Culture At Large

How Does Social Justice and "The Law" Relate?

Paul Vander Klay

Most of my Think Christian posts are observations and reflections on the intersection of current events or contemporary culture and Christianity. This post is about a question I've been mulling over recently, "What is the relationship between social justice and the law?"

It is very interesting to me how two groups in conflict both appeal to the Bible in different ways and for different things. On the right there are those who promote the idea that we must "return" to "Biblical standards," often some mixture of applying the Ten Commandments and other pieces of the moral framework received through western Christendom. On the left there is the cry for "social justice." Many who can embrace this term draw quotes from the Hebrew prophets about God's concern for the poor and desire for justice also have a deep suspicion of many traditional ideas about the God portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is regularly criticized for promoting holy war or genocide and exacting punishment on people who refuse to obey his law. I find this conflict enormously ironic because the Hebrew prophets drew a deep connection between social justice and faithfulness to the covenant that came through Moses. The Mosaic law was not given simply as a test of moral capacity in order to evaluate Israel's qualification for Yahweh's "most favored nation" status but as a mechanism by which the poor would receive justice and shalom experienced as a result of alignment with the master of creation.

Jesus steps onto the scene within the prophetic tradition but not restricted by it. His conflict with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law centered on a contextualized application of the Mosaic law in pursuit of justice. Personal righteousness and social justice were not separated by our contemporary values of personal privacy and individualism.

Our conversation is further complicated by the Reformation's suspicion for "the law" and all of the nuances of its treatment by Luther and Calvin. Ironies abound when evangelicals proclaim "the law" has been set aside as a means of individual atonement while at the same time promoting applications of it as a means to secure God's blessing on a particular nation or group.

So, here is my question. What is the relationship between social justice and the law? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, News & Politics