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What is the Orthodox Christian Approach to Social Justice?

March 24, 2021

More than ever in today’s world we are facing social dilemmas where people are accusing others of great offense, inequality, oppression, or social injustice. We are constantly bombarded of news of yet another scandal, or another tragedy, or simply more and more examples of how we as human beings have failed to live out our calling as people created in God’s Image and likeness. What should be our response to all this social injustice? Is there even such a thing within the understanding of Orthodox Christianity? In this short series, we will take a look at all this and discuss it together.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.

What should be the Orthodox Christian response to Social Injustice? How are we as Christians expected to react when faced with the atrocities and injustices that are often manifest around us in this broken world of ours. Firstly, lets take the time to address an underlying component to this conversation – do we believe in such a thing as social justice. Well, if what is meant by this is the ideology of encouraging a society formed of persons that hold to a standard of goodness and righteousness that is founded in God Himself, then yes of course we believe in this! And scripture gives many examples of this.

Take for instance how the book of Deuteronomy is filled with passages where the Lord teaches His people to care for and be compassionate towards the salve, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. The Lord Himself is always telling them how He Himself cares to administer His justice towards them:

“17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. 18 He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18)

Again, the prophet Malachi speaks to this understanding of Justice when he prophecies to the corrupt people and speaks of the Messenger that is to come into the world. He says.

“And I will come near you for judgment;
I will be a swift witness
Against sorcerers,
Against adulterers,
Against perjurers,
Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans,
And against those who turn away an [stranger]—
Because they do not fear Me,”
Says the Lord of hosts.”

And then in the New Testament we see the Apostle James who summarizes it all for us in an extremely powerful statement:

“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27)

As a final example we can speak of how the Lord Jesus Himself gives a parable that demonstrates how important the poor are in the yes of God. Jesus speaks this specific parable in Luke chapter 12:

6 Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. 17 And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ 18 So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’

21 “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

From all these passages and many more like them, we can see that the Lord, who is compassionate and loving to all His creation, demands that we all show love and compassion for the less fortunate, the outcast, the stranger, and the oppressed.

Now while we have seen that there is such a thing as Social Justice within scripture, it would be foolish of us to continue without also clarifying that there seems to be a current societal understanding of justice which is simply unchristian and lacks wisdom and objectivity. According todays standard, justice seems to have taken a very legal and vengeful understanding. It is often presented in a way where returning evil for evil is somehow acceptable and even necessary. And the victors in todays Social Justice Arena are always those that make the case their demands must be met because they are more severely offended and victimized than others. And while real and sinful offense should always demand our attention and action, there seems to be a premise that to even suggest questioning of any sort is to further offend the victim. We are no longer allowed to investigate if the claim to offense or the claim to victimhood is valid.

Furthermore, there is a double standard that exists today that cannot be ignored: there is a claim that states “Freedom of speech is essential” but in reality, the only speech that is tolerated is one that fits the suggested narrative of those that are loudest in their protest. Again, we are told that diversity is welcomed and even encouraged, but it will not be tolerated if the proposed diversity is expressed in beliefs that challenge this same groups values. A final example of a broken sense of Justice is when people feel obliged to side with one group or another simply because everyone wants to know who is with them, and who is against them. To suggest that you prefer not to be labelled as group “A” or “B” is somehow threatening. People more than ever are being told “you’re silence if deafening”, or “you’re either with us or not.” And so this leads to incredible amounts of division where a person is not allowed the freedom to contemplate, to reflect, or to even reject the options that are presented as if they were the only possible expressions of truth.

And so Social Justice in light of these behaviors has become a movement to silence, to cancel, and to permanently remove the opposing group while arguing that this is the only means by which we can defend our values and the groups of people that are often marginalized in society. And so we are forced to ask, is this the way we as Orthodox Christians ought to see Justice? Is this the way that the Lord has revealed to us when dealing with evil. Is the solution to demand that all opposition be removed – even harmfully if needed – in order to somehow ensure a utopic reality, we hope to create around us?

One of the major downfalls of the current Social Justice movements we observe in todays society is that it often calls for changes in the system. It speaks to an external change where people will be forced to follow a given set of rules or else suffer consequences. However, the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ was never intended to incite external changes as if the “SYSTEM” was the subject of his incarnation. Rather internal transformation and repentance has always been the purpose of the Lord’s coming down to us. In the very beginning of the gospels, we hear the cry of John the Baptist who comes and prepares the way for the Lord Christ by declaring: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2) The Lord Jesus Himself then preaches this is same message to all in the beginning of His own ministry. This call to repentance is always directed inwardly – a transformation of the self. Its for this reason that the Lord is often found reprimanding the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Jewish elders. Their desire to ask for external expressions of righteousness are futile as long as they themselves on the inside, have not been transformed. Listen to the boldness of his declaration:

“3 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. 14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.

15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. […]

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23: 13-28)

We must pay close attention to the words of Christ and listen to the entirety of His message to those He has come to call to repentance. He is telling them very clearly, you cannot be in right standing with God if you only pick and chose what you like from His divine standard for humanity. You outwardly appear to stand with the truth, but on the inside you are so far away from the calling of repentance…

Let me pause here for a moment – My beloved, we cannot possibly claim to know the hearts of any – only God is fit to judge a person’s internal convictions and intentions. So far be it from us to sit here and make blanket statements about anyone that participates in todays public arena for social justice. However, the gospel also clearly teaches us that we will be able to distinguish the sheep from wolves by looking at their fruits:

“15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16)

And its is evident from the current movements, that the fruit of many who have named themselves Social Justice Warriors is chaos, division, hatred, intolerance. The Spirit of ‘Phariseeism’ is very much alive in today’s world. Even in the Church – no one is exempt from the calling of true internal transformation and repentance – the Christin and non-Christian, the layperson and the clergy member, all are called to repent and holding themselves accountable to God’s standard of Mercy and Justice.

There is very much a need for true and sincere personal repentance – internal transformation. The concern for so many of us is that while we believe in importance of Justice, that we somehow mistake this current worldly expression of Justice as id it were true and real. We must force ourselves to take a step back and ask “is this the Justice that we are called to defend and express as Christians?” And it is evident from what we can observe, that today’s definition and expression of Justice does not fit the standard revealed to us by God.

As we end this part of our conversation on Social Justice, I invite you to reflect on the words of St Cyril the great:

“Jesus says “O Pharisees, you demand the tithes of herbs and the smallest coins while you neglect the commandments, concerning which the violation is greater.” And what kind of commandments are these? Justice, that is, to judge uprightly and blamelessly; mercy, that is, genuineness toward God. For justice and mercy and faith toward God are better than the tithe and firstfruits. Therefore the God of all things says through the prophet “And now, Israel, what does the Lord require from you but to do justice and to love and seek mercy and to be prepared to follow the Lord your God.” For the genuine faith of those being saved is seen in their exceeding readiness to follow.” (St Cyril of Alexandria – FRAGMENT 258)

So are we ready to follow? To follow the Lord in His ways and in HIS definitions of Justice and Mercy? Are are we preoccupied with our own definitions and attempting to lead rather than follow… you see, everyone seems to be utilizing the word Justice – the world and the Church both use it and preach it. But it is evident its not founded at all on the same principles nor is it expressed in the same way. As Christians, our expression of Justice must be founded on the person of Jesus Christ and must be expressed in the same manner as He himself taught us to live. In our next discussion, we will discuss further what this Christian expression ought to look like.

 

 

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