Following a recent meeting of Adventists for Social Justice, an organizer expressed her frustration with continually having to “make a case for social justice.” Her efforts to mobilize Seventh-day Adventists around improving the lives of those experiencing marginalization, discrimination, and oppression are hindered by a seemingly endless need to explain why Seventh-day Adventists should not only be concerned about but should actively engage in social justice work. Her exhaustion was palpable. Why is social justice a controversial topic? Why are calls to enlist Seventh-day Adventists in social justice work met with hesitation? I asked the same question. Why are so many Adventists resistant to ideas of social justice and social justice work despite a wealth of biblical support for such efforts?
Part of the problem may be that social justice is understood differently by different people. News outlets and political rhetoric have cast “social justice” as a way to “take from the rich and give to the poor.” Implying that social justice is an unfair redistribution of wealth from those who have “worked hard for their money” to those who are “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or “just working the system.” I have even heard it argued that social justice programs are unbiblical, that the Bible teaches that “those who don’t work, shouldn’t eat” and certainly, the Bible encourages honest labor. However, social justice is not a political power play or a partisan soundbite. How can we rethink what social justice is and means?
I once heard a pastor explain it this way. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is commendable. Feeding the hungry is charitable and the Lord commands us to love each other, to have charity. Working to end hunger is social justice. In the same way, teaching our children to respect law enforcement and to obey civil laws is good and right. Working to end the reality that not all children are safe in the hands of the law is social justice. We are called to both kinds of work.
Social justice is fundamentally about fairness which often simply means equal treatment. When I apply for a job, my chances of being offered employment should be the same as those of other similarly qualified candidates. My parents are not as young as they once were; when a family member is sick, injured, or dying, their chances of receiving high quality health care should be similar to anyone else’s ability to receive that same care. The argument follows similarly for prison sentences and access to housing or education.
Communism and socialism are forms of government that have tried to attain social justice. While many stable and successful countries operate under socialist frameworks, conflating social justice with oppressive systems of government may be one reason why some Adventists oppose ideas of social justice. Systems of government and social justice are not the same thing. In fact, social justice continues to be an important “American” value. Democracy in the United States makes claims to social justice through equality under the law and the notion of a level playing field.
There is an expansive theological literature for social justice. A recent Sabbath School quarterly drew from a number of those arguments to walk readers through biblical and spiritual mandates to care for the sick, orphaned, oppressed, and immigrant. But many individuals contend that those texts apply to a different place and political time. There are better systems now, they argue. And they’re not entirely wrong. Existing social welfare programs were designed to assist individuals and families in need. However, those programs were not designed to address inequalities built into the system or outside of the specific goals of each program. Additionally, those interventions do not address new forms of inequality. For instance, rising tuition rates are making access to higher education impossible for a growing number of students. Political instability around the world has increased the number of individuals seeking asylum and refugee status at U.S. borders. If biblical guidelines for social justice were written for another time and if previously implemented programs are inadequate to confront new forms of oppression and marginalization, where can we find a relevant moral compass? Our bank accounts or personal comfort are not safe guides and even a superficial study of social justice in the Bible reveals its urgency for Christians and Seventh-day Adventists today.
I suspect something darker hides at the heart of our resistance to social justice. “I worked hard for what I have. Why can’t others do the same? What’s wrong with them and why is it my problem? If I could ‘pull myself up by my bootstraps, why can’t they?’” I have heard these words, sometimes from people I love. They need to be addressed. Yes, most successful individuals have worked hard for their success. But the question of why others can’t “just do the same” assumes that everyone has the same opportunities and support, that each person is perceived equally, valued for their unique gifts and intellect, that we all somehow arrived with strong arms and a good pair of boots. We know this isn’t the case. Individuals with certain physical attributes seem to come out on top more often than others regardless of their aptitude, education, or skill. The hardest workers often work the most difficult jobs, jobs without insurance benefits or the promise of a glowing retirement. Ignoring this unfairly favors some individuals over others.
The United States was built on an ethic of individualism and current social thought not only valorizes the strength and accomplishments of individuals, it also rests responsibility for success, for safety, for wellness and more, squarely on the individual rather than on other factors, communities, or on state structures or policies. We reason that if I can “pull myself up” and someone else hasn’t or can’t, the fault must lie with them. We separate ourselves from those in need. We place responsibility for their suffering on their own shoulders and we wash our hands from any responsibility to help because we are unwilling to confront the prejudices of our worldviews or the selfishness of our own hearts.
It is not too late though. We can learn better. We can do better. Find the work in front of us and ask how we can help. Seek forgiveness for our callousness and determined blindness. Pray for new hearts and eager hands to love not only charitably, but justly and mercifully. We can rethink what social justice means and why the Bible might be so full of texts about it. I am grateful for organizations like Adventists for Social Justice and I look forward to next year’s conference. I am grateful too for opportunities in my community, in my church, and in our country. Justice and righteousness are the foundations of God’s kingdom. They should be an active part of who we are too.
Stacie Hatfield is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Her work examines intersections of race, gender, and everyday activism in the United States.
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