Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

Social justice is where the central issue in the Holiness Tradition—love—meets the road. Dag Hammarskjöld wrote, “The road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”1 And so the supernatural resources to live appropriately—to live the virtuous life—now extend out into our relationships with people and with social structures and even with the earth itself.

Two Sweeping Movements

The fulcrum for the Social Justice Tradition is Matthew 22:37-40: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”2 

In Jesus’ day there were 613 commandments of Jewish law—365 negative and 248 positive. And Jesus gathers them all together into two sweeping movements of the heart. Love of God is the vertical movement and love of neighbor the horizontal. They are separate commandments, to be sure, but inseparable really. White-hot love of God compels us into compassionate love of neighbor. 

In Luke’s rendering of this teaching a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b). That is a good question. The common view of that day was that “neighbor” meant “cultural equivalent”: the person who looks like me, dresses like me, thinks like me. To explode that common view of neighbor, Jesus tells the now-famous story of a Samaritan—someone who is definitely not the Jew’s cultural equivalent—who showed compassion on a beaten and broken Jew, the avowed enemy of the Samaritan. That’s it! Neighbor, says Jesus, is “nigh-bor,” the person near us, the person in need. Jesus refuses to put walls around the word neighbor. No national heritage, no racial origin, no ethnic background, no barriers of class or culture can separate us from our neighbor. 

Paul gives this same issue memorable expression when he says, “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11). I especially like this listing because Paul includes the Scythian in it. The Scythians were the barbarian’s barbarians—Josephus called them “wild beasts.” But in Jesus even the Scythian is my neighbor, whom I am to love as myself. 

In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus pushes the horizontal movement of love of neighbor to the nth degree. In this teaching he reminds us that loving our “cultural equivalent” is nothing new; the unrighteous do as much. Instead, he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Here we come to an understanding of neighbor that few can handle: our enemy is our neighbor. 

Now, loving our enemies is simply not in us in natural human strength. Most of us cannot view it as a good thing, much less carry it out. Even to want to love our enemies demands a power outside of us, which is precisely why the vertical movement of love is so essential to the horizontal movement of love. Love of God makes love of neighbor possible.

Three Great Themes 

The Social Justice Tradition embraces three great themes—themes that are wonderfully summed up in three Hebrew words: מִשְׁפָּט (mishpat), חֶסֶד (hesed) , and שָׁלוֹם (shalom).3 

Technically mishpat means “justice,” but it is an expansive word rich in meaning, carrying social, ethical, and religious connotations. It involves a morality over and above strict legal justice; it includes observance of good custom or established practice, especially the practice of an equitable distribution of the land. It is used so constantly in conjunction with the Hebrew word for righteousness (צָדַק) that the biblical scholar Volkmar Herntrich believes the two concepts should be viewed as virtually synonymous.4 

We are told that God “executes justice [mishpat] for the orphan and the widow, and… loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). And again the Psalmist declared, “The LORD works vindication and justice [mishpat] for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6). 

This justice involved the wisdom to bring equitable, harmonious relationships between people. When Solomon prayed for the wisdom to govern the people justly, God responded, “You… have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right [mishpat]” (1 Kings 3:11). 

Political leaders were expected to exercise this quality of ethical compassion, of justice, on behalf of all the people. Micah accused the rulers of Israel of economic cannibalism for their brutal injustice: 

Should you not know justice? you who…
eat the flesh of my people,
flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a caldron. (Micah 3:1b-3)

Jeremiah was brokenhearted that justice could not be found anywhere in all Jerusalem, though a person would “run to and fro” through every street (Jer. 5:1). 

God had institutionalized a system of compassionate justice through such things as the law of gleaning and the Year of Jubilee, but political leaders in Israel had institutionalized a system of hardened injustice, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,” lamented Isaiah, “and the writers who keep writing oppression” (Isa. 10:1, RSV). God, we are told, abhors all Judah’s pious rituals because they lack social relevance. The fast God desires is for people to “loose the bonds of injustice” and to “let the oppressed go free.” God’s justice, God’s mishpat, is for the people to “share your bread with the hungry, / and bring the homeless poor into your house” (Isa. 58:5-7, RSV). This is social justice. 

