Seek Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly...in Youth Group

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Sometimes I think that while everyone in my church thinks it’s important to care for the poor, when we start to actively participate in projects around social justice, there’s an uneasiness that gets in the way of support for our efforts.

Let me explain. Everybody in church agrees that we should care of the poor and those who are persecuted.  But for some reason, when we begin to talk about the poor and suggest that our youth group should actually help individuals, I never feel that I have 100% support.   My guess is that some folks believe “social justice” is a liberal term. Others have a flawed logic that if poor people just worked harder, they wouldn’t be poor.    Anyone else experienced this?

I’m always more than happy to take the time to explain our youth group activities and lessons with members of the church. But at the same time, I have chosen to keep the focus on our youth group and the lessons they learn when they actively seek justice and love mercy.  I’ve never had a student or the parent of a student complain about our work once we return from a service activity.  Quite the opposite. Once I have gotten our youth group involved in mercy projects, there has been momentum to continue this work.

How have you involved your youth group in social justice issues?  Have your efforts been supported by most or all of your congregation?

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Paul: I'm going to suggest there may be a couple of problems.

First, "social justice" is a "liberal term."  More specifically, it is a code-phrase for a certain political perspective that some (many?) of your kids -- and/or their parents -- may not adhere to.

Second, the term (social justice) itself is problematic.  It only speaks of "justice" and not "mercy" (your posts discusses mercy but the term "social justice" does not).  Certainly, we must do justice (as Micah 6:8 says), but the current fashionable political perspective (which created the phrase "social justice") wants to talk only of justice and never (or rarely) of mercy, and wants to, literally, recharacterize that which should be described as "mercy" as "justice."  Why?  Because that is a political statement: the poor are poor only because they are oppressed, which means "poor-ness" is always the result of injustice -- oppression by others.  The use of "mercy" implies there is no injustice done, that someone is giving out of love but not because justice demands it.  "Social justice" thinking just doesn't like talk of mercy because that would imply condescension.

"Social justice" is a close cousin to "liberation theology," which is a close cousin to neo-Marxism.  All three represent political perspectives more than anything else.

Finally, when you say "Others have a flawed logic that if poor people just worked harder, they wouldn’t be poor," you somewhat belie your bias.  In fact, that is sometimes the case.  Sometimes it's not the case as well, but sometimes it is.  In addition, there are times where the decisions people make (e.g., not to finish high school, to have a child without benefit of marriage, to spend money unwisely, etc.) cause them to be poor.  I'm not suggesting that we (as Christ's representatives) should ignore people who don't work harder or make bad decisions, but helping them is not then a matter of "justice" but rather of "mercy."

Understand the possibility that whenever you talk about "doing justice to others", those you talk to may be understanding you to say that they have done injustice to those others.  If they feel accused, the accusation may bother them, in part because the accusation is itself unjustice.

The term “Social Justice” has its roots in Catholic social teaching, which is all about the sanctity of human life.  In that case maybe social justice is a "conservative" term. Christians who like social justice also like Micah 6:8, do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.   

Chris: The term ('social justice') may have roots (or at least a root) in Catholicism but that doesn't mean it's not liberal (nor is Catholicism "all about the sanctity of human life" -- it's a big church with lot of views and lots of doctrines).

Indeed, Catholicism is also the historic source of "liberation theology" (the Protestant version generally referred to as "social gospel) and the two, or three, phrases, "social justice," "liberation theology," and "social gospel," are all phrases within a largely single perspective.  For a good summary, check out Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_justice ).  However "social justice" may be characterized, "conservative" is not one of them.

Understand of course that "liberal" and "conservative" are relative terms (thus, a conservative in the US tends to want limited government while a conservative in Russia wants dictatorial government).  But we're in the US, talking about US/English words and phrases, as are the parents (and children) of CRC church youth groups. Were we in Russia, "social justice" would indeed be "conservative."

I think there is a pretty big disconnect between the denominational bureacracy and the CRC membership in this area.  Via our membership in the WCRC and a number of activities of our CRC agencies (OSJ and others), the denominational bureaucracy is embracing, promoting, and advocating political centrism (lots of government control over society) and forced (government controlled) egalitarianism -- all under the banner of "social justice."  That would make sense in a Catholic tradition, but not in a Calvinist tradition.  The historic Catholic tradition rarely opposed centristic government control.  In fact, the middle ages is a long story of the Catholic tradition promoting, even seizing that centristic government control (and the Catholic church governance structure is very heirarchical, in contrast to that of the various Calvinist traditions).  Catholic tradition embraced monarchy; but the various Calvinist traditions wanted decentralized authority (sphere sovereignty if you will).  Only recently, and especially in the US, Catholics have been rethinking their political perspectives and becoming much more conservative, that is, de-centrist in their political thinking.

