Isaiah and Social Justice

Exhortation given at online at Portland online while still raw from the callous killing of George Floyd

Email correspondence

After watching the talk, some people have approached me with questions that are well represented in the following (lightly edited) email exchange:

Dear Brother John, greetings in the Lord.
I was recently sent the website for your recent exhortation […] I am so glad to have had the opportunity to hear this talk. It is truly a challenging and relevant presentation of critical aspects of our spiritual life and commitment to God.
For me the talk had three components.
1. Isaiah’s teaching on the importance and priority of social justice. I have read all these passages many times before but never together. It was quite overwhelming.
2. The general Christadelphian attitude toward politically-based social reform.
3. Your personal comments on privilege.
It is Part 2 that I wish to comment on. 
This has always created tension for me. I have trouble reconciling my individual commitment to God with secular political/social responsibility. Not because I think that the particular social reform is unimportant or not needed but because I believe that these systemic problems are part of the work of Jesus and the saints in the Kingdom. The primary teaching of Jesus seems to me to be focused on personal reformation and the development of individual godliness. I do not see Jesus as a reformer other than in his persistent challenge of traditional Judaism – its limited views (as in sabbath keeping) – its incorrect application (as in Corban) its hyprocracy (in public prayers). I do not see in the teaching or example of Jesus the extension of personal godliness to the general social systems of society.
I see a differance between the OT (where the Isaiah passages apply) and the NT. In the OT context the Israelites are living together as a nation as the people of God.  Civil laws were based on Divine principle and the citizens of Israel were expected to live accordingly. Religious laws and principles were enacted in the application of civil law.
In the NT the people of God live as a people disbursed around the world. They do not live under one common political system nor are those systems based on Divine law.  I see no example in the NT of organized civil unrest or public protest in order to advance God principles or the teaching of Jesus.
Peter languished in jail while the disciples were sequestered praying together not protest. The disciples were instructed to preach not relieve the plight of the poor in a broad communal way. There is no NT injunction against the institution of slavery (an extensive, visible and harsh injustice) – then or now. NT teaching seems always to teach us to do our personal Godly best within the existing social structure – not endeavor to change the structure.
So Brother John – these are some initial reactions and thoughts to your stimulating exhortation.   Perhaps they display a serious flaw in my understanding or perhaps there is some additional perspectives I have not yet grasped. Your comments are appreciated. It was helpful and challenging.
Thank you for your good work.
With love in the Lord to you

My reply …

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. In giving the talk I was unprepared for how the topic would strike me emotionally in the moment, and then, how many people would watch it afterwards. I am glad it is provoking people to thought, though it was clearly lacking in analytic refinement :).
      I share your tension regarding politically-based action. On the one hand, the human institutions are frail and self centered and are prone to distort any good intentions. It’s for a good reason that we are exhorted, “don’t put your trust in the princes of men”. Without a doubt, our primary goal is to change hearts and minds, helping people to see the destructiveness of sin, and the opportunity of renewal in a relationship with God.      With slavery, you are quite right that Paul nowhere advocates its abolition. It’s interesting to ask why. I suspect it was that in the context of the time, the largest impact was to be gained on a personal level: You are one body, slave or free; Philemon, treat Onesimus as a brother; masters, remember you have a master in heaven; slaves, obey your masters (the rigors are only temporary), and if you have opportunity of freedom then take it. To advocate for the abolition of slavery in that society would have been counter-productive to Christianity and to the slaves themselves. Instead he spreads the seeds that would come to have that effect over time as the message of Christ grew.
      You said, “NT teaching seems always to teach us to do our personal Godly best within the existing social structure – not endeavor to change the structure.” I think I would rephrase is as: NT teaching seems always to teach us to do our personal Godly best within the existing social structure – and to endeavor to change the structure one person at a time. A supreme example of this is, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” It is an appeal to those in authority to examine themselves and consider whether their actions are misguided, and so to choose a different path.
      As (often) valued guests within our societies, we have opportunities for influence that don’t require us to abandon our deep allegiance to Christ. When Paul appeals to Caesar, he is not trying to save his own skin – he is seeking a judicial ruling that Christianity is a part of Judaism and hence an approved religion within the empire. While praying for those in authority that we may live peaceful lives (1 Tim 2), he also acted respectfully before those same authorities in an attempt to shift the societal norm. He ultimately failed, given the persecutions that broke out a few years later, but it was nonetheless the work of Christ that he should witness in the highest court of the land.
      Ultimately, I think it a path of personal conscience. Life (God) might present one person with a chance to advocate before those in authority, while another might find their ministry in helping the individual hurt by injustice. In the personal choice between compassion and aloofness, compassion must always win out. Walking by on the other side should not be an option we consider.
      Again, thank you for engaging in this. I think having our community willing to talk graciously to one another about how we bring the peace of Christ to everyday circumstance is critical.
      With love in Christ