Written by Paul J Bucknell on February, 12, 2022
A Biblical Perspective of Social Justice Issues: A Biblical Overview of Social Justice (Part 2/4)
Part 2 expands on Exodus 12:35-26’s exposition by combining those insights with numerous other Biblical passages related to social justice and reparation. Part 1 presents a complete biblical treatment of Exodus 12:35-36, while Part 3 presents a beginning Biblical theology of social justice followed by Part 4 with suggested applications.
Need for a Broad Biblical Perspective
Worldly movements try to seize control over Christian minds by influencing thought. Though sounding Biblical and proper, the social justice movement leads people astray away from Biblical teaching.
Though our general concerns for fair treatment may unite us, we need to exercise caution. At the intersection of time, movements can appear similar but observed over time, each movement reveals its different sources and points to a different future trajectory.
Apparent similarities can deceive, leading us to accept those ideas of similar concern. Careful examination of a group’s source of understanding and passion, along with its projected path, may reveal great differences. We then wonder how we ever considered them to be the same. I have carefully studied social justice and reparation, and have concluded there are significant differences, at least in the way that modern theory presents it.
The origin of the modern theory of social justice is based on observations from man’s perspectives and offers limited solutions. The Biblical perspective is rooted in God’s character. The former believes humanity can work through the complexities of injustice—even though history has proven otherwise. The Biblical perspective allows the God of Justice to use the final judgment of man to exact His revenge and correct all inequities. Life doesn’t end on earth, nor does God’s justice.
God is the God of justice and righteousness—“Guarding the paths of justice” (Proverbs 2:8).
An increasing number of Christian voices base their goal and passion for social justice on the modern theory of social reparation and social justice. This approach is dangerous partly because their cause may appear compassionate and Christian. They cite various scriptural passages like Exodus 12:35-36 to promote these ideas, hoping Christians will conclude that it is biblical and God-rooted.
The original idea behind social reparation shares common roots with Socialism, taking money, often forcibly, from one group and giving it to another. They identify maltreatment based on one race’s oppression of another in our current time. Although this movement shares some common concerns about inequity with God’s perspective, it rushes off in the wrong direction. It assumes that the proposed solutions will resolve past grievances. But in effect, the movement wrests God’s authority from Him and claims to judge justly. Instead, further disharmony and inequity is injected into the situation from an inadequate understanding and lack of the Gospel’s teaching.
The Scriptures provide a helpful Biblical framework to approach these issues. It’s essential to examine the Word of God on this subject.
Some Christians earnestly interpret Exodus 12:35-36 and other Biblical passages to support social justice ideas. One blog writer concludes, “At least according to God, people deserve more than an apology or “a living wage” for the suffering they endure” (Michael). A pastor used Exodus 12:35-36 to build his congregation’s understanding of social reparation (Allan).
This section (Part 2) exposes the lack of Biblical support for this teaching by critiquing the main Biblical passages proposed to support social repayment. Part 3 presents how Christians should view and respond to social reparation and social justice Biblically.
We will first expand our treatment of Exodus 12:35-36 before looking at other Bible passages that weigh in on the teaching of social reparation.
Instruction from Exodus 12:35-36
God’s instruction for transferring wealth to the Israelites in Exodus 12:35-36 says absolutely nothing about societal reparation. Several hundred years had passed when an Egyptian king, who did not know Joseph, oppressed and mistreated the Israelites. He made slaves of the once free Israelites. We condemn the oppression of the Israelites and others in similar situations, such as the forced enslavement of individuals, past or present.
From the chart above, God’s Plan and Sign, the transfer of Egyptian wealth to the Israelites became God’s sign to prove His promise to Abram back in Genesis 15. Exodus 3 restates this promise to Moses 500 years later; in Exodus 12 we see the promise realized.
Neither this passage nor the parallel one in Exodus 3:21-22, say anything about this wealth exchange being Egypt’s “repayment” for services or redress for their wrongdoing—this idea is inserted, not in the text. The use of “plundered” directs us to a different conclusion. “The Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36). An Egyptian “repayment” distorts the glory of God’s promises, purposes, and actions.
