From abolishing modern day slavery to ending extreme poverty to confronting urban poverty, social justice often dominates conversations about faith. Some say justice waters down faith while others say faith without justice is dead. Amidst all the fanfare, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, confused, and even jaded.
So, what is social justice, really — and why should it matter to our faith? Let’s debunk the most common myths.
It’s hard to be optimistic when our news cycle is dominated by terrorism, disease, and war. And the world seems be getting worse. But in the midst of the strife, there exists a counter narrative, one that might not earn the ratings news outlets seek.
Take, for example, the good news about poverty. Of the seven billion people living on earth, the bottom billion lives on a $1.25 or less per day. This is extreme poverty we’re talking about. But experts say this is far better than it once was. In 1981, 52 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. Today, about 20 percent do. In recent years, not only have poverty rates fallen, but the number of absolute poor people has also declined taking into account population growth.
These trends have especially impacted children. Not long ago, more than 40,000 children under the age of five died each day. In the 1990s, it dropped to 33,000. By 2008, it was 24,000. Today, that number is less than 20,000.
I’ve seen these changes first hand. World Relief, the organization I serve, saw infant and child mortality rates decline by 49 percent and 42 percent, respectively, through a child survival project in Mozambique. To a mother in Sub-Saharan Africa, that means her children are nearly twice as likely to live beyond their fifth birthdays.
Still, poverty is pervasive, and, in many countries, the gap between the rich and poor is growing. While poverty is often linked to other injustices such as trafficking, it’s only one injustice among many. We have much more work to do.
2. Social justice is a bandage, not a cure.
You might agree that less people suffering in the world is a good thing, but it’s only truly progress if it is permanent. Band-Aids without cures don’t solve the problem.
In Burundi — which ranks among the top 10 poorest countries in the world — 16 women are changing the world. All are HIV positive, all have lost their husbands to AIDS, and all care for their own children plus two or three orphans. When I met them, they sang hymns as they worked clay soil with their hoes. They beamed as they told me how they find strength in each other. They spoke of their farming cooperative, how they earn income for their families with enough left over to take in orphans.
These 16 women are heroes, not victims. They are overcoming their suffering and offering hope to others in extraordinary ways. Experts describe communities like this as “ . . . places where capacities of local residents are identified, valued, and used.”
I call these cures.
Social justice that follows these principles avoids dependency and, instead, empowers those closest to the problem. Nearly twice as many children are alive today in Mozambique and other Sub-Saharan countries because their mothers are implementing solutions to improve nutrition, protect against malaria and dehydration, and avoid mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. These improved mortality rates continue well beyond the end of the project.
This is only one of many cures. Last year I met a group of Rwandan pastors who told me how the communities they serve are better off because of a district-wide, savings-led microfinance project. When asked what would happen if we were to pull out of the project today, they gleefully said, “We shall carry on without you!”
This is no Band-Aid.
3. Social justice exploits people.
Over the last 50 years, we have become increasingly desensitized to suffering. The aid industry is prone to producing shocking images and stories that feed expectations for more. We are caught in a vicious cycle that shapes our views about the people who experience suffering while overlooking others who suffer in less shocking, but no less destructive, ways.
You and I have seen photos of children, generally forlorn, some emaciated, with a tagline that appeals to your emotions. Studies show that our human brains react to such photos as if it is “seeing things, not people.” As a result, poverty is dumbed down and the poor are dehumanized, all while good, well-intended people believe they are caring, world-conscious, and ethical.
But an increasing number of groups are changing the paradigm. Some are even using humor and satire to change the stereotypes. Take, for example, a video that has gone viral depicting a group of Africans providing radiators for “poor, cold Norwegians.” Others take a more conventional approach by presenting people who suffer most with the vibrancy, resilience, perseverance, ingenuity, joy, and courageous faith they deserve. World Relief, for example, believes the “beneficiary” or “client” is the hero and, by implication, consider ourselves beneficiaries for the privilege of collaborating with our valiant friends.
4. Social justice is political.
Social justice has, at times, been associated with an array of political agendas. The words themselves raise suspicion for some and give ammunition to others. Thankfully, all this is changing.
Several years ago, I joined a delegation of faith leaders and several members of Congress to discuss our government’s commitment to fighting poverty. When someone mentioned the word justice, an Orthodox Rabbi seated next to me whispered, “tsedequah.” Then he spoke to the whole group: “Justice and mercy share the same root in my language.”
Justice and mercy are anchored in our faith traditions and have something to important to say to us today. Justice is social because it’s relational — it’s about relationships that work. Injustice occurs when social relationships break down, when a person or group is excluded or exploited.
Nicholas Wolterstorff and Walter Brueggemann have been talking about justice for decades, yet for too long, certain traditions have resisted integrating justice into faith. Today many are experiencing a rediscovery of justice. What is emerging is something beautiful — an ancient justice for today. As we recover its meaning, we encounter a God who loves justice, demands justice, and executes it for the needy. Faith and justice go hand in hand. In Mother Theresa’s words, “Justice without love is not justice, and love without justice is not love.”
5. Social justice is optional.
Too often people exclude themselves from the idea of changing the world. But today’s movements — whether to end hunger, abolish trafficking, or stamp out extreme poverty — are fueled by storytellers, artists, entrepreneurs, students, and bloggers. We’ve entered a new age of activism. After two decades of working towards change, I have never been more hopeful and inspired. Social justice is not only for a few, and it’s not an optional part of the faith.
But doing justice is only as good as the people who do it. The question I am asked most often when speaking about hunger, war, trafficking, disease, or poverty is, What can I do? I’ve never been asked, Who must I become? Doing justice well is important, but who we become is equally — if not more — important. Today, all of us have an unprecedented opportunity to choose to live lives of sacrificial love, making heroes of others, not ourselves, and honoring God along the way.
Image courtesy of Franco Volpato / Shutterstock.com.