Month: August, 2018

The Sky is the Limit (1)

 

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Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 3

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HDB 99 Year Lease And Social Justice

The Prime Minister of Singapore recently unveiled the government’s plan concerning the 99 year lease for HDB flats. Singaporeans don’t use the label “social justice” in our deliberation, and that is just as well. The label does not shed light. But the way the 99 year lease is handled is a typical case concerning social justice.

The Prime Minister gave two reasons why the 99 year lease must stay. The first reason is the need to redistribute land to ensure social equality. The second is the practical consideration that buildings do not last beyond 99 years.

The Second Reason

We will discuss the second reason first. It is true that buildings do not last beyond 99 years. HDB flats, like other buildings, need rejuvenation after around 30 years. Things wear out and have to be repaired, and as social needs change, utilization of ancillary land or common spaces also change. While it is true that land rejuvenation has to happen, the question is why 99 years and not a lease that matches the actual longevity of the 30 years of a building?

All land in communist China is state-owned. The leases for residential land used to be 20-30 years. With the liberalization of the command economy, the leases were revised upward, up to 70 years. This led to a boom in construction and the appreciation of property prices. Homes can now become an asset that protects against inflation, and can be passed on to the next generation.

You would ordinarily expect capital decay over the duration of the lease. Long leases, when new, have an expiration in the far horizon, and that allows the land to appreciate (if the conditions are right). The long lease allows temporary appreciation, but the decay of capital becomes more aggressive as the lease draws to the end. In all cases, the lessee (private entity) returns the land to the lessor (the state).

In Singapore, private leases from the state for 99 years can be redeveloped and the lease can be rejuvenated back to 99 years through the payment of a premium differential. But that option does not appear to be available to the owners of HDB flats, that is, until the recent announcement of a Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme for HDB flats. This will not happen for another 20 years. It does, however, give an option to the HDB owner hitherto not known. The HDB flat owners will have the option to sell the remaining lease back to HDB which will get the lease back to 99 years. The price may be attractive (like in private collective sale) or it may not be attractive (since there is no competitive offer for the land).

The Bible and the Year of Jubilee

Let’s look at God’s heart on the matter of land distribution and leases. This can be found in the God’s assertion to Israel that all land belongs to him and it is his to give as he chooses. He chose the twelve land parcels for the twelve tribes (Levites get none and the sons of Joseph get two allotments). The land is subsequently further divided among the tribes, and this constitutes the permanent land owners.

In the Jewish calendar, there is to be a Jubilee year every 50 years. In the year of Jubilee, the land that is sold will be returned to the original owner according to his tribe. The way it works is that if a man sells his land for whatever reason, usually because of poverty, that land is really a lease, and that lease is to end with the year of Jubilee. So if it is only one year to the Jubilee, that land is leased for 1 year. If it is 49 years to the Jubilee, the land is leased for 49 years. The basic rule is that the lease will terminate on the year of Jubilee, and the land reverts to the original owner or his heir. A type of “reversionary right” to the land. This system prevents systemic poverty as the children of debt ridden parents have a chance to start afresh when they regain their ancestral land.

The First Reason

The land reversion based on a maximum of a 49 year lease in the Bible, to prevent intergenerational poverty, is somewhat expressed in the first reason why HDB leases expire at 99 years. The Prime Minister said,

“There is one fundamental reason why HDB leases are for 99 years. And that is, we need to be fair to future generations. … After that (99 years), the flat comes back to the state, the Government redevelops the land, and builds new flats for future generations. This is the only way to recycle the land, to ensure that all our descendants can buy new BTO flats of their own.

“If instead the Government sold you the flat on freehold … , sooner or later we would run out of land to build new flats for future generations.”

“The owners would pass down the flat to some of their descendants …. Those not lucky enough to inherit a property, they would get nothing. So our society would be split into property owners and those who cannot afford a property. That would be most unequal, and socially divisive.”

He is not wrong to say that a 99 year lease is a very long time. The biblical lease is half that time. He is also right to say that if the property is handed down in perpetuity and all the land is bought up, we create two classes in society, those who own land and those who don’t. And those who don’t own land will live in perpetual poverty.

