When God first made us, He meant for all of us to treat each other with equal respect. He made us equal simply by making only two of us who would be everybody’s father and mother. We would all be children of the same parents, and the same family. In His ingenious ideal strategy there would be no room for anything but mutual love and mutual respect. Mutual admiration, respect, and caring is no mere human invention.
Things didn’t go as God preferred. The first son murdered the second son. Within a few generations our history was reporting not only murder but also bigamy (Gen. 4:19-24), with its implications for the diminution and degrading of the woman’s status. Along the way, human societies have designed for themselves a variety of systems in which social justice is applied in lawful, state-administered systems that have the power to label behavior as appropriate or otherwise. Also, we have given these state systems the power to enforce our agreements on law and order even with capital punishment. But our systems do not always match or function according to Bible believers’ understandings, or Christ-centered definitions of justice.1
Because of the dignity God originally bestowed on the man, Adam, and his wife, Eve (Gen. 1:26-28), we know that systems that provide fairness and respect for everybody are not just a good thing. They have a divine original to model after. They are a God thing, a biblical thing.
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, tried to help his son-in-law set up such a system in the desert of Sinai. However commendable Moses’ efforts to be a good ruler, Jethro saw that his son-in-law would soon wear himself out trying to singlehandedly assure everyone of fair treatment. Jethro first put to him a tactful question: “Why do you alone sitas judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Ex. 18:14).2
Moses’ honest reply shows not only his idealism, but also the blind spot that Jethro may already have recognized: “Because the people come to me to inquire of God” (verse 15). Apparently, at this point, Moses never reflected on how awkward it might be socially to consider oneself the only channel God can use to communicate His will for His people. However, being a teachable man, things turn out well for him. Following good counsel, he is able to “select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth . . . , and . . . placethese over them [the congregation] as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens” (verse 21). They will judge and rule on “every minor dispute,” and bring to him “every major dispute” (verse 22).
The challenge for Moses and Israel and society today is that, despite the divine model, despite the soundness of the idea of establishing justice systems, and despite the fact that the word “justice” may be a part of the very name of their responsibility, the leaders and rulers we appoint often wander away from the purposes and duties of their assignment.
Justice is respect and care for all the children of my race, God’s human race.
Amos denounced the people of influence in his time for oppressing those who were poor and crushing those who were needy (Amos 4:1). Isaiah, another eighth-century prophet, decried the commitment of the nation’s legislators to make laws that deprived society’s most vulnerable of their rights (Isa 10:1, 2).
Many today live in palpable fear of the justice system that, theoretically, is designed to serve them. They fear that the medical bill from one unexpected illness will drive them into poverty; that their son might be arrested or even shot because, perhaps, he got too much melanin; that the Medicare and Medicaid rug3 could be pulled from under their feet just when they need it most.
They fear the corruption that allows those in power to cover up their abuses and stifle the truth about their injustice. For many, this insecurity about their nation’s justice system is based on strong historical precedent, and is not without its consequences for the wider society, limiting economic, educational, and other areas of progress. Journalist Soledad O’Brien once said: “I’ve learned that fear limits you and your vision. It serves as blinders to what may be just a few steps down the road for you.”
Christians have been known to raise very different questions about public involvement for the sake of justice. Some resist conversation about government-run social programs or possible abuses on the part of systems personnel, such as police, immigration authorities, or social services managers. For them it constitutes meddling in politics. Christians, they say, are to stay out of politics. The early church, some say, paid attention to its own widows (Acts 6) but bore no responsibility for the social needs of the wider public.
Others find it difficult to believe Jesus would have us not care about any but our own church members. Are we to believe that all the prisoners in His sheep and goats parable (Matt. 25:31-46) were Adventist? The United States today far outstrips any other country in incarceration rates. As of 2016 there were 737 imprisoned per 100,000 population. In Russia, next in line, the rate is 615 per 100,000. Ukraine is third at 350 per 100,000.4
Jesus’ sheep and goats parable affirms those who visit Him in prison and denounces and repudiates those who do not. Is it His intent for us to honor His spirit by caring about Adventists in jail—maybe all there because of their faith? Is there an Adventist Christian who can seriously argue for ignoring the non-Adventist prison population—perhaps because they ought to pay for their crimes?
