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Christianity - Social Justice

This GCSE RE Christianity takes a look at social justice. It could well be argued that social justice belongs right at the top of the Christian agenda. A Christian perspective on the (Old Testament) Prophets shows that their message was often along such lines as ‘When God’s chosen one [the Messiah] comes to reign, under His new order all present forms of inequality will be abolished’. And at one of the earliest stages of the Incarnation, when the angel tells Mary she is to be the Mother of God, her response ~ in the form of a canticle, known by its Latin title ‘Magnificat’ ~ makes significant reference to God raising the lowly while bringing the mighty low. Such notions set the tenor for Jesus’ ministry and teachings, and of course for His supreme self-sacrifice to bring back even the most wretched into potential communion with their Maker.

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Now that (as Teresa of Avila put it, in the 16th century) ‘Christ has no body now on earth but ours’, it is the calling of living Christian followers to do all they can to right wrongs and do away with avoidable ills, which leaves the challenge of plenty of scope. In some countries the Church, in its various forms, can work openly alongside the statutory authorities: providing relief for those on the margins of society, for instance, through activities, food-banks and help programmes. In places where Christianity is regarded with suspicion, hostility or repression, there would be other challenges again, and maintaining one’s own faith-observances and doing quiet deeds of Christian charity would be particularly difficult.

Indeed, freedom of religion is itself a basic human right for which Christians and others need to campaign ~ respectfully but firmly, as in all they set out to do.

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  1. As the boxer Frank Bruno once observed, 'If [life] was easy, everybody would be doing it'.

    Some people, wrongly, think that Christians live some kind of a charmed existence where ~ in return for surrendering their soul, and any urges that come with it ~ the onward path will be all sweetness and light. Far from it: Christians may be called upon to sacrifice and to suffer, but they believe in God's promise that He will always give them due strength (patience, etc). When they are aware and convinced that there is some cause to address in the name of their beliefs, they may indeed find they have to forfeit not only luxuries in modern life, nor even the basics, but possibly life itself.

    Which of the following have NOT faced death as a direct consequence of their Christian faith, or actions clearly prompted by it?
    Mother Teresa certainly devoted her life to the poor of that Indian city, but she was not called to die at the hands of enemies as each of these others were. Stephen (answer 1) was the very first Christian martyr; the Copts (answer 2) were killed by 'ISIS' principally for having never renounced their Christian faith; Martin Luther King was gunned down, possibly in part on plain racist grounds, but probably because he had been actively advocating an end to officially-endorsed discrimination between people on grounds of their colour. This campaign was clearly consonant with the Christian message of equal acceptance of all.
  2. The spirit of the Magnificat (mentioned in our introduction) has given rise to a whole new wave of theology during the late 20th century, principally in Latin America where there are many problems of overpopulation, oppression, exploitation and poverty, along with diseases all too easily spread in poor and insanitary conditions. The Catholic church, in particular, which is dominant in that subcontinent since its colonisation from the Iberian peninsula (i.e. Spain and Portugal) in the 16th century, is leading and urging great efforts to relieve poverty and restore dignity to people living in squalor in the favelas.

    What is this movement called?
    The title stems from a seminal text in 1971 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, 'A Theology of Liberation'. The appointment of an Argentinian Pope in 2013 ~ the first non-European since way back in the 8th century, more than half the Christian era ago ~ may well lead to this movement achieving more prominence and impact.
  3. Where Christians can see a social injustice, they should do all they can to help put it right. In everyday life this may mean giving money to suitable charities, or actively supporting those charities, or giving of their time and talents in other ways.

    The following is a list of some leading reformers who devoted their lives and energies to improving the conditions of (actually, or potentially) oppressed minorities or other groups. ONE of these entries is significantly mistaken: which ONE?
    This movement certainly exists and does good work in our sad modern world, but Bishop Ximenes is a mere invention. Perhaps the name came to your author's mind since Ximenes was one of the chief members of the Spanish Inquisition (late 15th century), and the probity of the Catholic church on matters of abuse (and cover-ups) happens sadly to be a recurrent concern in the news these days.

    Almost by definition, answers 1-3 come across as 'historical', but the point is that the people in question were making an active difference in their own day; and just so, are Christians called now to stand up against the perceived evils of ours (faceless, tax-bilking multinational corporations; the ongoing fractured-relational fallout from the help-yourself sexual free-for-all of the 1960s onwards; trafficking, oppression and sadly so many more). There will always be issues for believers to tackle, in this world!
  4. It bears remembering that 100 years ago now in Britain (as since 2016), social justice as we know it still had a long way to go, in that ~ for instance ~ the vote was still denied to all women. Though many such issues remain unresolved, and we may not necessarily claim that improvements in that situation can be ascribed to Christian action (though many of the activists were highly likely Christians of whatever sort), for as long as Britain remains nominally a 'Christian democracy' we may at least hope that such voices will be given a fair hearing, and progress made towards ever greater equality for all people.