Analysis

Even though the Prime Minister did not use the term “social justice” (for which I am glad), he is right in that there must be a way of equitable distribution of a nation’s assets. Unless we do so, there will be poverty and there will be a landed and a landless class. This will lead to the oppression of the poor and perhaps eventually an uprising of the poor landless people against the rich landed people.

There is one fundamental difference between the biblical Jubilee and state owned land sold on leases. It is the question of who holds the reversionary right to the land. In the case of Singapore, it is the state. In the case of Israel, it is the ancestral holding, that is private ownership. The entity that holds the reversionary right to the land is the true owner of wealth and has the real power. In a communist / socialist system, the land is owned by the state leased out to different entities for various durations. The Singapore government identified itself as a democratic-socialist government. The state acquisition of land and the leasing of land to entities is typical of a socialist government. It can be argued that this has to be done because of the real scarcity of land in Singapore. But it is primarily done as a matter of socialist principle. At the same time, Singapore is not completely socialist in that there are properties that are “freehold” or “fee simple.” We will not have a landed versus a landless class. But we do have a freehold vs a leasehold class.

I am not suggesting that the Jubilee system can be implemented in our day and age. And if there is a way to do it, I don’t know how. The main difference is that if the land that comes to the end of its lease is taken as true state land (owned by the people), the new lease of the land ought to reflect that. That is to say, if the land is sold, the proceeds go to the people. Alternatively, the land is developed (at a cost) but the land itself is free because it belongs to the people.

The Singapore government has not been forthcoming in how the cost of HDB flats are calculated, so we don’t know if the HDB pays for the land it develops (land that belongs to the people); or that HDB gets the land free (since it is for the citizens and the land belongs to the citizens). If the land is free for public housing, then the government would be rightly treating the land as owned by the people but managed by the government. If its citizens are made to pay for land they own (via the state), then there should be a justification for it.

The reversion of land for redistribution after a term of lease is consistent with the biblical principle of the reversion of land to prevent intergenerational poverty. The Bible is silent of who owns the land outside of the land of Israel, but the Bible is clear that God is the creator of the heaven and earth, and therefore the rightful owner. There will be a great reversion of land globally. When Jesus returns to claim the world for himself, he will assert himself as the creator-owner of the world. There will be a redistribution of land to the children of the king, who are the resurrected, and who live in the resurrected body in the new heaven and the new earth.

Before the realization of the great reversion of the earth to God, we can support the principle of land reversion to prevent intergenerational poverty. However, that begs the question, “To whom should the land revert before it reverts to God the creator?” The answer is left to us to determine. Every society will have its own set of circumstances and there should be open and careful deliberation on what actions will result in generations with opportunities to prosper regardless of what previous generations had done.

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng

 

The Soul Winner

 

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Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 2

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The Spirit of the Age

I recall with shame how foolish we all were. Even though I did not personally engage in it, I gave it tacit support. In the 70s, ideas of socialism and communism had gained strong intellectual traction in the public domain. Christians joined the spirit of the age, saying that the first socialist/communist manifestation is found in the Bible. Jesus tells the parable of three sets of workers who work different lengths of time in a day and they are all paid the same, much to the chagrin of those who work longer (Matthew 20:1-16). This seems to be a case of equal outcome to unequal input, supporting both communism and social justice. In another instance, we have needy people in the church and others with great wealth. The rich sold their property to feed the poor (Acts 2:44-45) – apparently, a communist ideal.

Is this the real meaning of Matthew 20 and Acts 2?

Acts 2:44-45 speaks of people putting money into a common pool to feed the poor. It is voluntary giving. Social justice strongly advocates the role and duty of the government to redistribute wealth, usually not without coercion. There is no similarity between the voluntary help to the needy and the coerced redistribution of wealth. The communist giver is motivated by fear and not love, and the communist recipient receives the redistributed wealth as a greedy entitlement with no gratitude.