Hesed holds before us the great theme of compassion. It is a word so laden with meaning that translators struggle to find an English equivalent, often rendering it “loving kindness” or “steadfast love.” It is a word most frequently used in reference to God’s unwavering compassion for his people. God’s wonderful hesed love is “from everlasting to everlasting,” declared the Psalmist (Ps. 103:17). It is a “steadfast love” that “endures forever” (Ps. 106:1). 

But the great challenge for us is that this covenant love, this durable mercy that is so central to the character of God, is to be reflected in us as well. Through Hosea the prophet, God declares, “I desire steadfast love [hesed] and not sacrifice, / the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). 

Sprinkled throughout the Hebrew Scriptures are grace-filled laws of compassion, of hesed. The law of gleaning, mentioned earlier, is a prime example. Farmers were to leave some of the crop along the borders and the grain that fell on the ground during harvest so that the poor could gather it (Lev. 19:9-20). Likewise the vineyards and the olive groves were not to be stripped bare, in order to make provision for the needy. There seemed in this law to be an almost holy indifference as to whether the poor deserved their poverty; the simple fact of need was sufficient reason to provide for them. 

Think of the tender compassion in the old Hebrew laws of giving and taking a pledge. If someone borrowed your oxcart and left his coat in pledge, you had to be sure to give the coat back before sunset even if he hadn’t finished with the oxcart. Why? Because the night air was cold, and he would need his coat for warmth. The rule was doubly binding if the person who made the pledge was poor, for in all likelihood he had no other coat with which to keep warm (Deut. 24:12). A widow’s coat could not be taken as a pledge, because she was helpless enough as it was (Deut. 24:17). A millstone was never to be taken in pledge; after all, it was a person’s livelihood (Deut. 24:6). No one was ever to barge into a neighbor’s house to retrieve what had been loaned; rather, the lender was to wait at the front door for it to be brought out (Deut. 24:10-11). Graciousness, courtesy, compassion—this is hesed

Hesed is a quality that extends even to the animals and the land. The sabbath rest principle of Hebrew law included the needs of the livestock (Exod. 23:12). After seven years of planting and harvesting, the land itself needed “a year of complete rest” (Lev. 25:5). Even the soil of the vineyards was not to be overtaxed by planting other crops between the rows (Deut. 22:9). The oxen that trod out the grain were not to be muzzled so that they could eat while they worked (Deut. 25:4). And so on. The whole point of this instruction was that our dominion over the earth and the little creatures that creep upon it is to be filled with compassion. We should not rape the earth but manage and care for it—kindly, lovingly, tenderly. This too is social justice. 

Most amazing of all is the way the biblical writers wove together the justice of mishpat with the compassion of hesed. To give people justice—what is due them—that is one thing; but the spirit out of which we give and the way we relate to people in our giving, well, that is another thing altogether. In what must be considered one of the most powerful summations of our task in all Hebrew Scripture, we see the blending of the demands of justice with the spirit of compassion. 

He has showed you, O people, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly [mishpat] and to love mercy [hesed]
and to walk humbly with your God. (Mic. 6:8, NIVI)

If mishpat and hesed are spotlights illuminating various dimensions of the Social Justice Tradition, then shalom is a great beacon. A full-bodied concept that gathers in but is much broader than peace, shalom means wholeness, unity, balance. Shalom embodies the vision of a harmonious, all-inclusive community of loving persons. The great vision of shalom begins and ends our Bible. In the creation narrative, God brings order and harmony out of chaos; in the Apocalypse of John people from all the nations form a loving community in “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” which has no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Gen. 1, Rev. 21). 

