Our culture teaches us that social justice is the work of a few; the leaders, the movers and shakers, the ones who are called to the front like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mohandas Ghandi.
But the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, include social justice as the work of all the faithful:
Proverbs 31:8Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.9 Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.
Isaiah 1 16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Like Moses, you may think this kind of action is better suited to some silver-tongued orator. But in fact, the work of justice is the work of all the faithful precisely because of who we are and how limited we feel. Speaking out requires courage; it pushes us beyond our comfort zone and forces us to rely on God. Our particular testimony, the words we use, the experiences we bring, are crucially important to the power of what we say.
Years ago, I worked with a neighborhood leader who was a clinical technician in the Emergency Department of a large teaching hospital. Initially, she was very shy. In order to speak out for the rights of people who did not have access to health insurance, she had to read off carefully written notecards. Even her name. She couldn’t look at anyone while she spoke. At the beginning of every speech, she began with “my name is S. and I work at Y”. But the story she told of working in a world-class hospital and worrying every day that she would get hurt and not be able to support her family because she didn’t have health insurance – that story brought people to tears, every time.
Speaking up for others is a discipline because it changes us. When we put the needs of others ahead of our comfort, or our desire to be socially acceptable, our hearts and minds grow.
And how do we know that something is unjust? If we listen to our guts, we know. Sometimes injustice is clothed in platitudes. Sometimes it looks and feels violent. Often it is just the absence of a particular group of people who have been left out because of their color, or their disability or their age. If we look clearly and lovingly around us, we can see injustice.
We don’t need a podium or a microphone. Sometimes the most powerful speech for others is delivered at the kitchen table or the manager’s office or in front of the school. When it is clear that someone is being treated unjustly, we need to speak up, trusting that God will give us the words and the courage to use them.
Speaking up is a discipline; we need to practice it. Sometimes it will feel powerful, and sometimes it won’t seem to have any effect. But like other disciplines, we need to keep doing it, to change ourselves and the world.