Immediately following the statement that people sold their property to feed the poor, we are told, the believers “broke bread in their homes and ate together …” (Acts 2:46) This would be impossible if all their homes were sold. Acts 2:44-45 is a general and expansive statement celebrating the sacrificial giving of some in the community, not an absolute statement. It is not a prescription for action, nor is it an ideal for our perpetual emulation.

Not long after this event, there arose a couple who wanted the praise of man among the believers. They sold their property and claimed to have given all the proceeds to the Apostles to distribute. Peter’s rhetorical question in response to them is instructive, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). The church never claimed an individual’s wealth. Private ownership was never discouraged.

We see this phenomenon again later in the book of Acts. When King Agrippa I persecuted the Christians by beheading James and throwing Peter into prison, the believers gathered in the home of Mary to pray for Peter. When God delivered Peter from prison, he went to Mary’s home to look for the other disciples. From the description we have, it was a big house with an outer courtyard and she had at least one servant employed in the household (Acts 12:12-17). If all the believers sold their homes, how did Mary come by this substantial home so soon after giving away everything?

The parable of equal reward in Matthew 20:1-16 has a context. Peter had asked Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus replied at three levels. First, the twelve will be as prominent in the Kingdom of God as the twelve patriarchs (19:28). Second, all who make sacrifices will be rewarded many times over (19:29). Third, “But many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.” (19:30). Jesus then tells the parable of equal reward and repeats the same apothegm “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (20:16). This forms the literary inclusio on the third group that will get a reward. The first two groups do not get equal reward, only the third group gets equal reward. This dispels the myth of citing this text as proof for equal outcomes.

Next we ask what is with the third group that they get equal reward. Who or what is Jesus referring to?

The literary inclusio “the last will be first and the first will be last” tells us two things about the third group. The first is that there will be a reversal of sequence of reward for this group. The second is that there is equal reward.

Jesus is talking about who enters the kingdom of heaven. The Jews who first hear the Good News of the kingdom will enter last while the Gentiles who hear it last will enter first. The reward of inclusion in the kingdom of heaven is a generous reward. A denarius for a day’s work for a laborer was generous. But it was even more generous pay for an hour’s work. This is the meaning of God’s grace. A person who enters God’s kingdom one hour before he dies is saved no less than a person who lives for God his whole life. There is a reward that is both generous and common to all.

In the parable, the equal reward of eternal life is never based on the goodness of the unemployed men incapable of providing for themselves or their family, it is the gracious provision of the generous employer who gives meaningful and gainful employment. In the whole story of Jesus, there is an even greater imbalance of unequal input that produces the same outcome of eternal life. Jesus the sinless Lamb of God dies to procure our salvation. What more unequal input is there? But the outcome of equal reward of eternal life is all of grace.

The current Christian infatuation with social justice is similar to the Christian infatuation with communism in the decades past. We are children of our time. But the Word of God calls us to a wisdom that lifts us up in courageous thought that rises above the shifting opinions of the world.

I don’t want to muddle through social justice as I did communism. I don’t want to approach social justice with a desire to justify it or to castigate it. I need to know social justice on its own terms and not baptize it with Christian thinking. With that in mind, my first realization is that social justice has a different moral referent from Scripture.

The Referent

Why is something good or bad? Social Justice is a moral expression of humanism. “Humanism is a philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively….” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism, 18 Aug 2018). In humanism, we humans decide what is right or wrong, and right or wrong depends on whether it benefits humans. Social justice as an expression of humanism emphasizes equal outcome, diversity, and the creation of supportive environments (as noted earlier).

In contrast, the Judeo-Christian morality draws from monotheism. Monotheism is the belief there is only one God the creator of all things who determines right and wrong. Right and wrong issues from God’s character and God’s commands. God’s commands are consistent with his character even if some commands relate only to human life (e.g. marriage). The end
result of justice in society is that it brings glory to God. In contrast to humanism, the good that is accomplished is not what satisfies human wants, but what brings glory to God. God is glorified in us, when we are satisfied in him. So ironically, human satisfaction is to be found in God, not in any human self-actualization collectively or individually.

