Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wealth, Prosperity, Justice, and Social Justice

In the Bible there are several competing views of wealth a prosperity.  These views are sometimes seen side by side, but are most often pitted against one another. 

The first is the view of the Deuteronomistic history (Joshua - II Kings).  In the DH, the primary theology states that if you do good God will bless you and if you do bad God will curse you (see Deuteronomy 30:15-18).  A corollary to this view is that if you a wealthy and/or prosperous God has blessed you because you are righteous, and if you are poor and afflicted, God has done this due to some disobedience on your part. 

A second view, one that directly challenges that of the DH is that view of the prophets and their call for justice and a privileging of the poor and outcasts of society.  Amos rails against unjust business practices and the exploitation of the poor.  Micah calls for a person to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).  Jeremiah calls for justice and righteousness and a privileging of the alien, orphan, and widow (Jeremiah 22:3).  The Lukan Jesus proclaims that his purpose is to "bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18-19). These outcasts of society, according to the DH, would be in their position precisely because of some sin, yet in the prophetic view, they are in their position because of some injustice, and they become those whom God favors. 

The book of Job is also a profound challenge to the theology of the DH as the main character is afflicted because of no fault of his own, and his "friends," who are portrayed as perfect DH apologists, are actually in the wrong.

At the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the industrial revolution, this prophetic view of wealth and society was reclaimed by those who would be the champions of the poor, of the victims of the industrialization of the West.  Thinkers such as Walter Rauschenbusch and General William Booth of the Salvation Army latched on to this prophetic view and sought to relieve the ills of the underprivileged in society. 

Also influenced by this prophetic view, and in many ways taking up the mantle of the social gospelers, were the leaders of the Civil Rights movement.  Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, made this call for justice: "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  Coming out of the civil rights movement came another term, that of "social justice." 

So, what is social justice and how is it related to the prophetic view of wealth and prosperity found in the Bible?  There are several definitions.  For example:
"The mission of the [Catholic] Office for Social Justice is to serve those most in need by calling for Justice."  
Thus, the primary goal of that office is "justice."  Or there is this quote from the National Association of Social workers:
Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need.
Justice and opportunity also seems to be at the heart of this definition.  Then there is this motto from the Centre for Social Justice:
Narrowing the Gap in income, wealth and power.
This last one does not have justice at its core, but rather an agenda to "narrow the gap" in the economic and political realms.

As Christians, we are called to do Justice, to protect those who can't protect themselves, to serve those in need.  How does the teaching of the Bible and the history of both the social gospel and social justice movements impact our lives and actions.  What say you?


  1. Justice as defined in Black's Law dictionary is:
    JUSTICE, n. In jurisprudence. The constant and perpetual disposition to render every man his due; The conformity of our actions and our will to the law.
    In the most extensive sense of the word, it differs little from “virtue;” for it includes within itself the whole circle of virtues. Yet the common distinction between them is that which, considered positively and in itself, is called “virtue,” when considered relatively and with respect to others has the name of “justice.” But “justice,” is confined to things simply good or evil, and consists in a man’s taking such a proportion of them as he ought. Bouvier.
    1891 Henry Campbell Black, Dictionary of Law Containing Definitions of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern 672 (1891)
    I think that social justice and any kind of justice is based off of our values. We are called to love one another by Jesus and we are taught to value others no matter what. Service is a value of Christians therefore social justice movements should be a part of our lives, but it is up to each individual to determine whether those social justice movements are good or evil. I don't think you can have an evil social justice movement but I kept the determining part in as a disclaimer. Technically Hitler used a social justice movement because he blamed everything on the Jews and the theme of his "campaign" was making life better for non-Jewish Germans. Also the Aryan race concept was a social justice movement that was evil and very unjust, yet Hitler thought it was just.
    -Caralyn Foulks

  2. A couple things come to my mind:
    First, I believe that the prosperity gospel is wrong. The idea that we can do good and use God in order to further ourselves is not what He intends at all. That being said, I do believe that some aspects of the Deuteronomic History are true. If we act according to God's "Moral Will," I believe that we will see the fruits of our labors. At the very least, as we ask for God's guidance in life, we can hope for God to say to us as we stand before Him, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 5)

    On the other hand, it is important for us as Christians to recognize and "consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of the faith develops perseverance." (James 1:2-3) God has a purpose for the events in our lives, be they trials or blessings. This may not match up with our behavior (see Job).

    As to the issue of Social Justice, I will add a couple of thoughts. I do believe that Christians have a responsibility to care for those in need. I think of the passage in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats. Whenever we feed, clothe, look after, or visit the "least of these brothers," it is as if we served Jesus Himself. The Bible also teaches that we should help the widows and orphans.

    Yet also, the Bible states, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10) I believe that it is wrong for the government to redistribute money to those who don't work; the church instead should have a ministry to those who need help. Welfare or "the dole" doesn't solve the problem. I think that in society the emphasis is too often on "my rights," yet I think we miss something important - our responsibility. Acting on what we can control (responsibility), we could achieve much more than complaining about what we don't control (social "justice").

    Christian Berry

  3. Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. From what I understand of the prophetic view, the poor are put in bad situations because of an injustice or injustices. It also says that God favors the poor, and it is our job to try and balance out such injustices. However, I do not think it is totally because of injustices that the poor are led down that path.

    I think that, as Christians, we are suppose to help those in need. However, it is hard for many people to get over their own unimportant needs and help those who are in worse situations. Our Society has adopted equality slowly over the years, but we still have discrepancies because of race and gender. Even after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speech and gave his life, equality did not go into full effect. So, yes, I do think that the Bible and social justice movements have had some affect on our actions, but it is hard to say if it is even possible to have complete equality.