Jesus doesn’t do social justice

Jesus doesn’t do social justice, he is social justice. I mean that in the strongest sense. True social justice is defined by the person of Jesus, and not vice-versa. And I’ve been thinking a lot about social justice since I arrived in Kansas City.

Two weeks ago I packed my bags and headed out West. I’m interning at Jacob’s Well Church in Kansas City, Missouri, for the summer and assisting them with community development and the missional formation of their congregation. My first day here I began working with another staff member on human trafficking. Since the church is a part of a coalition against human trafficking, they were informed by authorities that a citywide raid would soon take place and asked to provide hospitality for the victims once they had been freed. My second day here the raid happened.

They busted a ring of businesses that had lured immigrants from impoverished nations to come to the U.S. with promises of a better life. Once these immigrants arrived from countries such as the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, they were placed in crammed living quarters and forced to pay off impossible fees through hard labor. These workers were rented out to local businesses, restaurants, and hotels as cleaners or construction workers, and were hardly ever given a day off. The raid spread across 14 states, included hundreds of immigrants, and led to the arrest of eight men (police are still looking for four others).

Forty-two of the victims who had been trafficked were sent to Kansas City and placed in secondary housing. As soon as Jacob’s Well was made aware of the raid, half of the staff dropped what they were doing and devoted their full attention to mobilizing the community to respond. We knew that when these people arrived they wouldn’t have any money, clothes, food, or anything to do with their time. A plan was put in place and a team of volunteers joined the staff as we began taking in donations of clothes, toiletries, snacks, calling cards, games, etc. The place was buzzing with activity, and by the end we had gathered more than enough to pack a bag full of personal belongings for each of the forty-two victims to help them adjust to their new and free life.

The response of Jacob’s Well community was incredible. Now different groups within the church are preparing meals for the trafficked immigrants, made with food from their own cultures. When we asked if the refugees would be allowed to live and work legally in the U.S., we were told that lawyers’ fees for filing and processing work visas and green cards are $7,000 to $10,000 per person. Needless to say, it didn’t appear they’d have any chance to stay. But then a lawyer from the church stepped forward and said she would take all the cases pro bono – which comes out to something like a $450,000 donation!

Justice is a person, not a principle

As Christians we don’t start with some abstract quality called “social justice” and then bring Jesus into the discussion when we need a good example of it because he was really “into” social justice. It’s the other way around; it’s by looking at the God of Israel and Jesus that we discover what social justice is. A simple outline can show how this works.

In Genesis God chooses Abraham’s family to be his instrument of blessing; in other words, God plans on blessing the whole world through them. In the book of Exodus God hears the cries of slaves in Egypt, sees their misery, and acts on their behalf. This marks the beginning of a long history of God always siding with the oppressed (which also gains him the reputation of being a Liberator God). In Deuteronomy God gives the nation of Israel specific laws that protect the poor, laws that look out for those on the margins of society and the stranger in their midst. And, of course, there are the Prophetic books. Whenever Israel forgets God’s concern for justice and equality, these eccentric (to say the least) prophets are sent to get the people back into right living.

But God’s commitment to the poor and oppressed is seen most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, for he is the very image of the God of Israel (Colossians 1:15) and the exact imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). This Jewish rabbi, Jesus, embodies God’s love by feeding the hungry and healing the sick; he incarnates God’s compassion by embracing lepers and associating with the outcasts of society; and he continues God’s opposition to systems of oppression by overturning the money-changers’ tables in the temple and challenging the powers of empire and domination. What Jesus was all about can be summarized in the “Nazareth Manifesto” that he gave at the start of his public ministry (Luke 4:18-19):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

To belong to Jesus, therefore, is to belong to the justice of the kingdom of God.

The person of Jesus is where we must begin if we’re to truly discover what social justice looks like in the world. Karl Barth said in a speech given in 1911, “Jesus is the movement for social justice, and the movement for social justice is Jesus in the present.” If we begin anywhere else, then we’ll likely to arrive at an understanding of justice that is deeply infected with our own cultural conditionings.

We encounter the same problem when thinking about “human equality.” Whenever folks try to define equality in terms of some abstract principle that’s universally self evident, their definition inevitably ends up being skewed. We need only think of Thomas Jefferson writing “all men are created equal” in the first line of the Declaration of Independence. What Jefferson really meant was “all white, land-owning males are created equal.” But if we anchor our understanding of human equality in the logic of Jesus we get something radically different. Paul was continuing the logic of Jesus when he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

So back to my point: it’s through studying the contents of the life of Jesus that we truly understand social justice, for Jesus is social justice. The burning passion of Jesus was to make God’s kingdom a socio-historical reality, for in the kingdom people are treated not as objects but as humans (and this includes all people, not just those who own land and have a certain color of skin). I’ve had friends ask me if I’m into the “social gospel.” I tell them, “Of course. When was the gospel ever not social?” Furthermore, we participate in social justice when we have the same concern and action for justice and equality that Jesus had. We might aptly use the term “social justice,” then, to denote the shape that a life takes when it’s patterned after the person and work of Jesus.


The late South African David Bosch said that the closest English translation of Matthew 6:33 is, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice.” The Greek word at the end is dikaiosunen, and we’re used to seeing it as “righteousness” instead of “justice.” But Bosch is right. This translation is faithful to not only the actual words but also the person who spoke them.

Let’s not beat around the bush – if we’re to take this command of Jesus seriously and strive for the justice of the kingdom then we’ll no longer be able to remain silent or still knowing that there are people in our world being trafficked as cargo and treated as slaves. There are more human slaves today than ever before. And that’s no hyperbole – there are presently 27 million slaves in the world.

Since I began this website with an acknowledgment of the impact that Martin Luther King, Jr., has had upon me, it seems only appropriate that I would include him in an entry on social justice. The great prophetic King gave us much to think about when he said, “Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”

There are a myriad of ways to get involved, both on a personal level (e.g., keeping track of what products you buy and how they’re made, micro-lending to those most vulnerable to being trafficked) and the larger legislative level (e.g., shaping policies that hold companies accountable to not use any products or services involved in slave labor). College students could think about doing a summer or year overseas with International Justice Mission. David Batstone has written an excellent book, and you can find more ideas on the website of the Not For Sale Campaign. You also might want to catch a showing of the rockumentary film Call+Response to see how a group of artists are responding. (And thanks to artist and good friend Francisco Donoso for these two paintings which address human slavery.)

We can no longer choose to be ignorant of human trafficking. We can choose to either ignore it and do nothing, or to be a part of the justice of the kingdom and join the modern day underground railroad. But ignorance is no longer an excuse.