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Monday, March 11, 2013

Is Justice New?

There is a tremendous wave of white Christians newly on fire for justice, growing in passion and energy. Some of us once felt justice work competed with the message of the Gospel, but are now understanding that they go hand-in-hand (see post: The Social Gospel Saved My Soul). We are proclaiming God's heart for justice and bringing resources of time, money, and voice to many issues of injustice in our time.

But let us be cautions in labeling the Christian justice moment as 'new.' It may be new for young Christians. It may be new for some Christian denominations. It may be new for Christians of privilege (particularly white Christians). But Christian justice is not new.

Those whom we marginalize in our societies have always been central to the heart of God. King David declared that "the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy" (Psalm 140:12) and John the Baptist insisted that "anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11).

Indeed, the very beginning of Jesus's ministry was marked with the words "He has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free" (Luke 4:8).

St. John Chrysostom
Since then, generations of bold Christians that loved Jesus have paved the way for the work justice on earth. Clement of Rome (c. 96 AD) testified that Christians were selling themselves into slavery to raise money to feed the poor. In the 4th Century, St. John Chrysostom asserted: “not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and to deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs...That which is due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity."

More recently, representatives of the the Church have continued the tradition of Christ-driven justice in the modern world. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was a prominent advocate for prison reform and abolitionist movements in the 18th-century and it was a Christian that coined the term 'social justice' in the 1840s.

Others, like John RyanDorothy Day, Geoffrey Griffin, Toyohiko Kagawa, and Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, stewarded Christianity's justice advocacy in the 20th century. The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern was written in 1973, with the formation of Evangelicals for Social Action that same year.

Prathia Hall
Many clergy and churches were at the forefront of civil rights movement, though they often had to compensate for the silence of other Christians at the time. Besides the obvious, the compelling stories of Ralph AbernathyPrathia Hall, Howard ThurmanCecil Williams, John Perkins (and many others) offer inspiration and guidance for our work today.

All this to say, there are many shoulders on which contemporary Christian justice advocates stand. Christ's people have a long history of leaders who have combated injustice. White Christians in particular need to honor them and learn from them as we go about our work today. Listen to their concerns and advice. Study their movements and strategies. Avail yourself of the richness of the saints that have gone before.

It is important that we acknowledge these seasoned leaders (particularly role models of color), because failing to do so undermines the very message of solidarity the we attempt to claim (see post: White Savior Complex).  Let's celebrate, and not forget them. Christians have made grave mistakes when it comes to our stand for justice in the past, but we have also accomplished great things in Christ.

Cecil Williams
Also, know that it is okay to gain inspiration and wisdom from laborers of justice that do not profess Christianity. We have a lot to learn about loving Christ's people, and sometimes non-Christians have been better than us in accomplishing it. 

Justice is not a fad. We don't (or shouldn't) participate because it's trendy. Some of us have the privilege to come and go from these movements, but many others will always be affected (whether or not it's what today's keynote speaker is addressing). Justice is hard, daily, persistent work. It hits close to home. It exposes our own sins. We must be in it for the long haul, not just while it's popular. 

I know I've just grazed the surface. Who has inspired you as a Christian committed to justice? Who do you wish I had included?


  1. Many movements have benefited from this new justice zeal (sex trafficking, blood minerals, invisible children/Kony2012, fair trade). But we must make sure we are doing the self-reflection necessarily to imbue substance to our actions, and not simply perpetuating the non-profit industrial complex:

  2. Amen to that. Thanks again for your blog! Every post I think, "Yes! This!"

  3. Thanks for yet another great post Katelin! You have a gift of packing and sharing such important and powerful truths clearly and succinctly . . . and worth sharing with others.

  4. Thank you, sir! Such kind words.


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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