God declared victory over the Egyptians. He kindly awarded the Israelites, whom He had graciously adopted as His own people. Exodus 12’s dominant idea demonstrates how severely God will judge those who oppose Him and His people.
Does Exodus 12:35-36 teach that the poor or oppressed have a right to demand repayment, or that those seeing such oppression have the proper judgment and authority to rebalance the situation?
These Bible verses do not support societal reparation, nor should they be used to validate wealth transfer. Nor should they be used to stir up clamor or demand redress from the rich. Part 1 shows how the context of Exodus 12 and the specific word ‘plundered’ present a completely opposite viewpoint and not to an Egyptian repayment. Instead of paying grievances, God used this gift of wealth to celebrate His adoption of the Israelites as His own. Like a birthday, Passover became the first year for the Israelites to be known as God’s people.
Egypt did not transfer wealth to the Israelites to be kind or placate their oppressive ways; they simply lost the fight against God. God the Victor judged Egypt, took hold of all the Egyptians’ wealth and redistributed the plunder to His newly adopted people, the Israelites.
To sum up, God released His new people by judging Egypt. God, as Victor, gained Egypt’s wealth and distributed much of it to His new people to celebrate their belonging to Him.
This conclusion should not mean that God, Christians in general, or I am against justice. I only propose how God views and treats injustice and our part in correcting of society’s ills. In this case, God’s incredible, kind mercy, later found in the Gospel of Christ, towers far above man’s limited schemes of trying to correct injustices for crimes crossing many generations, causing deep wounds.
Bible Teachings on Social Justice and Restitution
Cultural or societal reparation is the expectation or demand that the welfare of one group depends on the repayment of another. Behind this thinking is the assumption that one group has illegally profited from another and redistributed its wealth to bring equity. This modern theory infers there will not and should not be any peace or progress until past sins are rectified.
So, where is this taught in the Bible? If Exodus 12 doesn’t teach social reparation, where do we find support for it in the Bible? We don’t. Several Bible passages seem to convey such an idea. We must take a careful look at these and other passages to help us better understand how Christians should view societal injustice.
God Conducts Justice (Psalm 11:5-6)
God is the supreme Judge and conducts justice.
God is committed and able to judge, being fully involved in exercising His role of Supreme Justice. Before assuming man’s ability or duty to correct societal injustices, it’s wise to refresh our minds on God’s role.
“5 The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates. 6 Upon the wicked He will rain snares; Fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup” (Psalm 11:5-6).
The Lord judges all, the righteous and wicked. God possesses a means to “test” all people; He knows all their thoughts and activities, holding them accountable to his standards. He calls those who violate His laws wicked and threatens to bring the worse of judgments upon them: “fire and brimstone.”
God hasn’t surrendered His position as Judge, but “He has established His throne for judgment.” What isn’t settled on earth according to His judgment, He the Judge, vows to finally settle.
“7 But the Lord abides forever; He has established His throne for judgment, 8 and He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgment for the peoples with equity” (Psalm 9:7-8).
Man’s social conscience necessarily rests upon God’s supreme judgment because he was made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Judicial questions thrust themselves in front of us, and therefore, courts and judges are found worldwide (Prov 8:15). We take it to be our duty to conduct judgment, however, because of sin, this judgment can—unlike God—be impartial, corrupted, or neglected (Prov 1:3; 2:9). When justice faces delays, injustice grows (Luke 18:7). Likewise, societies suffer painful consequences when standards deviate from God’s (Rom 1:18-25). Others, with no concern for justice—though perhaps using the judicial system, misuse the issues to make money or gain a reputation (Rom 1:32).
The social justice movement finds traction in the injustice we see around us. Holding a measure of sensitivity to standards, they discern the wrongs and seek retribution.
The Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21)
God gets involved in social justice.
King David once sought an explanation from the Lord for the three-year famine the nation experienced. He discovered it was due to how the previous king, King Saul, had mistreated and killed off many Gibeonites (2 Sam 21:1-3), a clear example of societal injustice.