    In which decade did Britain bring its first Race Relations Act into law?
    The Act came in in 1965 (with subsequent revisions), partly spurred by the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 in which the non-caucasian cause was actively supported by church groups and leaders, among others. Britain generally has not too bad a longterm track-record on 'loving her neighbours' in respect of immigration and racism, though there have of course been a number of bad incidents; but enshrining tolerance and respect democratically into law was surely worth having done. The 1960s, roughly a generation after the Second World War, saw other forms of social liberation: censorship in the theatre was repealed, the practices of male homosexuality were decriminalised, and abortion became legal. The various vices of sexism, smoking and abuse were still rife and prevalent, but at least worthwhile progress was being made on some fronts.
  5. ... And, considering matters of faith-practice and equality, which of these is WRONG as regards the opening of the priesthood to women?
    All of these landmarks can be checked and explored online, but answer 4 was false in that the appointment was announced in 2014 and the consecration took place in January 2015. (The first in the British Isles as a whole was in the Church of Ireland in 2013.) There have meanwhile been female bishops before these in the United States.

    As a matter of passing note, your author's second-cousin by marriage was among the Church of Scotland's very first cohort of women ministers at the tail end of the 1960s.
  6. While some branches of the Church as a whole are accepting women priests, others (notably the Roman Catholics) remain clearly opposed on principle. There are numerous possible arguments on either side: which of these is probably the weakest 'against'?
    There are plenty of issues that the Bible does not directly address, such as moral matters specific to modern telecommunications or medical advances. The absence of anything from the Bible cannot necessarily, of itself, mean that the thing never happened or arose. We know Jesus ate, drank and slept, but we hear little about Him washing (except in ritual contexts), shopping nor relieving Himself. Clearly such things must have happened, but taste and context led to them never being mentioned. Come to that, there is only a single (textually dubious) reference to cats in the Bible, in the Apocryphal book of Baruch: where does that leave modern cat-owners?
    But where there is some positive and relevant text to work from ~ even it is not decidedly topical nor explicitly clear ~ 'at least that is something'. The matter raised in answer 4 has certainly been a sincere cause of concern in sensitive quarters.
  7. The question of human rights has been debated for centuries (chiefly more recently, and well within the Christian era) ... but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was only formulated and promulgated as lately, in such overall historical terms, as ~ when?
    It is generally accepted that Christian belief in the dignity and potential of all people had been a major driver of thought towards the eventual UDHR.
  8. Faced with the inequalities, 'changes and chances of this fleeting world' (as the Book of Common Prayer so neatly puts it), Christians can support any of a wide range of charities that aim to respond both to chronic and acute problems across our planet, such as hunger, disease and the displacements arising from war. Many of these organisations are explicitly Christian by original inspiration, and in how and why they work: which one of the following is NOT?
    Christians were certainly involved from the earliest days of Oxfam (originally the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, one of a chain of nationwide British committees during World War 2), along with university academics and various other 'movers and shakers': its first preliminary meeting took place in one of the tower rooms of the University Church. Many of its officials, workers and supporters are active Christians ~ indeed, it will often have been their faith which impels their involvement ~ but the organisation itself, as such, has no specific religious allegiance.

    Answer 2 clearly needs no comment; answer 3 is the acronym for the Catholic (NB: not 'Christian', though plainly enough it is that too!) Fund for Overseas Development; answer 4 is a Christian foundation which works to better the life and prospects of Third World children, principally through organised individual sponsorships.

    It might be felt that Christian aid organisations still carry a condescending whiff of cultural imperialism in a postcolonial age ('railways and religion', etc.) but, insofar as it were also appropriate to isolate their motives from the practical good they do, the world as a whole would be coping less well without them if they were not there and active.
  9. Jesus Himself once said (as reported in chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel) that come the Day of Judgement, the 'sheep' and the 'goats' will be separated, with the reward of eternal joy for those who had served Him by doing His work for the benefit of others. He gave three instances of acts of social lovingkindness, as listed below ~ He was fond of rhetorical triples ~ but as is our wont, we have smuggled in a false example. Which is this non-original one?
    The first three pairs were all fine; answer 4 was a similar-spirited, but non-genuine 'fake'. But the point here is that Jesus was impressing on His followers that 'the least of these things that you do for others, you do for me'.
  10. In a world some call 'post-Christian', and in which the economic agenda seems to be increasingly set by global corporations, despite such grand safeguards as the UDHR (see question 7 above), concerns remain about the overall conduct and morality of such vast, consequential yet increasingly 'faceless' entities. Various codes have been proposed to try and ensure the transnationals deal fairly by their workers, suppliers, customers and others implicated in their business chain (e.g. potentially exploited workers at the raw-material end, and those stifled by pollutant by-products of their extraction / production and transportation regimes). As ever, one of the following is ~ so far as we know ~ a well-intentioned fake : which one?
    Corporate Philanthropy (though usually no bad thing in itself) is not quite in the same league as these other three recently fashionable TLAs (Three-Letter Acronyms ~ oops: they're catching, in this world!). Some fine enterprises are modelled equitably from the start, such as the FairTrade food network; there is the implicit (and possibly justified) in-built implication that other previous models were less than fair. At any rate, they are surely to be welcomed, along with supermarkets (with their vast turnovers) relenting on selling less-than-perfect-looking produce ~ still eminently edible, and rather than turning back 'wonky veg' etc. and bankrupting their suppliers ~ and allowing other still-edible perishables to be usefully disposed-of by foodbanks and other relief agencies, rather than ploughing them into landfill since they can't be legally nor profitably sold.

Author: Ian Miles

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