Tom Holland (British author, not the actor of Spiderman) is an atheist who authored several prominent books. He held the typical humanist view that Christianity created a huge blot against the progress of human goodness ushered in by the Greeks and the Romans. The triumph of Christianity brought in superstition, the crusades, the inquisitors and, eventually, dour puritans. But in 2016, this scholar of classical studies wrote an article that shocked his peers. “Why I was wrong about Christianity” a candid admission of his mistaken view. “It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.” (https://goo.gl/2Py6UW)

Holland’s realization helps us understand humanism and social justice (the moral system based on humanism.)

Humanism argues that the moral goodness in the world today arose on the back of the Renaissance, which is a rebirth of the Greco-Roman worldview. Tom Holland came to the realization that the Greco-Roman world was brutal and their moral philosophy does not resemble what he holds to be right and wrong. His humanistic moral values are ultimately traceable to Christianity, to Jesus and to Paul.

Humanism takes what the Bible affirms about human values and human rights and elevates this good and make it the ultimate good. This is why humanism looks so much like Christianity, and seems to agree so much with Christian morals. Humanism is an imitation of Christianity, humanism is not the legacy of the Greco-Roman world but the illegitimate child of Christian morality. In that sense, Holland is right to trace the morals of humanism back to Jesus and Paul.

Idolatry is to take a good and turn it into the ultimate good. Humanism is the idolatry of taking humans, God’s good creation, and turning it into the ultimate good. Humanism is the sin of rebellion against God as God. It is when we are enticed by the whisper of the serpent, “You will be like God knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5). Ironically, when we believe that lie, we lose our discernment of good and evil.

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng

 

The Pastor behind the Turkey-US Dispute

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The Singapore Dollar, together with most currencies, has been losing value against the US Dollar. Whenever any country is in dispute with America, that country’s currency loses value. Trump’s latest quarrel is with Turkey. Their currency crashed and we are affected. Today, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to read up on this.

To my surprise, this is about an American missionary pastor in Turkey, who was arrested two years ago on an espionage charge. (It is possible that Turkey did this as a ransom so America will extradite a Turk living in the US.) Trump warned that if Turkey will not release the pastor, the US will impose sanctions, and it has come in the form of tariffs.

This American pastor has been a missionary in Turkey for some 20 years with a small congregation of around 25 people. The Turkish president Erdogan is pro-Islamist, and had purged his political opponents in a massive crackdown that continues to this day. “OK,” I thought, “it is possible that a missionary might be in favor of a secular government rather than a pro-Islamist government. But it is unlikely that a pastor actually engages in espionage.”(We pastors are not that useful to governments!)

I read the pastor at the center of the controversy is Pastor Andrew Brunson. That name sounds familiar to me. I then look for his face and see an arrest picture. Yes, I think I know that face. Let me find a “non-arrest” picture. Yes, I almost certainly know him. I also remember the conversation I had with Andrew. I need one more confirmation. I search and true enough, I do know him. We met in Aberdeen Scotland around 20 years ago. There were three of us graduates from American Seminaries who hung out from time to time.

At that time, Andrew had served a stint in Turkey and was going to return to Turkey after his PhD. I knew nothing about present day Turkey, so I got an education from Andrew. Turkey transitioned from the distinctly Muslim Ottoman Empire to the modern day secular government even though it has a Muslim majority.(Something like Indonesia.).

What really impressed me was Andrew’s love for the Turkish people, and for Turkey as a country. He praised the warmth and openness of the people. He spoke glowingly of the Turkish government. He doesn’t wear rose-tinted glasses and understood the issues well. But God has clearly placed in his heart a love for the people of Turkey.

This is ironic. I was the one most interested in the theology of politics when we talked, but he is the one arrested on a political charge. Andrew is not a political creature. He made a commitment to a live a life of simplicity and to use his considerable capabilities to serve the people of Turkey as God’s call to him. He is not motivated by money, fame, success as the world sees it, or any sort of political activism. He is focused on bringing the Good News to the people he loves – the people of Turkey.

It is impossible for me to imagine how a person of this passion and clarity of heart and mind can get engaged in espionage. It is far more likely that the politicians are using him as a pawn towards their political end. This is my personal assessment.

