Principle 4: Seek Justice, Encourage the Oppressed
“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” – Isaiah 1:15-17 (emphasis added) 1
In the previous articles I touched on the Biblical and philosophical basis for multi-ethnic community. In the next three articles I will be addressing three central characteristics of multi-ethnic community: justice (principle 4), love (principle 5), and sharing (principle 6).
The two camps
I’ve found when you start to talk about pursuing multi-ethnic community (or multi-ethnic Christian community) people tend to fall into two camps:
- Those who think that relationships are the key: They would say something like, “The best way to build multi-ethnic Christian community is one friendship at a time. People of different ethnicities just need to get to know each other and build relationships.”
- Those who think that systemic change is the key: They would say something like, “Before we can build multi-ethnic Christian community we must address the problems in the system (society, institutions, and Christian organizations). We need to deal with unjust policies, confront racism, see more diverse leadership, etc.”
It is not surprising to find that people in the relationships camp are often a part of the majority (or dominant) group. They aren’t as interested in changing the system because the system is working in their favor. And, it is not surprising to see that people in the systemic change camp are often in the minority group. They want to see the injustices addressed that they experience on a regular basis. Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson write about this in The Heart of Racial Justice:
We have learned it is no easy thing to be reconciled and to work together for peace and justice. White people like Rick often want relationships but not justice, because justice involves painful social change. African Americans and other people of color, like Brenda, have become very tired of superficial relationships that don’t lead to social change. Some people of color have even despaired and don’t want to engage in the hard work of reconciled relationships until they have proof that those relationships will seek more than just warm feelings.2
What is the “race problem”?
The two camps are further divided by how they define the “race problem”. A very important book on ethnic relations in the American church titled Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America was published by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in 2000. Thousands of Christian pastors and leaders have had their eyes opened to the multitude of issues that keep the church divided through Divided By Faith. After conducting several thousand interviews, Emerson and Smith found:
For white evangelicals, the “race problem” is not racial inequality, and it is not systematic, institutional injustice. Rather, white evangelicals view the race problem as (1) prejudiced individuals, resulting in poor relationships and sin, (2) others trying to make it a group or systemic issue when it is not, or (3) a fabrication of the self-interested. (p.116)
What the white evangelical solutions rarely entailed were solutions beyond the individual and interpersonal levels. In fact, employing their cultural tool of antistructuralism, any alternative solutions, from their perspective, simply were doomed to failure… Anything beyond the interpersonal level is “superficial” and, ultimately, not a solution. It is individuals who must change, not the institutions, laws, or programs that may shape individuals. (p.118)
The most frequently cited very important way to address racism – by nine out of every ten strong evangelicals – is getting to know people of another race. (p.121)3
A desire on the part of one camp to pursue relationships and the other camp to pursue systemic change can grind efforts to build multi-ethnic community to a halt. Here is a typical scenario…White Christians, churches, and ministries declare to ethnic minorities, “Our doors are open to you! We want to get to know you!” (relationships) Ethnic minorities respond, “That’s great. We want to get to know you also. But, we first want to see that you are serious about addressing the injustices in our society.” (systemic change) The whites feel like their offer has been rebuffed and are hurt because ethnic minorities won’t accept their invitation without having strings attached. Whites will then back away from attempts to connect with ethnic minorities because, “they don’t seem to want a relationship with us.” For ethnic minorities it confirms their suspicion that whites only want them to be involved with their group to soothe their conscious, “look more diverse”, etc.–they really have no desire to care for them as real people.