The messianic child to be born is the “Prince of Peace,” and justice and righteousness and peace are to characterize his unending kingdom (Isa. 9:6-7). Central to the dream of shalom is the magnificent vision of all nations streaming to the mountain of the temple of God to be taught his ways and walk in his paths: 

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa. 2:2-4) 

Shalom conveys the idea of a harmonious unity in the natural order as well: the wolf and the calf become friends, the lion and the lamb lie down together, “and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:1-9). We are in harmony with God; faithfulness and loyalty prevail. We are in harmony with our neighbor; justice and mercy abound. We are in harmony with nature; peace and unity reign. This is the vision of shalom

Economically and socially, the vision of shalom means a caring and a consideration for all peoples. The greed of the rich is tempered by the need of the poor. Justice, harmony, and equipoise prevail. Under the reign of God’s shalom the poor are no longer oppressed, because ravaging greed no longer rules. 

In a particularly tender scene, Jeremiah lamented the fraud and greed of his day, saying, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). In essence, Jeremiah had filed a malpractice suit against self-styled religious quacks. They had put a Band-Aid over a gaping social wound and said, “Shalom, shalom—all is well.” But Jeremiah thundered back, “En shalom—all is not well. Justice is spurned, the poor are oppressed, the orphan is ignored. There is no wholeness, no healing here!” 

But the healing shalom of God will not be spurned forever, for Jeremiah could see a day when God would make a new covenant with his people: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:33b-34). 

Mishpat, hesed, shalom—these are perspectives that inform our vision of the Social Justice Tradition. May the day soon come when “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Ps. 85:10). 

Three Great Arenas 

We work for social justice within three great arenas, and we are given weapons of the Spirit specifically designed for effective use in the context of each of these arenas. 

The first arena in the struggle for social justice is the personal arena. This is critical, for we cannot work for justice and live injustice; we cannot work for peace and live war; we cannot work for racial reconciliation and live bigotry. So we stand against all forms of pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust within ourselves, for these destroy the good we would do in the world. We take the issues of sexual purity and rectitude with utter seriousness, for sexual distortion dehumanizes ourselves and others. We repudiate and crucify the self-sins within: self-promotion, self-pity, self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, self-worship. We attack the inner citadels of arrogance and independence. 

Then too we pursue and embrace the cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice, along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. We commit ourselves to honesty in all business dealings, integrity in all words and deeds, purity in all matters of morality, generosity of spirit in all things, and divine love toward all peoples. 

Many weapons of the Spirit are employed in this work, but the one most specifically useful in the personal arena is prayer. In prayer we wait in the power of God for the evil to dissipate and the good to rise up. By prayer we receive spiritual enabling to overpower the egoism that drives us so relentlessly. Through prayer we develop the longing, the yearning to sink down deep into the things of God. From prayer we discern the actions we are to take to overcome evil with good. All this we will need to sustain us in the struggle for social righteousness. 

The second arena is the social arena. This begins on the level of interpersonal relationships: marriages and families and friends and neighbors and work associates and all those who curse us and spitefully use us. As much as it lies within us, we live in peace with all people. This is the work of healing and reconciliation, of compassion and shalom

You may remember that the first internal controversy the early church faced after Pentecost was an issue of social justice. The widows of the Greek-speaking Jews were being discriminated against in the daily food distribution. This was at its heart a spiritual problem, and the apostles used an organizational means to solve it. Deacons who were “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” were appointed to oversee the food distribution (Acts 6:3). And just look at the grace and compassion of the community in solving this problem of discrimination: all those chosen had Greek names, meaning that they were from the aggrieved group. May we have the same grace and compassion in dealing with justice in our churches. 

This work of social justice extends on out to the larger social context of our culture: school boards and community clubs and civic organizations and city commissions, and much more. Into all these social networks we bring love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). We feed the hungry. We help the helpless. We reach out to the orphan, the widow, the weak, the shoved aside. We take the struggle for justice into the American slums and the Brazilian barrios and the Indian sweathouses and the Cambodian houses of prostitution. 

As before, we engage in the work of reconciliation and healing, but we do more too. We look for those who are excluded or neglected because of their social status, or their race, or their background, or their gender, or their age, or any number of other things. And we lobby for their acceptance and welcome and embrace into the social network. We also look to see if there are social networks that are destructive to human life—networks that manipulate and control, networks that exclude and reject. These are not difficult to identify if we have eyes to see. Then, depending upon the situation, our task is either to work for their transformation or their defeat. 