Regardless, I am praying for him, and I invite you to pray with me and to open your heart to God’s servant who lives for the Kingdom of God. There is a report that he will be released tomorrow (15 Aug). Keep him in your prayer!

Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

(Matthew 25:44-45)

 

Pastor Peter Eng

 

The Unfolding of God’s Plan

 

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Social Justice or Kingdom Righteousness? Part 1

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What is Social Justice?

My failure to understand social justice begins when I do the logical thing of putting together the two words “social” and “justice” to mean “justice in society.” But when I listen to discussions on social justice I know something is amiss.  Social justice is not about justice in a society. It is a term for a certain view of society. So what does it mean?

Different people understand social justice differently. Yet we can identify certain fundamental concepts in social justice without too much debate.

The first pillar in social justice is the equality of outcome.  Communism stands for the equality of input, and expects the equality of outcome. This has failed miserably for reasons history has already documented. Social justice is more sophisticated in that when the goal is the equality of outcome, it advocates unequal input to arrive at equal outcome.  Thus, social justice is better positioned to reach the goal of equal outcome by advocating unequal input.

Nowhere is this more apparent than “Affirmative Action” in university admissions. A school may decide it has too many successful students of a particular race, and decides that the underrepresented race deserves a leg-up by lowering the admission criteria for the underrepresented race, and conversely, raise the admission criteria for the overrepresented race. By this means, a university is able to admit the exact racial percentages they choose.  Of course, this can be done for graduation too. If not enough students of a certain race is getting a passing grade, they can just lower the passing grade for the underperforming race. That way, the school will get the graduation percentage they want from the races.

The University of Malaysia openly uses race in its admission criteria, ostensibly to give more opportunities to one race. Some other schools do it surreptitiously. A case in point is Harvard University. Experience tells us Harvard sets a much higher bar of admittance for Asians (and there is an ongoing lawsuit to hold them accountable). The same goes with medical schools because they think Asian doctors are overrepresented. Cambridge University does the same thing. A Singapore student with top grades will be rejected in favor of a student from a third world country. If you are in the academic loop, these stories are all too familiar to you.

I will be remiss to omit mention that not all admission restrictions are motivated by social justice. For example, a country has the social responsibility to provide qualified health care professionals, and decide that 95% of the vacancies should go to locals who fill the health care needs of the society.  The action is not motivated by some perceived injustice among people groups, instead it is there to fill a real social need.

Another expression of equality of outcome can be found in the expression “equal work for equal pay.” I have two real life cases that help clarify my thinking.

Many years back, I applied for an employment visa at the US Embassy, and was surprised by the experience of a blind interviewer. It became clear to me that this blind man was extremely competent. It seems to me that this is a strong case to support “equal work for equal pay.”

In another instance, I knew of a handicapped law student, confidently asserting that she did not want charity and she was the equal to any other student. At the same time, friends had to carry her books for her, help her take lecture notes, and even accompany her to the toilet because she had a high risk of falls. When she graduates, she will want equal pay for equal work. She can never do equal work, so should she expect equal pay?

The current peeve of media journalists is the lament over “income inequality” referring to the gap between the rich and the poor of a country (e.g. the Gini index). Hong Kong and Singapore are considered some of the “worst” countries in terms of income gap/inequality. Social justice assumes injustice is involved when the income gap is wide, and justice is found where the gap is narrow. But it does not take a genius to figure out that it is better to be poor in Singapore which has a big income gap than to be poor in Bangladesh which has a narrow income gap. Actual prosperity is clearly more important than the income gap. This obsession with income gap is puzzling to me. Why does concern for income gap take over the concern for quality of life? It takes a better mind than mine to work this out.

The second pillar in social justice is the desire for diversity. This includes concepts related to multiculturalism, and inclusivity.  The argument is that diversity enriches a community or a nation, individuals have a right to maintain their cultural uniqueness, and society needs to create inclusive spaces for the flourishing of diversity, usually without regard to what that diversity may mean.