“1 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the presence of the Lord. And the Lord said, “It is for Saul and his bloody house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them (now the Gibeonites were not of the sons of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites, and the sons of Israel made a covenant with them, but Saul had sought to kill them in his zeal for the sons of Israel and Judah). 3 Thus David said to the Gibeonites, “What should I do for you? And how can I make atonement that you may bless the inheritance of the Lord?”” (2 Sam 21:1-3).
David rectified the situation by following the Gibeonites’ wishes, who graciously refused a wealth transfer of silver and gold; nor did they insist on a mass killing to take revenge. God showed His disapproval of the injustice by bringing the famine. King David, however, wanted to remedy the situation. In his false zeal, King Saul led this genocidal attack on the Gibeonites, with whom Joshua, in a previous generation, had made a covenant of protection (Joshua 9-10).
The Gibeonites, in response, asked only for the lives of King Saul’s seven sons. David cooperated with their request, giving over seven men attached to King “Saul and his bloody house.” David excluded Saul’s grandson, Mephibosheth, with whom David made a personal covenant (2 Sam 21:7).
Interestingly, God saw this crime and commanded the famine to correct this situation. His people, Israel, had broken a promise to the Gibeonites. Past wounds cry out to God for justice. While God does, as in this instance, partially judge nations and groups, complete judgment will take place on Judgment Day. He promises to take full revenge, carefully judging mankind’s sins for eternity.
This passage highlights God’s attention to injustice and reminds us that God judges His people so that the land might have peace. It’s a mistake to use this passage to justify one group’s demand to make redress on behalf of an oppressed group. The Gibeonites handled their affair. We see the Gibeonites, mercifully, did not take possession of the former king’s wealth and possessions. Nor was anger and hatred stirred up. Their actions resulted in peace. This incident provides a timely reminder for government leaders to hold people accountable for their injustices to take proper recompense.
Limitations of Earthly Judgment (Habakuk)
God does not resolve all social justice issues now on earth.
God often judges one nation by another. One bad dynasty replaces another, one grabbing loot from the other. Are victors righteous? No. We read Habakkuk’s cry for understanding when God raised the wicked Chaldeans to judge Israel (Hab 1:1-6).
“For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs” (Hab 1:6)
The victory of one nation, such as the Chaldeans over the sinful Israelites, did not make them more right or innocent. The victors typically severely oppress the defeated. All have sinned and gone astray (Rom 3:10-12), but God sometimes uses the wicked to bring partial judgment. As the Book of Habakkuk teaches, such judgment is incomplete, awaiting God’s further judgment. The Assyrians would later judge the Chaldeans, but even still, the Chaldeans will one day meet their Maker in heaven when He fully settles their account.
We need to be careful not to assume that redressing one group’s complaints satisfies God’s piercing demand for justice; it might just cause more inequity.
The Delay of Justice (Jonah)
God seeks to bring mercy before judgment.
God mercifully delays judgment. Any delay of judgment becomes an extension of time, an opportunity to correct one’s paths. Nineveh, a wicked nation, found mercy from God and repented after hearing His prophet, Jonah.
“5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them….10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:5,10).
The unmistakable message in the Book of Jonah is not on forced reparation but providing a glimpse of God’s mercy for any who repent and confess one’s sins. God’s warning message brought God-awareness, self-discovery, and repentance, leading to their correction. Repentance means turning 180 degrees away from evil ways and making any necessary restitution. We will see this more clearly when we look at Zaccheus.
Instead of a man forcing one group to repay another, God brings general conviction to a group, allowing them to perceive their responsibility. In this case, Nineveh repented and corrected its behavior, which brought personal redress (Jonah 3:5-7).
God looks more broadly than we do at unjust situations that beg for rectification, perhaps because God simultaneously perceives everyone’s sins.
Prejudicial Treatment (Acts 6)
Correction for prejudice is not necessarily financial reparation.
Jewish Christians in the early church neglected the less favored Greek-influenced Hebrews in Acts 6:1-6. The distribution to the widows favored the native Hebrews over the Hellenized Jewish Christians.
“Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food” (Acts 6:1).
The leaders did not increase friction between the groups but rather paid heed to the complaints. Nor did they force repayment. Instead of chasing past wrongs, they made changes for the future.
The solution came through wise leadership changes. The idea of “deacon” came about at this time. The leaders chose numerous well-respected men from the marginalized group to oversee the fair distribution of the meals.
The new leaders represented the Hellenized Jews and possessed godly, admirable character. Otherwise, they cause undesirable situations with payoffs and profiteering, often found in the administration of secular/government programs today. (What a crime when social aid monies distributed to developing countries mostly end up in the pockets of government leaders!)
The Persians (Nehemiah and Ezra)
Reparation must come from the guilty to satisfy justice.
They often cite Cyrus, the Persian emperor, as proof of the need to interject social justice. They allege his return of the Israelite’s temple objects back to Jerusalem upon rebuilding the temple serves as an example of social reparation (taken away and returned). But this is opposite to the modern-day idea of reparation, which falls far short of supporting social redress.
Babylon crushed Israel, not the Persians. The Persians could not “repay” what they did not owe! Persia, as victor, had its policies, with no regard to Babylon, whom they defeated. Persia had no intention to make reparation to the Babylonians, even if possible; they were their defeated enemy!
2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel; He is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 Every survivor, at whatever place he may live, let the men of that place support him with silver and gold, with goods and cattle, together with a freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem’” (Ezra 1:2-4).
Furthermore, Biblical support for societal reparation confuses the issue using the events associated with Nehemiah and Ezra’s return to Jerusalem with the Jews. Returning the temple objects was not repayment to the people for their grievances; the emperor had other purposes. For justice to be satisfied, social reparation requires that the evildoers compensate for their personal wrongdoing, not to make restitution for other people or another period.
Zacchaeus and Personal Restitution
Personal restitution significantly differs from societal reparation.
The Bible teaches personal restitution; people are accountable for how they have mistreated others, causing an infraction of the law of love. Restoring what was stolen and repairing broken relationships remain essential aspects of the Christian faith.
The tax collector, Zacchaeus, once lived for the pursuit of money, which allowed him to transgress fairness laws, whether written or in conscience. Upon hearing Jesus’ words, Zacchaeus personally recognized his past misdeeds and made restitution for them by God’s grace.
“8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” 9And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:8-9).
Here are a few points to note.
Those following Jesus received changed hearts, which altered their pursuits and commitments. Repentance results from this heart change. Jesus didn’t force Zacchaeus to make these changes, but the Spirit within him prompted him to rectify his past misdeeds—clearing his conscience. Jesus declared this as a turning point in Zacchaeus’ life.
- Zacchaeus no longer treasured the world’s wealth; Jesus changed him.
- He showed his changed heart by announcing how he would repay those he had “stolen.”
- He went beyond restoring what he stole by giving up to four times more than what he had defrauded.
- Jesus saw Zacchaeus’ declaration as a sign of the true spiritual work that belief in Christ brings.
Jesus cares for justice and redress of the pillaged, but this is not the focal point of His ministry but rather its result. Jesus came the first time to bring mercy, calling people to God’s light and love.
“For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). While the light still shines, Jesus still pursues our hearts through the proclamation of the Gospel. On Judgment Day, the Lord will rectify the multitude of unaddressed inequities.
Note what Jesus did not do. He did not mandate that all rich people pay the poor, assuming they got their riches from underhanded ways. Nor did Jesus gather the oppressed people, telling them to demand their wealth back from tax collectors or others like their Roman oppressors. There is absolutely no indication of this talk among Jesus or His followers. If anything, Jesus calls us to give up our love and attachment to wealth.
James and Oppressive Owners (James 5:4,9)
Contentment with God’s vengeance brings peace.
James reveals how God observes the rich man’s mistreatment of his workers. Early in the Old Testament, paying fair and prompt wages is taught (Lev 19:13).
“Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabbath” (James 5:4).
“Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:9).
James not only condemns the oppressive business owners but instructs the mistreated to “not complain.” Instead, they are to make room for “the Judge…at the door,” that is, don’t begrudge the unjust but let God handle it His way.
James calls the oppressed to repress their complaints and protests as part of their duty and trust in God, who alone serves as Judge. Through societal reparations, the push for social justice regularly instigates complaints, hatred, and violence leading to conflict. Modern Critical Race Theory adapts Marxism, which exacerbated inequality between economic classes and caused mass murders in numerous countries like Russia and China. Instead of calling for one group to blame the other for their problems, James addresses the future by his instructions, “Don’t complain!”
(If there are other Biblical passages I missed, please send them to me to address. I want to be fair!)
God judges the nations even as He judges individuals. Still, whatever forms of judgment occur on earth, such as in the prophets Isaiah or Amos, are partial and temporary, awaiting full vindication upon Christ’s return on Judgment Day.
People rightly seek justice, but to correct past injustices is not straightforward due to our limited knowledge. God states justice as His prerogative,
“‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).
People cannot rightly judge what is fair or needed for matters with other individuals or groups from the past; this is God’s responsibility.
People should focus instead on making corrections for their wrongdoing, past or present. Delays in judgment offer opportunities for a better life through correcting one’s wrongs; Zacchaeus made a brilliant new start. James stated that prompt and fair payment should extend to our businesses and practices.
God holds all people everywhere, repressed or not, personally accountable for correcting their wrongs. Beyond this, God will one day conduct His heavenly courtroom to straighten out mankind’s earthly affairs finally.
While the Bible often mentions or refers to the need for personal restitution, it does not teach social reparations. It’s wrong to confuse societal reparation with the Biblical teaching of personal restitution since it differs in ability, purpose, and payment. While people can rectify their own wrongs, this significantly differs from forcing countries, a society, or groups to make retribution for their past wrongs. This does not mean they shouldn’t or are not accountable to do so, but that God alone can judge.
Some Biblical Principles of Justice
Part 3 develops and coordinates principles from these Biblical passages and themes by initiating a Biblical theology of justice and providing a practical approach to the problems we see due to injustice.
- Only God can keep adequate records, as we do not know the complete list of wrongs. Therefore, God insists on revenge belonging to Him alone (Rom 12:19; Mat 5:23-25).
- Children are not responsible for their fathers’ evils (Ez 18:1-3).
- The correction of mankind’s sins exceeds our capacity or understanding. People individually and groups everywhere suffer. God is Judge (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim 4:1).
- God holds those who make oaths and covenants with others more accountable (Mat 5:33-37; Ecc 5:4-7).
- The Spirit of Christ seeks to work within a culture through His people. His salt and light restrain evil and proclaim right, rather than bringing immediate judgment (John 3:17; Mat 5:13-16).
- As people follow Jesus, they can treat their neighbors kindly, personally helping them (Eph 4:28).
- People are responsible for being kind, humble, patient, and forgiving one another (Eph 4:31-32).
- Lastly, we can trust God for judgment. “I said to myself, “God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,” for a time for every matter and for every deed is there” (Ecclesiastes 3:17).
Discussion Questions on Reparation or Reward? (Part 2/3)
- Finish the statement, “Guarding the paths of _______” (Proverbs 2:8).
- Review the top diagram, A Brief Intersection in Time, and explain its help in discerning the nature of movements about us.
- Explain how Exodus 12:35-36 does not support social justice or societal reparation.
- Why didn’t Jonah want to go to Nineveh (Jonah 4:1-3)? What does this show about God’s purpose for delaying justice?
- Why is the example of Persia returning temple property to the Jews not an example of societal reparation?
- Name one principle we learn from the prejudice of a group of people in Acts 6.
- Read Luke 19:1-10 and use Zacchaeus’ example of demonstrating person restitution.
- How does the author teach that personal restitution is quite different from societal reparation as it is being taught today?
- Do other Bible passages apply to social reparation or social justice teaching? Name them and see if it teaches the same as above or different.
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