The Church And Social Justice

Now is a very difficult time: The last few months have seen North America go through a very difficult season in our history. It is a time when our lives have been taken over by a sense of abnormality. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen before and a sense of invasion still exists. The Covid 19 crisis has taken a huge toll as we are restricted to our homes, and as we reluctantly practice lockdown but then, the risks of exposure to infection would endanger us, our families and just about everyone we come into contact with, if we don’t. We can’t go about our usual routine, go to our usual places, and social interaction is severely limited. We also have to do online church. All this proves that no one is an island and we are people who need community. We’ve never had anything like this before and even after three months, it still feels surreal! 

It gets worse: However, in the US, the lid that clamped the frustration of lockdown was blown to bits and all that pent-up energy came out like a lava flow after people saw the clip of Floyd George in Minneapolis. It was a terrible, terrible sight to see: a forty-six-year-old black man restrained under the knee of a uniformed cop. We learn that he wets himself, starts bleeding, cries out for his mother and then dies. All this comes after a series of racially charged attacks on black people over a long, long period of time.[1] As you watch the clip, you feel a strong sense of emotion welling inside. In fact, one cannot be a decent human being if one doesn’t feel a sense of shock and mounting indignation, and even outrage over this. This was the tipping point and people in the hundreds of thousands have been in protest marches across the US for weeks, and even here in Canada and some other parts of the world. This is a very sensitive time for the US but should I go further?

Should we be even talking about this or is this something better handled outside of church? I was wondering about this and earlier last this week I had a tutorial session with three of our ladies who signed up with the School of Women’s Ministry and we talked about the Statement of Faith of our umbrella organization: The BGC, from whom our church’s statement of faith is drawn from. We were talking about the principle of church and state separation, as well as the church’s duty to speak into the public square. I take the position that a pastor should be above politics. This means that he doesn’t use the pulpit for political ends. He doesn’t publicly support or oppose any political party or candidate or political position; and remains neutral. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have political views but these are personal and private, and to use pulpit for politics is an abuse. Are there exceptions? That’s the issue. My answer is yes, and I’m aware that the line between a political issue and a social justice issue is sometimes very fine. Some time ago, a man named Edmund Burke[2] said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” There is much wisdom in this and I have no doubts whatsoever, that we should not be muted when it comes to matters of great social importance. It’s not a choice anymore, we are mandated to speak up.

Slavery: Over two centuries ago, slavery was very much a way of life in the world and not only here in North America. In Canada there was slavery until a series of court decisions ended the practice from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. In England, parliament formally ended slavery in 1833; and the US Congress passed laws in 1865 for the same end. Lest I be misunderstood, I repeat: slavery was not just practiced in the West but in many parts of the world including Africa and Asia!

I don’t know about Canada but Christians were very much a part of the abolition movement in England as well as in the US. Their Christian conscience guided them to feel very strongly against this terrible wrong against our fellow humans. Mind you, if you had slaves that was very much a part of daily life, and no one would question you; and a rich and lucrative busines came out of trafficking slaves. The establishment encouraged and allowed it, people got rich from this busines but, the church had nothing to say about this practice. The church kept a blind eye and this means they abetted and enabled the slave trade. As a church we[3] failed to do right for a long time! But, a handful of Christians felt very strongly against this terrible practice. Theirs were the lone voices and they fought a long- pitched battle against slavery and every obstacle and more obstacles were thrown against them. Eventually, they managed to persuade others in high places and the law was changed. It was a long and hard- fought battle. God could have stopped slavery instantly but he chose to use his imperfect people to do so. My Qs though are this:

Q: Though slavery ended formally, did the attitude that produced it end?

Q: What is our guide? Who do we follow? What is our standard?

Scriptural support: Quite apart from our gut feel which tells us that good people must not be guilty of silence in the face of gross immorality, and that there’s something very wrong about discriminating against other people, we need to take counsel from Scripture to gird and guide us:

Isa 1:17: Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherlessplead the case of the widow.

Isa 61: 1: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.

Amos 2:6-7:  This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.

Mt 22: 36-40: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  

John 4: 7-9:  When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans).

What we see from this broad sweep of scripture is that:

  • God hates injustice
  • God wants his people to relieve the oppressed and fight for the fatherless and widows
  • God has compassion on the poor
  • God wishes to liberate people from captivity, and comfort those who mourn
  • God hates dishonesty, is against those who cheat the needy
  • God doesn’t just want us to be passive but also to pro-actively do good; doing unto others what we would want done to us – be proactive! Just as the good Samaritan in Jesus’s parable was proactive.   
  • God is not racist; Jesus crossed racial barriers.

It is the Christian’s duty to act against any form of racism, discrimination, injustice and all forms of oppression. A great tribute to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is wherever it is preached, societies begin to change, education gets introduced, help is given to the poor, and the oppressed begin to break out of poverty cycles. It is not just about salvation but salvation has breadth as well as depth. The Gospel enables people to appreciate that those who are made in the image of God deserve respect and love just as they themselves deserve respect and love. In other words, you cannot believe in Jesus and then go treat people harshly; you cannot believe in Jesus and discriminate against a fellow human because of the color of his skin; you cannot believe in Jesus and cheat and rob.           