We can easily see the need for both diversity or homogeneity. Singapore embraced multiculturalism through our official languages, through deliberate governmental efforts in cross-cultural interactions, etc. At the same time, without the homogeneity of a common language of business through which we can communicate with the rest of the world (i.e. English), we will not be able to flourish.  Diversity in social justice is different.  It is commonly used to address the issue of white privilege in America.

White privilege is real. Rich, well-placed white parents open doors for their mediocre children who assume good jobs while higher performing non-whites end up with lower level jobs.  As a tool to rebalance white privilege, social justice advocates diversity as a test. While the goal of moving away from cronyism is good, using diversity as a measure or test of real social justice is foolish. The issue is not race but cronyism. Singapore and China have a tier of social-political elites. The children from this tier compete fiercely for good positions in the best government linked organizations, and for the most part, we can expect them to be at least fairly competent when they secure these positions. The cronyism is not race based, and no measure of diversity will reveal or address the systemic injustice in non-race based cronyism.

While Singapore ranks high in not having corruption as a society, Singapore ranks poorly for cronyism (The Economist, May 7, 2016). Social justice does right in arguing there is a privileged class with access to positions others do not have. But social justice does not do well by incorrectly making racial diversity the measure of justice in society.

I believe social justice uses diversity because their goal is equal outcome. If they advocate true meritocracy rather than diversity, the advocates in America fear what the result will look like. The racial representation they wish to see under the rubric of social justice will not materialize. Even though meritocracy is the obvious instrument of justice in society, it is ignored and race-based diversity is promoted in its place.

The third pillar of social justice is the creation of supportive environments to achieve equal outcome. For instance, ramps are required by law, so those using wheelchairs can access public buildings, restaurants, shops, etc.  The spaces closest to the entrance are reserved for the handicap so they gain easier access. More significant than these conveniences would be supportive environments for people to flourish. The poor may not be able to afford housing, buy food, pay for health care, or utilities, so these are provided for, or heavily subsidized, so they may have an environment that allows them to compete with others in the society. America has done this for decades, but only a small number used these environments to get out of their cycle of poverty. Many have observed that help is not helping the poor move out of poverty.

It is clear the Word of God calls the disciples of Jesus to open our heart and our purse to the poor and the needy. The difference between what Christians do and what social justice does is the execution. Social justice argues the government has the right to tax the rich and give to the poor. The biblical model is for voluntary generosity. There may indeed be a place for both.  We shall presently discuss this. 

 [To continue …]

Pastor Peter Eng

 

God’s Alert in a Spirit-Directed Life

 

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SOCIAL JUSTICE & KINGDOM RIGHTEOUSNESS

“Social justice” has to do with the interactions between individuals and the society. It talks about woman’s rights, minority rights, the income gap, racial bias, handicap access, care for the impoverish, etc.

All these concerns are first found in the Old Testament as God’s concern for the poor and disenfranchised. These concerns, however, have been commandeered by the political left. Social justice advocates many good things, but it is deeply flawed by socialism, humanism, and liberalism.

One example of injustice in a society would be the presence of social tiers. For instance, a society can have an elite class that gets opportunities not available to others. Politicians like to boast, “We are a meritocratic society.” But in reality, there may be meritocracy only within predetermined tiers. For example it is well-known that you need to have connections (guanxi) in China to go anywhere. If you do not have the right connections, your abilities will help you flourish only within your own circle. Competition or meritocracy happens only within predefined circles. America is typically the place where one has unlimited opportunities, but some are saying it is fast becoming a tiered society. Recently a Singapore politician announced that we ought to have our own brand of meritocracy. I am not sure if the proposed solutions are adequate, but it is at least heartening to know that there is an acknowledgment that Singapore faces this problem.

When we see a tiered society, we must know there is a systemic flaw somewhere. Social justice presents a view and proposes a solution. Some Christians ignore these social issues, others participate under the social justice rubric even though perverted elements are sheltered in the tent of social justice. The Bible presents us a better model than the social justice practiced today. There is the OT depiction of social justice and the NT depiction of “kingdom righteousness.” Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these will be yours as well.”

In the coming weeks, Pastor Peter will explore with us some of these social-faith issues from the biblical point of view. Let us explore what a Bible based society might look like.