Does God Always Side With the Marginalized?
With the incredible popularity of social justice talk in our culture, those within the Christian Church have had to try and sift through the ideas being pushed by the culture and determine which are supported by Scripture and which contradict it. I have written about this a lot already, but today I want to hone-in on the concept of marginalized people groups.
In the social justice framework, the general population is divided into oppressors and the oppressed. Whites are the oppressors, racial minorities are the oppressed. Men are the oppressors, women are the oppressed. Heterosexuals are the oppressors, homosexuals are the oppressed. And so on and so forth. This “oppression” framework is the primary lens by which the social justice philosophy views the world. And since the Bible says a lot about God’s passion for justice, Christians are right to think through the implications of this philosophy.
Another word that gets used a lot is “marginalization”, or “marginalized” people groups. This label is functionally the same as the “oppressed” group label described above. Those who are marginalized are the same as those who are oppressed—or so goes the logic. With me so far?
Because of this, I hear a lot of Christians talking about God’s passion for the marginalized. “God is found on the outskirts of society”; “God is for the marginalized”; “God is most at work on the margins”. These kinds of concepts are trumpeted in churches all the time. But it is worthwhile to ask, is it true?
God certainly has concern for the marginalized. Consider a sampling of verses to demonstrate this point.
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Proverbs 31:8–9 Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 22:22-23 Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.
Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Exodus 22:21 You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Ezekiel 22:29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice.
And many, many more examples could be given! The Bible is packed full with commands to love and care for the marginalized. They are to be protected, and this is a justice issue before God.
This leads many to conclude that God is always on the side of the marginalized. Whole books and sermons have been created to that effect, with harsh rebuke for believers who may question this premise. The problem is that there is biblical warrant to question this premise, for some very important reasons.
To begin with, we must correctly identify who is oppressed in God’s eyes. There are certainly people who would be considered “oppressed” by our culture that are not seen that way by God. Even the poor are not always oppressed, as Scripture sometimes points out that poverty can be the result of one’s own poor choices. For example, Proverbs 10:4 says “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” So are the poor always marginalized? Likely. Are they always oppressed? No. Some poverty might be the fault of others, and some may be self-inflicted.
Since it is demonstrable from Scripture that social marginalization is not always the same as being oppressed, what exactly is the distinction between the two? The answer is simple. It needs to be determined what is the cause of marginalization. Some marginalization is the fault of others (legitimate oppression), some is the fault of the self (bad choices), and some is the result of happenstance (circumstances beyond anyone’s control).
Consider someone who is severely disabled. Perhaps that person is disabled because they were attacked by robbers are beaten nearly to death. This is an obvious example of terrible injustice. Or, perhaps that person is disabled because they got into a car accident while drinking and driving. This is not the result of oppression, but of poor choices. Or, perhaps that person is disabled because they were born that way, despite their mother living a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy. This also is not oppression, or anyone’s fault for that matter. It just is.
Each of these cases may experience marginalization, but not all of them are the result of oppression. However, the circumstances this person finds themselves in makes them particularly vulnerable to experiencing future oppression. This is precisely the idea Scripture is communicating when it tells us that God wants us to defend the lowly, the poor, the widow, the orphan, etc. It is not that these people are necessarily in those situations through oppression; rather it is that they are susceptible to oppression because of their current vulnerability. It is for this reason that God desires us to defend the marginalized. They are easy pickings for being taken advantage of.
Let’s recap. In the social justice framework, everyone who is marginalized is also oppressed. In fact, everyone who is marginalized got there through oppression. In Scripture, on the other hand, not everyone who is marginalized got there through oppression, although everyone who is marginalized is now more vulnerable to oppression. Therefore, when Scripture calls us to defend the marginalized, it calls us to defend them in their vulnerable state. It does not, however, claim that marginalization is due to oppression in every circumstance.
Do you see the important distinction? Modern social justice would have us believe that God always sees the marginalized as the oppressed. This is not the case. What Scripture teaches is that the marginalized may not be able to fend for themselves, and therefore we have a moral duty to ensure that they are not oppressed. These two things are not the same.
This brings us back full circle to our original question. Is God always on the side of the marginalized? The biblical answer is no. Consider this verse from the Old Testament law:
Leviticus 19:15 You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour.
The principle is clear: individuals should be judged not by what people group they are in, but by their own righteous or unrighteous actions. To do otherwise is called “injustice” in this verse. Even in a court case, the poor (ie. marginalized) person should not be preferred or given special treatment. Likewise, neither should the wealthy or socially important. Instead, we are to judge righteously each individual without partiality. God calls this “righteous” and “just”.
Again, is God always on the side of the marginalized? Well, what if they are unrighteous? What if they rob, kill, or rape? Does God defend them de facto simply because they are marginalized? Absolutely not! The most straightforward and truthful thing to say is that God is on the side of righteousness. The apostle Peter puts it this way:
Acts 10:34-35 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
The Bible is clear that God is on the side of the righteous. He is on the side of those who fear him and do what is right. It is does not matter to him if a person is marginalized or not when it comes to the righteousness of their actions. They are judged without partiality based on what they do, not how much social power they have. We can safely conclude that the reason the Bible spends so much time defending the vulnerable is not because they are inherently more righteous, but simply because they are more at-risk. Someone with wealth or social standing can defend themselves when wronged. Someone without those assets cannot. So God places special emphasis on making sure that those people do not get neglected in terms of protection from injustice. But that is unequivocally not the same as saying God is always on their side without consideration of their righteous or unrighteous deeds. Even the marginalized can incur God’s wrath through unrighteousness, because holiness is what matters to God the most.
Let me conclude with an exhortation to fellow believers to be discerning. We are living in days where the meaning of words is not self-evident, and shifty language is used to steer one’s understanding of the truth off course. We need to be vigilant, robustly biblical, and study the Scriptures so we can correctly know God’s character and live out the values to which he calls us.