Brief Reflections on Social Justice

By David F. White

I grew up in Mississippi at a time when the Southern mainline church struggled to articulate a robust view of social justice. In my childhood, Jesus’ proclamation of freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release for the oppressed was seen as either an eschatological hermeneutic or seen to denote “spiritual bondage, blindness or oppression.” Spirituality was a state of affairs between individuals and Jesus, having little to do with one’s political perspectives. Social justice was an interesting little outpost of the church, administered by the odd college professor who taught a Sunday school class on class; or someone’s old maid aunt from “up North” who insisted on teaching the women’s circle about Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. My life has involved an imperfect journey to a faith that welcomes social justice to its rightful place at the center of Christian faith.

Today, it is difficult for me to read the Bible or conceive of theology in a way that does not envision God delivering the world from injustice to freedom; from ugliness to beauty; from oppression to mutuality. A host of ancient and contemporary theologians have paved the way by providing theological concepts that highlight justice as a key value for the Church and the world. I find the theology of Jurgen Moltmann helpful; therefore I want to elaborate a few of his justice-leaning notions.

Ruach: the breath of life. The Bible suggests that the work of the Spirit is the opening act of creation when the Creator breathed “ruach” or life-giving breath into all things. The Hebrew term ruach, which is usually translated Spirit, speaks of the ruach elohim “(the Spirit of God) that vibrated over the chaos” in the creation story (Gen. 1:2); or “the breath and power of life enjoyed by human beings and animals” Ruach is the very force in which the entire material universe holds together and has order. If God withdraws the breath of life, everything disintegrates into dust (Ps. 104:29). So ruach is the power to live enjoyed by everything that lives and this constitutes its immanent side. (42) Yet, creation does not merely ‘live’ or exist; every living thing also yearns to live more fully--more creatively, freely, justly, peacefully, truthfully, lovingly and beautifully. Therefore, ruach also constitutes the transcendent side of creation which strains toward fullness and flourishing. God’s spirit not only makes us and all things alive, but urges us toward more complete flourishing as individuals, communities, societies, nations, eco-systems and as the world.

 The Spirit of Christ. The history of the Spirit and the identity of Jesus Christ are intertwined. This is especially apparent in Mark 1:10 when the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. Jesus Christ is baptized by the Holy Spirit, filled “without measure,” performs miracles and proclaims the Kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit; he drives out demons and heals the sick, receives sinners and brings the Kingdom of God to the poor (John 3:34); he surrenders himself to death on the cross, and is raised by God through the life-giving Spirit or ruach.

History becomes reversed as Christ becomes the sender of the Spirit and the Spirit becomes the Spirit of Christ. Christ sends the Spirit at Pentecost and is present in Spirit. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ adds new emphasis to the Spirit’s mission and work. At the center of history stands a great passion, the great love of Jesus Christ. This same love now qualifies the Spirit of Christ. Jesus’ suffering unto death was no dumb submission, but it was an act of self-surrender of the sort that inhabits all true love. In Christ’s God-forsakenness, God goes out of himself, forsakes his heaven and is present in Christ in order to become the God of the forsaken. The Way of Jesus means participating in Christ’s own messianic love, giving dignity that was robbed from the poor, planting seeds of life in a world of death, accepting the weak and handicapped who are pushed out of society, shaking the idols set up in our national and social life, taking up the struggle of life against death. Thus followers of Jesus Christ will experience the violence of the powerful who live at other peoples’ cost.

Yet, the cross alone does not qualify the work of the Spirit, since the suffering of godforsakenness is taken up by hope in the resurrection of Jesus. The faith of the early church was based securely on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Christians throughout history have understood the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the definitive act of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. In the resurrected Christ they perceive the foundation and promise of eternal life in the midst of history. The Spirit of Christ is the one who awakens and emboldens us for justification, liberation, rebirth and giftedness in the shadow of the cross and the glow of the coming future.

The Kingdom of God. The resurrection of Christ is the beginning of the annihilation of death and the appearance of eternal life that will transform and glorify everything. The Spirit is even now awakening all creation to hope on behalf of this new and coming Kingdom. The resurrection of Christ constitutes the first fruit of God’s new creation--and extends a promise of new birth to all creation. Only when these promises are fulfilled will God be all-in-all, and all creation will be infused with glory for which it was created. This is the sabbath rest toward which the salvation of Christ aims and toward which the Spirit works.

These are only a few theological notions that make space for seeking justice—for the poor, women, the sick, those imprisoned--and all those swept beneath the rug of history. While some may insist upon reducing Christian faith to mere personal or interpersonal terms, social justice cannot now be relegated as an interesting little outpost of Christian faith.

David F. White is the C. Ellis and Nancy Gribble Nelson Associate Professor of Christian Education. His publications include Awakening Youth Discipleship in a Consumer Culture (Cascade, 2007, coauthored with Brian Mahan and Michael Warren), Practicing Discernment with Youth (Pilgrim Press, 2005), and "A Decade of the Youth Theological Initiative: An Experiment in the Pedagogy of Communion," in the Journal of Youth and Theology (May 2004).