The Church And The Struggle For Social Justice

The Church is the body of believers in Christ Jesus from different denominations with a common denominator in their belief in Jesus Christ. The Greek word, Ekklesia, from which church is derived, means carved out or separate from the general population. The church is in the world, though not of the world.

Several times, particularly since 313 AD, when Emperor Constantine promulgated the edict of Milan fusing State and church functions, the church has always found herself in collaboration with government or in conflict with it.

The ability to distinguish between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar, and to give to each side of the coin what is due to God and Caesar is a very difficult balance to tread. The difficulty is further complicated because of the hiatus between the practicalities of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is sticking to the rules of Jehovah according to the Bible, but orthopraxy is what we do in reality.

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Jesus faced a similar situation when the woman caught in adultery was brought to him. If He followed orthodoxy, the woman would be stoned to death, but social justice demands that the man who committed adultery with her should have been arrested too. Equity demands that those who want to atone her should first make a public declaration that they had not committed adultery at all, and maybe with her. Or if any of them was sure he would not be caught, would he not take a chance on her? I suspect that part of what He wrote included questioning if some of them had not wished they could sleep with her in their hearts.

This conflict between orthodoxy and orthopraxy—and maybe hypocrisy—has led to very serious conflicts in the church when they were supposed to act decisively against social injustice.

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What Is Social Justice?

Some writers believe that a Jesuit Priest, Luigi Taparelli, was the first person to use the term social justice.

Social justice includes the following:

  1. The concept of fair and just relations between an individual and society.
  2. It is also justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
  3. I personally see it as a fair social contract between an individual and society, based on fair and balanced reciprocity.
  4. Some people believe that social justice includes the provision of safety nets like social security, old people’s homes, food stamps, rehabilitation homes, etc.
  5. It also includes breaking barriers that prevent people from maximizing their potentials and achieving self-actualization.

Because Luigi Taparelli (1792-1862) was a Jesuit Priest, it can be rightly said that social justice has its roots in the Catholic Church, such that one statement in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic church states thus: “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and vocation”.

Social Justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

  1. Gideon Strauss defines social justice thus: “When all God’s creature receive what is due to them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence.

This broadens the struggle for social justice beyond equity to environmental issues.

  1. Jonah Goldberg has said that “Social Justice has become good things no one dares to argue for and no one dares to be against.

This, therefore, involves our consciences, constitution, and our common values.


Historical Perspectives Of The Church And The Struggle For Social Justice.

The danger with religion, including the church, is that it can be used as an avenue for oppression and of liberty, using Scriptures depending on the conscience and conviction of that individual.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade had scriptural backing as perceived by the powerful beneficiaries and merchants within the church. They quoted scriptures of “Slaves be obedient to your masters.” The Book of Philemon, the story of Philemon and Onesimus, and of Isaac having servants were their reference points. The fact that Egyptians sold themselves to Joseph during a famine was another point in their arguments. They even used the need to evangelize the ‘savages’, to Christianize them, as excuses; the real underlying reason, however, was the taste of sugar and the profit from slave trade.

During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Popes owned slaves, and the Anglican Clergymen had slaves. At the abolition of slave trade, the Anglican Church had to be paid compensations of close to 9000 pounds because of their freed slaves in the Caribbean. However, a time comes in the history of the church and humanity when people of good conscience in the midst of spiritual slumber and compromise stand up to be counted on the side of righteousness and justice.

Justice has two Hebrew words. The first is Mishpat’, which means acquitting or punishing on the merit of the case regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should receive same punishment. Selective justice, based on colour, is very common in the United States of America, and selective justice based on Party affiliation and relationship to the leadership is becoming a common denominator in Nigeria. Selective justice based on status is very endemic in Nigeria. A poor man can have his hand amputated for stealing a goat, but someone who stole millions of pension funds is given a fine that he can pay without leaving the court room.

Another meaning of justice is ‘Tzadeqah’. It is also translated as righteousness. It is living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity.

These were the pillars on which men like Granville Sharp, an eccentric Anglican in 1987 used to trigger the formation of the first abolition of the slavery movement. It was dominated by another group of persecuted Christians called Quakers. The Quakers were considered as eccentric too.

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“Normal” people hardly trigger struggles to change the status quo in society. It is mostly those who can think differently, see differently, and act differently that usually ignite the struggle for social justice.

The struggle for social justice in the abolition of slave trade was started by twelve men. John Clarkson in 1788 acted as a stimulus by writing a powerful essay on the evil of slavery, and within two years, the Abolition Society had become a voice for the anti-slavery movement.

William Wilberforce was in parliament; he was pushed by William Pit and John Newton, an Anglican clergyman, former slave trader, and writer of the song, Amazing Grace. From 1791 to 1807, there was a struggle to end slavery through parliamentary bills presented by William Wilberforce. Several times, the bills did not scale through, and at such times, churches would ring bells to celebrate the failure to pass a bill to end slavery. Most of the struggle against slavery was by dissenting chapels and Christians, not big Cathedrals.

The abolitionist appealed to the consciousness, conscience, constitution and the Christian values of the society. Former freed slaves like Olaudah Equiano of Igbo extraction, who saved and paid for his freedom, wrote powerful stories about his story and the evils of slavery. This pricked the consciences of the people

Some highlights include:

  1. It is very easy to conform to society and the prevailing social injustice, especially if the church is benefiting from the rot.
  2. Sometimes, we need people who are considered as deviants to confront the rot in society.
  3. You do not need a big crowd to trigger the change. You only need people whose hearts are burning with disdainful anger against social injustice, and are committed to effect a change.
  4. We need people who can contend and contest intellectually with the oppressor in clearly marshaling out their view points. The abolitionists were very intellectually competent.
  5. The struggle for social justice must be fought from several fronts with different ammunition. There was William Wilberforce in parliament, there were clergymen like John Newton, and the financial front because the Quakers owned Barclays Bank, Lloyds, and Cadbury.

You need an amalgam of several factors in the victory over social injustice.

We’ll continue the discussion in the next post.

God Bless You.

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