And this is the problem that Paul Boice's families may be having.  When most CRC folk (members, not denominational bureacracy) hear the phrase "social justice," they hear (for good reason) Van Jones, green parties, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, Barak Obama -- all of which have two political perspective points in common: (1) that which used to be regarded as "mercy" is now recast as a matter of justice, which means a matter of political right; (2) government should enforce political rights, including matters of justice, including the right to economic equality.

Interestly, even though Paul Boice's lead post begins with talk of "social justice," it continues more by referring to mercy, even describing the projects undertaken as "mercy projects."  Justice and mercy are two different things.  Christians should "do justice" and they should "love mercy," but they should not confuse the two, and the current fashionable use of the phrase  "social justice" does just that, confusing not only the two concepts, but the people with whom the phrase is used in conversation.  And so when Paul takes his kids back from doing "mercy projects," he finds no objection but rather enthusiasm for what was done.  Makes sense.  When he talked first about "social justice," he got a cool response; but then when he engaged the kids in "mercy projects," he found families supportive.  His initial communication was not in sync with the projects actually undertaken.

Please don't misunderstand my perspective.  I'm all for "mercy" and "mercy projects."  I advocate for them, I do them personally -- a lot (because I'm a decentrist).  I'm also all for "justice," having spent more than a little of my 32 years of law practice obtaining justice for clients (not infrequently at no or little charge).  But I don't confuse the two, and I don't advocate for government to be our society's mechanism for doing mercy (justice yes, mercy no).  In fact, I would suggest that confusing the two, and miscasting the role of government as to justice and mercy, leads to dramatically bad results.

Begin the planning of a mission trip with social justice questions in mind.  That will facilitate planing parts of the trip where students can learn more about the history of the community, the issues members express they are facing, what they are doing about it, and where they are running into walls.  

The book, "When Helping Hurts," is a great resource for shaping discussions about systemic and individual causes of poverty.

"Social Justice Handbook," by Mae Elise Cannon, has descriptions of dozens of social justice issues and how the church can get involved.  

handsformdgs.org is one of the CRC's social justice campaigns and a great way to introduce youth to a variety of issues.

Keep the initiative rooted in what the Bible says about justice and in real situations that are being faced by real people who want you to join with them in their efforts. 

Can't wait to hear more suggestions!   

Thank you Doug for fleashing out the term "Social Justice" so articulately for me, I have always had concern for this "worldly" term & terminolgy being so easily brought into the CRC or the Christian context without a revision of it to a Biblical understanding... The bible has a different understanding of Justice and, in my humble opinion you have nailed it, so thank you again.

I will copy and keep this so that I can articulate it better in my conversations with youth and young adults, if you don't mind I am going to post it on facebook with some revision to bring it out of this "conversation" and make it stand on it's own, unless you have somewhere else I can go to get an even better biblical understanding of Justice etc.

Once again, thanks,

Terry

Terry: I'm glad you appreciated my post, although it wasn't intended so much as what you took it for.  In another forum, I was once asked (by Bev Sterk) what I thought the meaning of Micah 6:8.  I answered, it being that Micah 6:8 was "my verse" of sorts for many years, and because I consider myself in the business, so to speak, of doing justice, and have at least of the hobby of loving (and doing) mercy.  Below is that post.

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Bev: Your question/point about [what] Micah 6:8 [means] catches my attention and is really important these days, I think, because of all the "social justice" talk.  I still don't think I know that people are talking about exactly when they say "social justice".

Micah 6:8 has been and is "my favorite verse," so to speak, beginning before I finished law school over 30 years ago.  Here are my thoughts.

Do Justice

God commanded Israel to do justice: no ifs, ands or buts. Kind of simple in a way. The take-away for our generation (whose governments are not theocratic) is a bit more complicated but not too much. Justice is, well justice. If I sell you a pound's worth, I may not use cheating scales. If I pitch a house to you (as a realtor), I may not misrepresent, whether by omission or commission. If I give you my advice on whether to take this case to trial, I must to tell you all of the upside and downside points, not just that which would get you to hire me. If I have a car with problems, I must tell the dealer about them when I trade it for a new one.

