Social Justice and the rule of God

Image of a cross
Image of a cross (Photo credit: Alicia Quan)

Social justice, or the equal distribution of goods and services among persons in society, is one way to view the way God rules the world from a theological standpoint. For example, as an advocate for social justice, Jesus used the images of planting, reaping and nurturing to teach people about the meaning of God’s work and ways in the world (St Matthew 13). People’s experiences, seen as  vehicles to enable them to grow in character, are therefore doors to gain insights into the rule of God in the world. Social justice is one way to discern the interrelatedness of human beings and God and it is also a means of enabling the flourishing of righteousness, justice and peace as core values of the kingdom.

One way to understand social justice as a means to divine human relationship is through the use of Jamaican sayings or proverbs. Take this one, for example, if fish deh a river bottom an’ tell yu seh alligator have gum boil, believe him. This means, we must listen to the voice of experience. Now, in this Jamaican proverb we know fish do not communicate with people. Yet we cannot easily dismiss the proverb since learning from experience is always a vital step towards extracting meaning for the present and the future.

The meaning of an experience informs and inspires action. In other words, once we appreciate that God is working with and through us for the sake of social justice (meaning) we must then move to share the good news with others (action). This is illustrated by St Mark who tells us that while Jesus spoke in parables to the crowd he “…explained everything in private to the disciples…” (Mk 4:34). Another Jamaican proverb illustrates the point. “Not everything good to eat good to talk,” that is, some things are better kept a secret or said only in private. Reggae singer Tarrus Riley illustrates this idea in his song ‘Parables.’ In a coded or parabolic fashion when he says:

“Now Jack and Jill went up the hill

To rob poor people against their will

Them think them wise and think them skilled, a get no water 

Humpty dumpty had to fall

Him scorn the crown and climbed the wall

And all of them he had to call to get a plaster.”

Tarrus Riley takes two nursery rhymes and re-interprets them by pointing to the exploitative nature of life in the Jamaican society. Jack and Jill are not just characters in a nursery rhyme. They are real people in Jamaica who “rob poor people against their will.” This is where it is said not everything good to eat good to talk. Who are those who rob poor people against their will? Tarrus Riley and others know who these are and so they take action to sing about them. Others do not see meaning in the nursery rhyme and so meaning remains in the imagination and no action follows.

How then can we become advocates for social justice or convert the meaning of the Kingdom of God into action? Amy Bailey is a good example of how we begin to assist children, the young and vulnerable people generally. Born towards the end of the ninteenth century in the parish of Manchester, Jamaica, Bailey was an advocate for women’s rights. A co-founder of the organization Save the Children, she was also a leading voice in the introduction of contraceptives in the country. As an Anglican, in fact what you would call a staunch Anglican, and inspired by the work of Marcus Garvey, Bailey was a twentieth century leader in the fight against racial discrimination and marginalization for the majority black population in Jamaica. Bailey showed what it meant to proclaim God’s truth in a society where the lies of privilege and power dominated. Yet, as a woman, she made her voice count for the benefit of the underprivileged.

In the final analysis social justice advocacy, as demonstrated by Bailey, grows among those who are willing and committed to proclaim God’s rule. Such advocacy is nurtured by learning from experiences, including those gained from reading scripture, prayer, fasting and meditation and externalizing the practices by caring for the most vulnerable.

Garth Minott is Deputy President of the United Theological College of the West Indies.

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