In addition, we look for any relationships or networks that need to be established for the health and welfare of the community—a new group to foster healthy families, perhaps, or to counter child abuse or to combat racism. Whatever, wherever, whoever. 

Our major weapon in this work is Christian community. Now, when I speak of “Christian community,” I am referring not just to the work of churches, and certainly not churches as they are often manifest today. I am speaking of an alternative way of living that shows forth social life as it is meant to be lived. Communities of love and acceptance. Fellowships of freedom and liberation. Centers of hope and vision. Societies of nurture and accountability. Little pockets of life and light so stunning that a watching world will declare, “See how they love one another!” 

The third arena in our work for social justice is the arena of institutional structures. Demonic powers can be incarnated in the structures of any society, becoming part of the public policy and laws of the land. When Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem, he was defeating an institutional structure that had become destructive. 

Justice and goodness too can be built into institutional structures, within limits. I say “within limits” because just laws, while right and necessary, can never guarantee the spirit out of which those laws will be administered. 

In the institutional arena we engage in “the cultural mandate.” Our task is to envision and work to realize a society where it is easier to do good and harder to do evil; a society with institutions and laws and public policies that provide justice for all and enhanced life for all. 

Where structures perpetuate poverty, we work to change them. Where structures dehumanize, we work to make them more responsive to human need. In addition, we welcome and work for all institutions that enhance art and beauty. It is instructive that all through Dorothy Day’s intense ministry among the poor, she never lost her love of beauty or her love of the theater and the arts. 

Now, the battlefronts in the institutional arena are myriad, and some of them are terribly complicated, for they become all tangled up in historical allegiances and cultural traditions and political interests. But face them we must. The plight of the unborn. Problems of poverty and housing. Issues of nationalism and militarism. Of war and peace. Of racism. Of sexism. Of ageism. Of consumerism. Of environmentalism. 

I warned you that some of these matters would get complicated. I certainly have here neither the space nor the wisdom to stake out a position on all the areas I have just listed (not to mention the areas I have not listed). But I would encourage us all to struggle with these issues in the light of the principle of a consistent life ethic, whereby we seek to discern what position and what approach will be the most life-giving to all people. We look for ways to break the horns of cruel dilemmas. We seek out the ways most expressive of love of God and love of neighbor, the touchstone of the Social Justice Tradition. 

Prophetic witness is the weapon most useful in the institutional arena. We are the conscience to the various expressions of institutional life, most particularly the state. We commend the state when it provides justice for all, and we bring prophetic critique when it fails. This is done in many ways. John Woolman wrote and spoke and petitioned against the institution of slavery. He also refused to wear dyed clothing that was the product of slave labor. Later many Quakers engaged in civil disobedience against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, which made it illegal to help runaway slaves. They felt that a higher law compelled them to disobey the unjust laws of human government. Some people have been drawn into similar protests today. When we are so drawn, we must act in a manner consistent with the commandments to love God and love neighbor: we must conduct peaceful, nonviolent, prophetic protest. This too is the work of social justice. 

Obviously the nature and kind of prophetic witness varies greatly depending on whether the state is participatory or totalitarian. William Wilberforce labored in a participatory state, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a totalitarian state.5 Both gave effective prophetic witness. Both understood by experience the penetrating words of Donald Bloesch: “The Gospel is a stick of dynamite in the social structure.”6

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Excerpted from Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster, published by HarperOne. Copyright Richard J. Foster. Used with permission.

[1] Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, trans. Leif Sjöberg and W-H. Auden (New York: Ballantine, 1993), p. 103. 70.

[2] Jesus is here drawing from two Hebrew traditions: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

[3] I have written more extensively on these matters in my book Freedom of Simplicity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981). The section here is a summation of that teaching.

[4] See the article “The OT Term מִשְׁפָּט” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975). Expanded information on the use of mishpat in the Hebrew Scriptures can be found in this excellent article.

[5] William Wilberforce was a British statesman who labored tirelessly to abolish the slave trade in England. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) is a Russian writer whose book The Gulag Archipelago is a devastating critique of Stalin’s totalitarianism.

[6] See Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology , vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), p. xi

Originally published October 1998.