Social Justice: The Act of Loving Your Neighbor
Social justice is a hot button topic right now. It is defined as: “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” I’m sure you have seen the Facebook posts, the heated Twitter threads, or have had awkward conversations about it at family gatherings. As much as it may seem so, there is nothing new about social justice. While it is a headlining topic in both politics and religion, this issue has been heavily discussed for at least 1500 years, and really, since the fall itself. I’m going to delve into a more ancient writing on this subject to explore an older interpretation of social justice, rather than simply clinging to cheap Facebook articles.
Though the current headlines can be helpful in drawing attention to a topic that certainly does need it, it is always important to look to scripture and to early church history when informing a worldview. St. Basil the Great titles the work I intend to evaluate, On Social Justice. This piece, written roughly 1600 years ago, works out the concept of social justice in a rather basic way. It clings heavily to the idea of loving your neighbor. The point Basil is trying to make in this work is that everything in the life of the Christian should flow from this concept. Social justice, as broad as the subject may seem, is no exception.
When we think about social justice, we think of racial justice, or caring for orphans, or the right to clean water. We often have the idea that saying the “right thing” about each of these topics is equivalent to practicing “social justice.” But what if our modern ideas of social justice are actually informed more by culture than by the scriptures? This is my fear for the church in the 21st century. We are attracted to things that make people exclaim, “Yeah, what he said!” rather than clinging to things that are more fundamental to our faith.
Our view of social justice has to stem from the idea of loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we learn to do this well, we will learn to engage the culture in a way that is radical and grace filled, that speaks life to these places of maltreatment and need, and that dialogues well with those whose view is born from what the culture calls “good.” Yet, greediness is something that comes more naturally to us. We often look to our own pleasures and comfort long before we look to others. We often are motivated to speak out on these issues so that we can be hailed as someone with the “right” things to say in the eyes of the culture, rather than simply to be someone who loves our neighbor, treats him as an image bearer of God, and knows that gospel-driven love and discipleship of him is what is truly “right” in the eyes of God.
What if we took a step back and simply sought the good of our neighbor? What would that entail in our lives? Would that mean actually walking across the street and taking time from whatever you’re working on to ask your neighbor how you can be praying for him this week? As Basil puts it, “Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves, possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet surely you seem to have great possessions!” And a few lines later, “But now, your possessions are more a part of you than your own body, and separation from them is as painful as the amputation of one of your limbs.” This concept of social justice being lived out in the action of loving your neighbors as you love yourself is far more complex than just bringing cookies over or lending salt when needed. These are not bad things, but remember that in the place you dwell, where your kids play in the front yard, and where you take your evening walks is full of people who are far more like us than we often think. Take the time to sit on your neighbor’s front porch and get to know them. These interactions are the ones that build trust and allow you to have gospel-centered conversations. Those are the moments when social justice is practiced and worked in a tangible way.