"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara (Brazilian priest and archbishop)
Christians throughout the centuries have had a strong tradition of acts of mercy and compassion to the poor, the needy and the vulnerable. If God so loved the world, then so must we. The Bible clearly calls us to show compassion towards the weakest in society: the poor, the hungry, the widowed, the orphan and the stranger.
The Bible also talks about a God of righteousness - showing not just compassion for the individual, but a vision for all humankind. 'Shalom' encapsulates how God intends things to be. It is a condition of rightness, when a person's entire being - physical well-being, relationships with God and others, personal character - is as it ought to be. If there is injustice there cannot be shalom for not everything is right.
Our response to God's love requires us to seek what God wants for the world, to act justly (Micah 6:8), and to thereby to work towards God's hopeful future.
What is justice?
Justice is not a straightforward concept. Have you ever played the Justice Game? Give a cake to a group of people, and ask them to divide it justly. They may decide to cut it into equal pieces - but what if one member of the group hasn't eaten that day and is really hungry? What if one member of the group has paid for it themselves? What if it's someone's birthday? What about the people who are outside the group who might also like cake? It soon becomes clear that concepts of justice are often contested, and can depend on where you stand.
But our Christian faith offers us particular understandings of justice.
Justice is about relationships. The covenant between God and God's people grew out of a relationship with a God who was personal, faithful and concerned for the shalom of everyone. When the prophets of the Old Testament attacked the people for their failure to keep the covenant they were attacking a failure to maintain relationships. Justice requires a community of restored relationships and healed memories.
Justice has a future dimension. Restoration rather than retribution is key - God does not give up, God is merciful and compassionate, God is faithful even when we are unfaithful. The fight for justice in a world where there is so much injustice will never be fully won by humankind on earth. But the Christian vision looks beyond, to the coming of the kingdom of God.
Acts of mercy and acts of justice bring hope
Christians need to care about the well-being of people in our communities and around the world. However demonstrating compassion for our fellow humans is not all that is required of us.
If you see someone being swept along a river shouting for help you might try to rescue them or throw them a lifebelt. Then if another person is swept past you, you might try to help them too. By the time you see a third person in the river you go upstream to find out who is pushing them in.
We are not only called to do acts of mercy, but also acts of justice. We are not only called up on to feed the poor, but to ask why they have no food. We need not only to pull people out of the river, but discover who is pushing them in.
Do we focus solely on treating the symptoms - feeding the hungry, finding accommodation for the homeless, comforting the lonely - and fail to ask 'why'. Why are people in our world hungry? What prevents people in our own country being able adequately to feed themselves and their families? Why are increasing numbers of people facing homelessness? Why are so many young people unemployed? Our acts of compassion should prompt us to engage with injustice.
By focusing on the individual or on organised acts of kindness towards them, we are in danger of looking on individuals as both the source of the problem and as its solution. We see the homeless person and provide food for them, or even a bed. But we do not ask why they became homeless, or work with others to build the political will for the change needed to prevent homelessness.
Living for justice involves asking the big 'why?' and also aligning our lives and our actions towards shalom (peace with justice) in the world. By responding to God's love for us and the world, we experience God's peace with justice, rooted in relationships and telling of the coming kingdom. It is about being a world-changing disciple, and living out a hope-filled discipleship.
In this section of the website you will soon be able to explore ways of acting justly and find further resources to help work towards a hopeful future.
A Perspective on Justice
Jame Flyeman (head of Church relationships at Tearfund) offers his personal reflections on justice and what he is doing in response.