk away from this responsibility, using excuses such as: “we don’t want to be too political” and “we don’t want to cause division.” Consequently, God’s people remain silent too many times in the face of oppression, and their silence only exacerbates systems of injustice. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of this in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

In referencing Psalms 72 from Tuesday’s lesson, “the leader’s central concern should be ensuring peace and justice in the land and caring for the socially disadvantaged…only then shall prosperity come.” This conditional promise of healing coming after we deal with injustice resonates with Isaiah 58: 6,8 which states, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice…Then your healing will quickly appear.”

The Hebrew words for justice are mishpat and tzedakah. The definition of mishpat centers around the concept of rectifying or repairing past and current wrongs, whereas tzedakah can be defined as living a life of right relationship with others. Author, apologist, and pastor, Timothy Keller unpacks these Hebrew definitions considering the importance of social justice to the Christian. 

“These two words roughly correspond to what some have called “primary” and “rectifying justice.” Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzedakah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else. Therefore, though tzedakah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social…When these two words, tzedakah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is social justice.”

Renowned Jewish scholar, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expounds further on the Hebrew definition of tzedakah when he explains that although it can be translated in different ways such as justice, equity, and fairness, the definition of tzedek/tzedakah is understood to mean: “Justice plus compassion equals tzedek, the first precondition of a decent society.”

If members of a Christian community are to become invested in living out the meaning of these definitions of Biblical social justice, it will mean practicing mishpat (rectifying or repairing past and current wrongs) to live a life of tzedakah (living a life of right relationship with others).

Theologian and religion professor Jennifer Harvey makes a strong case for reparations that correlates with these definitions of mishpat and tzedakah in her book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. Reconciliation, which many believe to be an attribute of the Christian life, can never take place if systems of oppression do not change, and we cannot ask for racial reconciliation when we have not first done the work of reparations. Theologian Michael Banner references the story of Zacheus’s conversion as a Biblical example that to be a true follower of Christ involves a conversion that should result in active reparations, including repairing broken organizations and policies at a systemic level. 

When we say things like “this is too political” or “we don’t want to be divisive” etc., we silence the voices of oppression that we, as followers of God, were created to liberate. We become what this week’s lesson spoke of in Psalms 82:1-8, as those who “judge dishonestly”, referring to ourselves as “gods”, yet living very differently from the God we claim to follow. We, therefore, take the name of God in vain, for we claim to be about His name, yet with our lives we run from the oppression of others, or at least cover our ears and eyes from their desperate cries. We continue to condone systems that oppress in the name of God and gather tithe to protect these oppressive systems so that they won’t become places of reparative healing. Then we wonder why our churches are sick, broken and shrinking. 

Now is the time to do all we can to dismantle systemic oppression, even if we are called liberal, heretic, or shunned for being “too political” or divisive. Because at the end of the day, justice is not political – it is a Biblical mandate to all who claim to be followers of Jesus.

About the author

Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin is the former vice principal for spiritual life at Auburn Adventist Academy. She has served as a minister, teacher, and administrator in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for over two decades. She is currently completing a PhD in Transformative Social Change, with an emphasis in Peace and Justice Studies. More from Krystalynn Westbrook-Martin.
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