Racism: we need God to work in our hearts personally to cleanse us from racism. But it also gets institutionalized into systems like Jim Crow or apartheid and we have to work to dismantle those systems.
Holocaust and genocides: these are not only the result of an individual’s sin (like Hitler or the specific leaders of Rwandan genocide). When German Christians allowed nationalistic pride and the desire for material satisfaction to trump the call to stand up for justice for the Jews that was a corporate idolatry. When thousands of Rwandan Christians participate in mob violence it reveals the social brokenness of allowing ethnic identity to trump Christian identity.
Tower of Babel: a society organizing its common life together so that they image themselves to the rest of creation rather than fulfilling their human vocation of imaging God. “Come let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4). God had called the Israelites to be a society that imaged Him and that made a name for Him. He had called the Israelite society to bear witness to Him but now they are choosing to bear witness to themselves.
This notion of social or corporate sin is, admittedly, really hard to get our minds around. But we need to press into this if we are to be justice-doers.
Injustice occurs when individual people oppress others. But it also happens when social systems and institutions are established that systematically oppress people.The call to “do justice” is not sufficiently obeyed by not committing individual acts of injustice. We are called to that of course – not to cheat others, not steal from others, not to enslave others. But even if all the Christians in the world were personally to avoid committing individual acts of injustice, there would still be lots of victims of injustice.
Systems of injustice have far-reaching tentacles and they are extremely complex. The call to do justice involves the commitment to active intolerance of these systems and to active advocacy on behalf of those who are oppressed by these systems; we willingly take some responsibility for the social sin that exists and are prompted to action. The degree of our being implicated and taking responsibility for social sin, however, varies from situation to situation. Sometimes it is pretty distant and our responsibility rests primarily on the call that we have to be our brother’s keeper and to love our neighbor.
Let’s take the problem of forced child sex slavery as an example. In many countries around the world there are bad guys who kidnap impoverished children and force them into brothels where they have to work as prostitutes. The police are often corrupt and instead of prosecuting these bad guys they take bribes from them and look the other way. A number of ancillary actors also contribute to this ongoing horror – like taxi drivers and hotel concierges who direct foreign pedophiles to these brothels. So here we have a brutal system of injustice but we’re over here in the US, thousands of miles away, and we have not personally contributed to it. We didn’t kidnap any kids and we are not in partnership with the brothel owners.We are responsible, however, to care about the problem because of the command to love our neighbor, to share in God’s passion for the oppressed, and God’s call to us to stand up for the oppressed and to rescue them.
It is also useful for us to acknowledge our participation in the sinful brokenness of humanity, particularly the sins of lust and sexual promiscuity. Part of the evil of the system of child sex slavery is the fact that men actually desire to have sex with children. There is stuff going on in our culture – the objectification of women, lewdness of films and TV shows, promiscuity of our fashion and dress, pushing of children to look older than they are – that fuel the horrible problem that men want to have sex with children. Because of that “demand” there are those who are willing to enslave children to provide a “supply.” Am I saying that we are responsible for the problem of child sex slavery? That it is our fault that these girls are being abused in these brothels? No, I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that evil is real, that human sin is real, that the Fall is real, and that the result is that evil systems have been created and are sustained by personal and social forces.
Cultivating passion for justice and joining God in His work of advancing justice are not only legitimate pursuits, they are essential. They are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ. We would not imagine that “discipleship” could include prayer or worship as optional activities, designed for those who are “into that sort of thing.” The same holds true for justice – being passionate about it and being a doer of it is not peripheral or optional to our walk with God. It is mandatory and central. We have to become deeply convinced that justice is at the heart of Jesus’ agenda. This is because Jesus is God and God hates injustice and is committed to rescue. We are to be people who are attentive to the groaning of the oppressed. We are to be willing to feel their pain, and willing to be actively involved in remedying oppression.