Doing justice often hurts us financially. Not doing justice is stealing. There should be a law against all injustices, literally.

In terms of institutions, the government's chief matter of concern is justice. Thus, government should creates uniform laws about weights and measures, contract rules, torts, property law, etc. And it should create a "judicial system" that enforces those rules ("does justice"). Government rightly says to all its citizens, "you must do justice." In OT Israel society, it was easy to "take advantage" of people who had little legal/political power, like widows and orphans, or the stranger. Often, they had neither the means, nor the know-how, nor the political clout to fight those who would be unjust to them (literally steal from them). Thus, God's command to all of Israel, especially its rulers I think (who enforced the requirement), was: DO JUSTICE. Today as well.

Government enforced justice can sometimes seems like mercy, but it isn't mercy. A "welfare safety net" is a matter of justice, not mercy, because only government has the power to take human life (hence, it must ensure human life). The argument arises of course when Government extends justice to include mercy. I believe it does that when it intends to equalize wealth, or shifts wealth in order to "be nice" to those less fortunate, or engages in affirmative action (except to offset past injustice).

Love Mercy

Note first, Micah does not say to "do" mercy but rather to "love" it. Just as the early Christians who lived communally were not REQUIRED to commit what was theirs to the community, so we are not also. In OT Israel, you could sell yourself as a slave. Justice would require that you be released from that on the year of Jubilee, but in the meantime justice meant you were a slave (unless the person you sold yourself to had mercy and released you). But still, God also commanded the OT Israelites (and us) to LOVE mercy. They/we were/are not thereby ordered to do it, but we are ordered to "want to do it," to examine our hearts and adjust them when they acquire a selfish disposition. Loving mercy is very much like "loving our neighbors as ourselves."

If everyone Did Justice, heaven on earth would still not exist. If everyone Loved Mercy, we would almost be there.

Government should not Love Mercy (well, OK to love it but not do it, or command its citizens to do it). Doing Mercy is NOT within government's jurisdiction, and if it was, government would do it badly. That doesn't mean government should not create laws, for example, to mimic the effect of the Year of Jubilee, but doing that is Justice, that is, keeping things from getting too out of balance (if that happens, society--and society's ability to do justice--crumbles).

Should the church Love Mercy? Of course--even, I think, the church as institution. Should the church as organism (that is, should all Christians) Love Mercy? A super big "you bet." However, mindful of our Lord's acknowledgement, the poor will be with us always. This does not mean we should ease up on Loving Mercy, but we must, need to, acknowledge that we probably cannot give all the mercy we'd love to give (one goes crazy if one loves mercy and does not recognize her/her limits in giving it because we are not God).

Walk Humbly With God

I have less definitive thoughts about this phrase, but here's what I've done with it so far in my life at least. First, for me, obeying this meant, when I started practicing law, taking off my tie and not requiring my clients address me as Mr. Vande Griend while I addressed them by their first name. An older businessman in church advised me otherwise, and I tried a bit but eventually decided doing that was manipulative and disobedient (it creates a power relationship, not a servant relationship).

Walking Humbly also meant, for me, acknowledging my inability to to everything for everyone who needs it, but it took a long time for me to figure that out. Especially in my 20s through 40's, I did so much pro bono work and work for "Christian organizations," that I really neglected my family. That wasn't Walking Humbly because I was trying to be the guy that would/could fix everything for everyone. I did eventually figure that out, but it took decades.

The other way I decided to Walk Humbly, and you know this one already from a different forum, was to not move from where we lived in town, despite that area becoming the "Hispanic area." I have to admit that to this day, I feel twangs of embarrasment when some finds out where I live. "East Salem? Where in East Salem?" Literally, no "doctor or lawyer" lives within a 4-5 mile radius of our house. So what was my problem?  Still, the blessing of living here outweighs the sometimes feeling of embarassment and I would not be Walking Humbly, as I understand it, nor Loving Mercy, if I did not. Besides, the blessings of living here, as you know from another forum, are much greater than the curses.

Would love to hear your thinking Bev -- and I know you have some thoughts. :-)   Others as well.

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