Ronald Rolheiser tells this story.
Once upon a time there was a town that was built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in it. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the water. One body was dead so they buried it. One was alive, but quite ill, so they put that person into the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, which they placed with a family who cared for it and took it to school. From that day on, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river and, every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and look after them–taking the sick to the hospitals, placing the children with families and burying those who were dead.
This went for years. Each day would bring its bodies. The town began to be shaped by this daily event. Careful schemes of transportation, medical care and education were developed. Some people devoted their lives to this extraordinary ministry of compassion. The town acquired a deserved reputation for its generosity and became a model for caring action that was studied and copied in may place.
However despite all that generosity and effort, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from their sight what was above them, and find out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river.
This considers the difference between personal compassion and social justice. Personal compassion responds to the homeless, hurt and needy and seeks to make a difference at the point of contact but does not enquire further. Social justice goes round the bend in the river and finds out why there are homeless, hurt and needy and seeks to change the reason for their existence in the first place.
Recently we were asked to ponder the significance of the abolition of the slave trade for today’s world, where slavery continues still, and wonder what it means for Christian witness.
If our response is only about compassion, then I do not believe we have gone far enough.
Involvement in social justice is no easier for many Christians today than it was at the time of Olaudah Equiano or William Wilberforce.
It is more comfortable to stay at the level of compassion than go round the bend in the river and find out why the compassion is needed.
As one of our ministers said to me after hearing me tell this story. I am not sure whether I have the courage to go round that bend. I think that was very honest of him. It does take a sort of bravery because once you begin to bring justice into the mix of concern, guilt, compassion and re-dress that an act of kindness might involve it may make you face a lot more than you wish to.
What is social justice?
It is concerned with the system. It focuses on the political, economic, social, cultural, and religious systems that shape what happens and notices those who are unduly privileged by it and those who are unduly impoverished by it and wonders what can be done about it.
Social justice, it is said, is about changing the way the world is organized so that each individual is valued, equality is more common than rare and the environment is a gift for all and not for some.
For the Christian, social justice reflects the nature of God. We worship a God of Justice. Each day members of theIona say in their Daily Office these words:
“The world belongs to God/The earth and all its people
How good it is, how wonderful/To live together in unity
Love and faith come together/Justice and Peace join hands.”
These are demanding and challenging words as Karl Barth wrote, “God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on the side of the powerless and oppressed and on this side alone.
I suggest this biblical track for your thoughts and prayers:
Luke 4:16-22–Jesus declares his commitment to Just Compassion.
Luke 14:7-14–Jesus states who should come to your house to eat
Luke 19:1-10–Jesus puts that parable into action and Zacchaeus responds with restorative justice
Galatians 3:26-29–Paul declares a wonderful principle of our oneness in Christ
Deuteronomy 15:12-18–a slave owning society faces the need for reparation.
John 16:7-15–what more is the Spirit telling us today about justice and compassion for the enslaved?
John Rackley is minister of Manvers Street Baptist Church, Bath, England. This column appeared previously in The Baptist Times.