How one thinks about social justice and the obligations that emerge from a commitment to the concept varies with the context of the times. We can point to progress when compared to, for example, the 'dirty thirties,' and we can confirm that serious financial resources have been allocated to social issues (some may think that we have actually 'solved' homelessness with long range plans).
Why then, we wonder, do needs persist? We dream of a day when a particular service will no longer be required and continue to provide the service as though it were a forever thing. Perhaps we are stuck on the surface, responding to the immediate need rather than looking deeply for a cure for the cause.
Easy to get stuck for the cause of, for example, poverty is complex, elusive and multi-faceted and the cure at least equally so. As we understand the concept broadly and/or in a particular case, we ponder the place of the church as a collective and our individual role. What does our Christian obligation require of us, individually? Collectively? How can we make a significant contribution? Can we end the issue once and for all or must we simply accept that "the poor will always be with us" (Jesus' message has been misunderstood and used to justify ill ends) so what is the use? Where has the church been when needs are evident and is it simply irrelevant as a collective in these complex times?
My personal sense of obligation to engage in social justice is driven by a number of scriptural passages. The response to the question "what does the Lord require of you?" in Micah 6:8, "to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" is a call to justice and mercy practiced with humility. This has inspired me to action for those suffering injustice and to walk with them through times of difficulty and despair and hopelessness.
Jesus tells us in Luke 12:48 that "from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded." This reminds me that as my resources (time, talent and treasure) grow, so does my obligation to share with those who have been given much less, often not even enough for food and shelter.
My faith is tested by the words from James 2:26- "faith without works is dead." The importance of my faith as foundation has become increasingly obvious as my contribution to social justice has evolved. Faith and works grow simultaneously, one nurturing the growth of the other.
As a committed life-long learner, I listen for messages from all possible sources, from conversations, courses, books. Background on the social gospel movement in the early 1900s is a clear indication of the important role of the church as collective in encouraging just legislative and corporate practices. Interestingly, the Social Creed adopted in 1908 identifies "living wage, equitable division and abatement of poverty" among the issues for which the church "must stand." Would that they had achieved these objectives . 99 years later, the American churches adopted a "Social Creed for the 21st Century." Recognizing the changed context, this creed calls for "a society that shares more and consumes less, equality over domination, grace over greed in economic life, public service as a high vocation, a family-sustaining living wage." The Creed offers solutions, including "tax and budget policies that reduce disparities between the rich and the poor." Times have changed, or have they?
Equally interesting is the recognition that social issues persist and the comparison of the significant impact of the early movement with the relative lack of effect of the church in current times. Who among us even knew of the 2007 effort?
The Bible is full of admonitions to "proclaim the gospel." I read that as a call to advocacy in the midst of social injustice. We know from recent research that the most successful service organizations are those that combine action and advocacy. As they serve needs, they discover issues that require voice. Surely there is a message in this finding for our individual effort. Just as faith without works is dead, action without advocacy condemns us to social injustice with no end.
My work on social justice has evolved from corporate giving, where only the 'safe' areas were funded, through the community foundation, where I began to understand more basic needs, to domestic violence, homelessness and poverty, where I came face to face with the most basic needs of people. My sense of obligation grew along with my understanding of the issues.
A common issue (cause) in all cases of the most egregious human needs is lack of financial resources. In a province of such wealth, it is clear that we have enough for all. Why then do so many suffer from lack?
Along with Wilkinson ("The Spirit Level"), I am convinced that the root issue is inequality. Too few of us have a lot more than our share, leaving too little for the many who suffer. And the problem gets more severe every day (no surprise that the call for equality persists from 1908 to 2007). Unless and until we deal with inequality, our neighbours in need will remain so and our community will not be great for anyone.
Where are my faith and the concept of social justice calling me from here forward? My wife Martha would hope that I stop trying to change the world. But if the world might be a better place for my efforts, a place more like that which God intended, seems to me that humility requires that I keep trying. The central place of inequality in many of the issues that have been part of my life elicits a particularly strong call.
I am drawn to the call in the 2007 Social Creed for "tax and budget policies that reduce disparities between the rich and the poor" as a significant first response to inequality. I hope to enjoin my church as a collective in advocating for just policies that provide opportunity for all of God's people in our community, our home, our Calgary.
We have resources and voice and we need to use both.
Faith and works, action and advocacy, justice and mercy, cures for causes, obligation commensurate with gifts, service as high vocation. Messages on social justice that do not and will not and should not change.