Written By Hannah Spaulding, USA
Every fall, my college holds an event called “Un-Learn Week”. Un-Learn Week is a week full of different events focused on “un-learning” racial bias. This was the first time that I started really learning about social justice and what it means—especially in a Christian context.
Social justice is pretty easy to define, but harder to illustrate. One definition might be “social justice is the pursuit of justice to correct systemic problems within a social context.” But what does that really mean? For some, the words “social justice” might conjure up pictures of angry protesters marching in defense of their beliefs. Or maybe social justice seems more like a hazy umbrella term for various “-isms,” such as racism, sexism, ageism.
The Bible never uses the term “social justice”. But in ancient Israel, God gives detailed commandments for setting up a social welfare system, instructing the covenant community how to treat the poor, widows, and foreigners. When the people failed to follow through with these commands, God says through the prophet Amos, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).
One of the speakers at Un-Learn Week explained why as students, and Christians, we should spend time doing something that sounds as contradictory as “un-learning.” The speaker explained that, regardless of our personal opinions, if one of our brothers or sisters in Christ comes to us and starts to tell us about a time they experienced racial bias, we have an obligation to listen to them as a sibling in Christ.
This idea really impacted my understanding of social justice. God wants us to listen when there are people around us crying out, whether they are speaking out about racial bias, poverty, sexism, abuse, discrimination, or any other issue. Even if they are not a fellow believer. Even if we end up disagreeing with the person we are listening to, when we listen first, that disagreement can come from a place of mutual understanding instead of bias. Listening is the first step of loving.
I got the chance to do some listening when I participated in Un-Learn Week this past fall. I attended a presentation by two female black students about the history of American media portrayal of black women, and the issues black women in America still face today. Merely attending a presentation might not seem like a work of social justice, but a big part of social justice is educating oneself about issues others are facing. That presentation gave me the opportunity to learn about someone else’s experience that I didn’t previously know.
When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment is, He replied that loving God was the first commandment, and the second was “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). A few chapters later, Jesus gives an example of this great commandment put into action. Jesus says that at His return He will say to the faithful:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 22:39)
These verses are a prime example of social justice—caring for the marginalized. The early disciples understood this, and in fact, social justice started largely with the early Christian community. If you were to flip back through the pages of history, you would find that many of the first institutional systems that cared for the poor or marginalized were set up by Christians. Many of the first hospitals, schools, orphanages, refuges for the homeless, etc., were often funded and run by monks, nuns, and other early Christians.
As Christians were then, I believe Christians are now still called to participate in bringing justice where injustice has penetrated in a systemic way. This begins with education and awareness, but goes beyond that. It is a willingness to stand in the gap with our brothers and sisters—and even those who aren’t yet our brothers and sisters in Christ—and love them by listening and doing. As 1 Corinthians 13:6-7 says, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
This past school year, I participated in the work of social justice through being involved with the Sexual Assault Prevention Team (SAPT) on my campus. My involvement in SAPT modeled to me the way social justice works: First, you learn. Then, you act.
In SAPT, we did the work of learning, and sometimes “un-learning,” at our weekly meetings. Each week the director of SAPT would bring an article, video, or presentation for us to learn about and discuss. As a group we expanded our awareness about different issues pertaining to sexual assault, such as the way toxic versions of masculinity contribute to a culture of assault, or how people that are differently abled are often more vulnerable to sexual assault.
Educating ourselves was only half the work, however. The rest of the work of SAPT involved taking action around campus. Some of the efforts of our team included taking a survey of the student body to see how many students on campus are being affected by sexual assault, creating resource flyers to be posted in select bathrooms around campus, and providing sexual assault prevention training programs for members of the student body to attend.
Sometimes social justice is hard to understand. Sometimes it’s inconvenient. But the truth is that love is an action, and participating in social justice is one way we can show God’s love for us to others.
Simply put, social justice is love in action. Will you choose to take the first step today?