Today’s slavery

Racism: Almost one hundred and fifty years’ ago, the US legislated against slavery. This affected many people who did not see a lifestyle contradiction in having slaves and going to church on Sunday. They now found that they had to set the slaves free but this pro-slavery mindset, among more than a few, was never radically corrected and it continued in the form of discrimination and segregation. It took them another one hundred years before laws were passed to prohibit discrimination against people of color.[4] Race desegregation didn’t happen just like that. There had to be years of civil rights agitation by marching, protests and the painful work of debate and persuasion under constant harassment. However, what is quite sad is the repetition in history of inaction by bible believing Christians who did not support the civil rights movement. A few might have but the majority did not.[5] My point: you can legislate against segregation and pass laws that forbid discrimination, but you can’t legislate away attitude. I go to India as we have a work there in one of the poorest states where about 50% of the people live below the UN poverty level of $1.25 a day. About seventy years’ ago, the Indian parliament legislated its Constitution. The architect of this document was a Dalit[6] and he ensured that the law forbade caste discrimination in society. However, you can legislate against the caste system but cultural practices ensure that discrimination is alive and well, even though some strides have been made.       

Personal: A few days’ ago, I had a Whats App chat with a long- lost friend. We were in undergrad school together and we chatted about how some forty years’ ago, a few of us drove a few hundred miles to attend her wedding. So, when you speak to old friends, you ask about job, health and inevitably, talk centers around children. She has one son who is married with two children. The sad thing is that her son – while in Singapore – experienced much racism there. Because he is a few shades darker, he was subject to racist jokes and banter, which made his life in the country of his birth – which takes pride in having no institutionalized racism – absolutely miserable. My friend tells me that her son has been living in Norway for several years and hasn’t experienced one bit of racism. He is now a valued and respected member of his community. 

A generation ago: in the US, there were 2 leaders in the civil rights movement. One was Martin Luther King Jr. He was a Baptist preacher who was inspired by how Gandhi worked out Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and believed very fervently in non-violent protests. Gandhi, like King, is one of those seminal figures of the twentieth century. He managed to stage non- violent protest across the sub-continent against a huge colonial power and eventually got independence for his country with the least amount of bloodshed.[7] There was another leader in the civil rights movement and he was a militant Muslim. His name was Malcom X. He did not believe in non-violence. His belief was that the only way to bring about equality and put an end to racism was through violence and riots. It was fortunate for the US that the civil rights movement made King its leader.    

Some last words: In Canada, we don’t have the same problems that plague the US. However, there is a huge holdover about how our aboriginal people have been treated historically and that is a problem that will not be wished away even with the financial aids and tax breaks that government has put in place. Yes, by all means, register your protest and march in the rallies that arise every now and then as protests are necessary to raise public awareness. However, to bring about significant and meaningful change, we need more than protests and money. We need wise and godly leadership. Unfortunately, the church has lost a big part of its social capital because they were very much a part of the Residential School system and big questions linger on whether Christians have done enough to confess, repent and restitute. What can the church do even at this belated hour?

[1] Since then, another black man who fled the police gets shot in the back and killed in Atlanta.   

[2] Edmund Burke lived in the 18th century; and was a philosopher statesman. He believed in the importance of religious institutions for the moral stability and good of the state. He also criticized the British government’s taxation policies in the American colonies. If they had listened more closely to him, history might have taken a very different turn! Now, he is praised by both conservatives and liberals alike.     

[3] A good question arises about the practices of previous generations and the ills that come down to the present. What does this do to a country: morally, psychologically and spiritually? If righteousness exalts a nation what does the opposite do? Does the evil stop just because the practice stops? I would submit that we need to explore this more fully.       

[4] Although the 14th Amendment of the Federal Constitution provides for “equal protection” under law. This was interpreted to mean equal but separate and it bore the stamp of the Supreme Court in 1896 in regard to state- sponsored segregation.   

[5] Read Eugene Scott in the Washington Post, April 3 2018. He cites MLK Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, when King writes that his fellow Christians not only did not fight for civil rights but in fact, aided racism, partnered with supremacist groups, called the movement disruptive and questioned the faith of black leaders.  

[6] Dalits occupy the very lowest rung in the system of caste in Indian society and there are considerable restrictions that are inflicted on them by those in the higher castes.

[7] There was not much violence from the agitation for independence. In fact, the violence came from government against peaceful protestors. However, considerable violence followed the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. That became a religious war.   


Richard Ang

Richard Ang is the Pastor at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. Richard was born and raised in Singapore where he practiced law for several years before coming to Canada. He also holds masters’ degrees in Theology and Christian Studies from Regent College and the Canadian Baptist Seminary/Trinity Western University.