A word to those in the relationships camp
I believe one of the most helpful things you can do to build relationships with ethnic minorities is to take the time to learn about the injustices that they face on a daily basis. The “Does racism still exist?” series of resources on our website can help. I realize that the idea that there is still wide spread injustice and racism in our society may be difficult for some people to accept–especially for those of us in the majority culture. There is no question that the Civil Rights Movement and other efforts have led to significant improvements in race relations in our country over the last fifty years and that overt expressions of racism and prejudice have been reduced in many ways. But, the problem still remains. Like a virus, racism has mutated into other more politically-correct and subtle forms. There is a “new racism” which is very much a reality in our country. As Billy Graham expressed:
“Racial and ethnic hostility is the foremost social problem facing our world today. From the systematic horror of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia to the random violence ravaging our inner cities, our world seems caught up in a tidal wave of racial and ethnic tensions.” – Billy Graham4
A word to those in the systemic change camp
I believe one of the most helpful things you can do to bring about systemic change is to build cross-cultural relationships–even with people who are not actively pursuing systemic change (yet). My life is an example of that. While I was still unaware of the pervasive racism in our society, a few gracious ethnic minority friends took the time to befriend me and help me to “see their world”. I’m sure there were (and are) times when my isolation and ignorance on race issues was frustrating and annoying to them. But, they continued to show me grace, answer my questions, and help me learn about what life is like as a minority. Eventually, the realities of racism and racialization began to sink through my thick head and I began to try to help to bring about systemic change. My cross-cultural relationships became a strong source of motivation. These were my friends who were being hurt! There are millions of Americans that need a similar relational experience before they will become advocates for systemic change.
What is biblical justice?
The Harper’s Bible Dictionary provides a helpful summary of the biblical meaning of justice:
JUSTICE, the standard by which the benefits and penalties of living in society are distributed. The same basic meaning of justice is found throughout the different books and types of writing of the Bible despite the differing spheres to which it is applied. The pervasiveness of the concept of justice in the Bible can be veiled from the English reader by the fact that the original terms most approximating justice have been frequently translated in English as ‘righteousness’ and ‘judgment.’ A rule of thumb can be that when these terms appear in a context of social distribution or social conflict, ‘justice’ would be a better translation.
Foundation: Justice is founded in the being of God, for whom it is a chief attribute. As such, God is the sure defender of the poor and the oppressed (Jer. 9:23-24; Ps. 10:17-18). This care of God is universal (Pss. 76:8-9; 103:6). The Psalms ground it in God’s role as the sovereign creator of the universe (Ps. 99:1-4). The demands of God’s justice thus extend beyond the nation of Israel (Ps. 9:7-9; cf. Dan. 4:27). Since the justice of God is characterized by special regard for the poor and the weak, a corresponding quality is demanded of God’s people (Deut. 10:18-19). When they properly carry out justice, they are agents of the divine will (Isa. 59:15-16). Paul presents God’s justice as a grace flowing into and through the believers to the needy (2 Cor. 9:8-10). The demand of God for justice is so central that other responses to God are empty or diminished if they exist without it (Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Matt. 23:23). Justice is demanded of all the people, but particularly of the political authorities (Jer. 21:11-12; Isa. 1:10, 17).
Focus: Justice is closely related to love and grace (Deut. 10:18-19; Hos. 10:12) rather than being a contrasting principle. It thus provides vindication, deliverance, and creation of community in addition to retribution. Need is the criterion for distributing benefits although the provisions do not exclude ability as a criterion once this priority is met. Thus the focus is upon the oppressed with particular attention given to specific groups, such as the poor, widows, the fatherless, slaves, resident aliens, wage earners, and those with physical infirmities (Job 29:12-17; Ps. 146:7-9; Mal. 3:5). Justice is associated with the basic requirements of life in community. Basic needs are basic rights. Thus what is literally ‘the justice belonging to the needy’ is properly translated as ‘the rights of the needy’ (Jer. 5:28, rsv). These rights, found by observing what matters are involved in the context of passages mentioning justice (cf. Job 24:1-12; 22:6-9, 23; 31:6, 17-19), include land (Ezek. 45:9), food and clothing (Deut. 10:18), and shelter (Job 8:6). While due process is not omitted (Exod. 23:1-3, 6-8), the dominating concerns are substantive, material, and benefit oriented. The context for the carrying out of justice is the creation of community and the preservation of people in it (Lev. 25:35-36; Job 24:5; Ps. 107:36; Luke 7:29-30). Justice is a deliverance, rectifying the gross social inequities of the disadvantaged (Ps. 76:9). It puts an end to the conditions that produce the injustice (Ps. 10:18). Such redress will not be to the advantage of everyone in the community. The oppressed are raised; the oppressors are judged (1 Sam. 2:7-10; cf. Luke 1:51-53; 6:20-26).5
The biblical concept of justice has both relational and systemic implications. On the relational level we must ask questions like: “Am I treating the people around me fairly?”, “Am I paying my employees a fair wage?”, “Do I give special privileges to certain types of people?”, “Do I care for the oppressed, poor, fatherless?”, etc. On the systemic level we must ask the same types of questions—but, of the organizations we are a part of and our society in general (replace “I” with “we”). For example, “Do we treat all types of people fairly?”, “Do we pay all types of people a fair wage?”, “Do we give special privileges to certain types of people?”, “Do we care for the oppressed, poor, fatherless?”, etc. As followers of Christ, we are called to practice and advocate for justice on both of these levels.
