“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” – Philippians 2:5
The Gospel repeatedly reminds us that the God in whom we place our faith is not a distant deity sitting in the heavenly realm detached from the human condition. Indeed, our God sets aside divine privilege and joins us in the human experience in the person of Jesus Christ.
In taking on our humanity, Jesus was not born into a privileged family or people, but rather into the humblest of families within a marginalized and oppressed people. Jesus experienced first hand what it is to be poor, to be homeless, and to be dependent on others for food and shelter and sanctuary. He knew what it was to suffer injustice, be that at the hands of a foreign army, his own political and religious leaders, or his own people.
Furthermore, Jesus didn’t confine his ministry to the synagogue or to those who shared his religious worldview. Rather, he went out among the people, into the messiness of humanity, embraced the marginalized, the oppressed, and the excluded, and called out the injustice inflicted by those with wealth, privilege, and power. He was not one to uphold the status quo.
Reflecting upon the life, ministry, and example of Jesus Christ, Christian writer Marcus Borg described Jesus as a “God-intoxicated advocate of social justice,” and argued that his followers should model this in their own lives.
That social justice work is an integral expression of the Christian faith should not be a matter of debate, at least not among Anglicans. In the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission, we are called “to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.” In our baptismal covenant, Canadian Anglicans promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.” Even our call to care for creation, both in the Marks of Mission and our baptismal covenant, falls within the broader call to work for social justice.
I’m not arguing that social justice work is the most important aspect of Christian discipleship; rather, that this particular facet of our faith is the most neglected, at least in the Newfoundland and Labrador context. Woefully neglected.
Part of the reason for this neglect is our tendency to conflate works of charity with justice work. Both are integral to Christian discipleship but they are not the same thing. Charity treats the symptoms of social injustice, while social justice work seeks to transform, if not dismantle, the oppressive systems causing social injustice.
The Church has long been engaged in works of charity—for example, we feed the hungry through the food banks we operate and support. But if we don’t get out there and challenge the systemic injustices that necessitate food banks in the first place, we’re simply putting band-aids on bullet wounds. To use Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s analogy, charity is just pulling people out of the river. Social justice work involves going up-river to find out why they’re falling in.
I think it might be helpful to understand social injustice as sin because that’s exactly what it is—social sin. Sin is falling short of who God created us to be. We fall short of who God created us to be on a personal level, absolutely. But we also fall short of who God created us to be on a collective level, as a community, as a province, as a nation, as the human family.
Let’s use poverty as an example. The fact that so many people live in poverty in a society as affluent as Canada is sin. That there are people, in our society, with way more than they need to live while so many do not have enough is sin. Poverty is social sin.
Another example would be the climate crisis. The fact that so many people in developing nations right now are suffering drought, extreme heat, floods, and famine because of the cumulative, historical greenhouse gas emissions from the excessively affluent lifestyles of wealthy, developed nations is sin. The fact that we are on a pathway to denying our own children and grandchildren an inhabitable planet by the time they are my age is sin. Climate change is social sin.
I would be remiss not to mention the social sin of colonialism—and colonialism is not just a social sin of the past. The ongoing injustice of colonialism continues to inflict harm on Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is an ongoing social sin.
As social injustice is systemic in nature, it’s not enough for us to pray that those in authority will dispense justice and address injustice, when those in authority often perpetuate injustice or maintain unjust structures of society. The Church needs to speak with prophetic voice when this happens. We need to call it out. To do otherwise is to uphold the status quo.
The good news is that Jesus stills walks among us. God is at work right now in the world all around us—dare I say it—beyond the walls of the Church. I clearly see God at work in the activism of those whom I work with in the local fight against social injustice, even though most do not share in my Christian faith and do not see the Church as an ally on the social justice front. If indeed social justice work is an integral part of the Christian faith, we need to ask ourselves why we’ve largely left that work to others.
The harvest is bountiful but the labourers are few. Never before has the world been in greater need of a bunch of God-intoxicated advocates of social justice passionately engaged in the struggle for justice and peace among all people and upholding the dignity of every human being.
Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.