Social Justice

The social justice tradition – the compassionate life

This tradition concentrates on Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God – what would the world look like if God, and not Cesar (or Obama, Harper, Monsanto, Enron, etc) were leader. Jesus’ call is to live lives dedicated to resisting oppression in all its forms – deliberate and systemic – and working for justice and compassion.

This tradition focusses on justice and shalom in all human relationships and social structures; it is the compassionate way of living. We need to be scandalized by the blatant injustices that somehow have become so commonplace that no one seems to notice. All acts of injustice emerge from an abuse of power; power is used to manipulate, control, destroy.

Amos is a great biblical example; he lived in the Golden Age of Israel and felt compelled to remind the well-off that they were neglecting the poor, through a corrupt legal system, unbridled wealth accumulation and self-centredness. Amos often took aim at the religious life of Israel, which was opulent while the people neglected the marginalized.

The Jewish Scriptures are full of examples of what social justice might mean: the Jubilee Year, the law of gleaning, etc. Economically and socially, the vision of shalom means a caring and a consideration for all peoples. Under the reign of God’s shalom, the poor are no longer oppressed because ravaging greed no longer rules.

In this tradition, we work in three arenas: the personal, the social, and the institutional structures. We use prophetic witness, especially in the area of institutional structures. We become the conscience of the various expressions of institutional life.

The strengths of this tradition are: it constantly calls us to a right ordering of society. It promotes harmony in relationships between peoples so that we can learn to live together with genuine appreciation. It provides a bridge between personal ethics and social ethics. It gives relevance and bite to the language of Christian love. It provides a foundation for our ecological concern. It constantly holds before us the relevance of the impossible ideal of God’s reign. It corrects the sometimes pietistic approach of the Holiness tradition, and helps the Evangelical tradition to preach a Gospel relevant to time and place.

There are perils to this tradition: it tends to become an end in itself. It can become legalistic and judgmental. It can become too closely associated with a particular political agenda. As with any of these six streams, taken alone, it leads to distortions and desolation – when, for instance, moral outrage and frustration is not tempered by a deep sense of God’s Presence despite the appearances – but in combination with, say, the contemplative tradition or the incarnational tradition, the social justice tradition can focus on action and social change, while remaining grounded in the patience and love of God.


The principal names associated with this tradition are:


Order of Widows ( 1st – 4th cent) history

Aidan of Lindisfarne (? – 651) bio

Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) bio; biblio

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) bio; biblio

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) bio; biblio

Jean-Baptiste Vianney (1786-1859) bio; biblio

Susan B Anthony (1820-1906) bio; biblio

William Booth (1829-1912) bio; audio bibliography of sermons

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) bio; biblio

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) bio; biblio

Mother Teresa (1910-1997) bio; an on-line biography with bibliography

Rosa Parks (1913-) bio; biblio

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) bio and biblio

Desmond Tutu (1931-) bio and biblio

Jean Vanier (1928-) bio and biblio