As the Bible passages above show, God clearly commands those of us who receive special benefits at the expense of someone else to do everything we can to correct the injustice, even if we are not the ones who created the system. Most of all, we should be motivated by Christ’s decision to let go of his privileges as God and become a man for our benefit (Philippians 2:5-11) . We are never more like Christ then when we say, “I am willing to sacrifice my privileges for your sake.” and “I will work to change the system for your benefit.” That is what Christ did for us!
Justice in multi-ethnic community
We can see what justice is meant to look like in multi-ethnic community in Acts 6:1-7:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. 6
The Grecian Jews had a legitimate complaint — their widows were being overlooked. They pointed this injustice out to the rest of the group. The disciples (who were Hebraic Jews) were in a position of power where they could have ignored or downplayed the complaint of the minority group of Grecian Jews. But, they chose instead to hear them out and then respond with a solution that corrected the injustice. The solution of the Hebraic leadership involved appointing “six men who were Hellenists and one man who was both a Gentile and a proselyte”7 to a new position of servant leadership. In verse 7 we can see the result: “the word of God spread” and the number of disciples “increased rapidly”. If the disciples had neglected justice, verse 7 may have read, “So the Christian community in Jerusalem divided into Grecian and Hebraic Jews and their ability to spread the word of God was severely hindered.”
Sharing power in multi-ethnic community
After writing Divided By Faith, Dr. Emerson and his research team embarked on a seven year mission to study and document multiracial congregations in the U.S. through thousands of phone interviews and many visits to multiracial congregations. He summarizes their findings in People of the Dream. In the book he shares a tragic observation:
The misuse of power is the use of power for the gain of one group against the wishes of another group. In many if not most of the multiracial congregations my colleagues and I studied, to varying degrees power was misused. (p.147)
Let me be clear that rarely was power misused in a vindictive, calculating fashion with the intent to keep people down. Rather, power was misused because of the following factors working together: (1) power imbalances, (2) powerful people and groups operating from the frame of reference that made it difficult to see the power imbalance (when a group is in charge, most commonly they do not see that they are in charge), (3) operating from different habituses so that (4) they do what they view as right and honorable. (p.152)
At times out of a lack of knowledge, those in multiracial congregations did not give enough attention to the unique dynamics that result from multiple racial groups in the same organization. One result is the misuse of power that favors certain spiritual and racial projects over others, which can have the effect of marginalizing people and groups, and reproducing racial inequality. (p.157)8
In light of this reality, it is easy to understand why multiracial congregations have been accused of promoting racial inequality and why ethnic minorities are often not attracted to these types of environments. This should never be! If biblical justice is understood, esteemed, and practiced in our multi-ethnic Christian communities then power will be shared. Otherwise, we are not following the truly Christian model established by Christ and the early Christians — we are merely following the secular model of the society around us. As long as this remains true of a community of Christians it will never be able to display the power and beauty of multi-ethnic community.