Again, prison is an expensive place to spend a vacation. According to the Huffington Post, citing a study by the Independent Budget Office, New York City paid $167,731 to feed, house, and guard each inmate in 2012. Is it political meddling to be concerned about the outlay of taxpayer resources that are being channeled into the prison industry? Is it Christian love to ignore certain prisoners? Is it good stewardship to avoid conversations about the resources lost to such a system, be they material, or—infinitely more important to God—the gifts and talents and lifetimes of His children sunken in crime or even unjustly mired in a prison dungeon by someone’s error?
Closer study turns up yet more remarkable data on American incarceration: if we photographed the entire prison population, the greatest proportion of the faces looking down or out of the picture would be Black (40 percent). Blacks may be only 13 percent of the North American population, but more of them are locked up than any of the United States’ other racial groupings. Whites, 64 percent of the U.S. population—five times the Black population—would be 39 percent of the faces in our picture. Latinos, 16 percent of the U.S. population, would make up 19 percent of our prison photograph.5
Some may draw conclusions about the cause of these figures according to their beliefs about the supposed innate nature of races in our society. Unfortunately for themselves and others as well, some are convinced that Blacks are more criminal-minded than all other races. This unscientific notion may be enough to satisfy some imaginations. It is just one more evidence of how much we have lost from Eden.
We should care because apathy about evil is itself a great sin.
Though it allows some to redirect any possible blame or caring responsibility from themselves, it holds no interest whatsoever for people who recognize all humanity’s descent from our common father and mother, Adam and Eve, created in the image and after the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26, 27). It is baseless for those who understand that God made a
ll nations as one race (Acts 17:26). It is nonsense to those who commit to experiencing, through the saving grace of God, complete personal restoration to our Eden home completely restored.
A sense of how much Eden loss we now live with, and of the stern biblical denunciation of the flawed systems we construct and operate for our selfish selves, should compel and constrain Bible-believing, Christ-exalting, cross-bearing followers of Jesus Christ to an ever more earnest integrity of living that implicitly criticizes society’s manipulators and exploiters. And it should move us to passionate and consistent defense of society’s vulnerable, who may have no voice but our own to speak up against their abuse and for their care.
An inscription on the Apartheid Museum in South Africa prominently displays these words of Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
These words express the essence of living out justice at the personalized level whether we are victims or not, whether our families, friends, or loved ones are victims of social injustice or not. We should care because apathy about evil is itself a great sin.
As a former justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Thurgood Marshall wrote: “We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust. We must dissent from a nation that has buried its head in the sand waiting in vain for the needs of its poor, its elderly, and its sick to disappear and just blow away. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education, or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and timeless absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”
We should care, not for subjective reasons, but because we are God’s, and members, with the guilty and downtrodden, of His one family. His Spirit within us is the only guarantee of genuine worship, acceptable in His sight. He says: “Such [selfish] fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isa. 58:4, NRSV).6 True fasting and worship involve more that adopting an aspect of humility, bowing down the head, or wearing sackcloth and ashes—conspicuous cultural markers of worship genuineness.
The essence of true and acceptable worship is “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”; it is “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (verses 6, 7, NRSV).
It is to realize, given Eden as our reference point, that those whom I view as separate and different because of their skin, equally with those I welcome because of theirs, are all my “own kin.” It is to know and live the fact that Jesus died for them no less than for me. It is to remember and live the words of Jesus Himself, that whatever I will not do for one of the least, I’m refusing to do for Him (see Matt. 25:45). Apathy about justice is not a function of good spiritual health.
I can’t change the world on my own. But I can change my world. I can show Christ’s love to the victimized. I can care for the Black prisoners equally with the White; for ungodly prisoners equally with Adventists; for those in jail for crimes equally with those there for conscience. I can care for police officers equally with the unfortunate victims of police brutality.
I do not determine the rightness or wrongness of police shootings, or who is rightly or wrongly in prison. I love them all and minister to them all—never charged, exonerated, accused, or condemned—because Jesus says they are He. I do not take sides, except that I take Jesus’ side of service and love, regardless of creed, regardless of race. I offer my church and home and life as a welcome place for foreigners, those evicted from their homes, or whose homes have burned to the ground. I offer it as a place of food for the hungry, a place of consolation for the grieving, whether gang members or their victims. I understand that fear of being accused of taking sides can immobilize me and prevent me from showing God’s children God’s compassion.
However you define it, justice is, for me, a gift God grants to honor, respect, and care for all the children of my race, His human race.
Malcolm Cort is a professor of sociology at Athens State University, Alabama, in the United States.