While We Talk, People Die
Why our good intentions for social justice aren't enough.
If I’m talking to you, you know who you are. You’re the person who knows stories and statistics of injustice in the world, and you also know that you haven’t been doing anything about it. Although you might assume I’m speaking in a judgmental tone, let me hasten to assure you that I am not. But you do know the truth—you haven’t turned all of your great intentions into action. Your words about social justice are empty, even though you have well thought-out arguments about why it’s important and how exactly one should respond to the needs of the world. People are still dying of poverty, disease, persecution and war, and you’ve ignored your heart-tugging in favor of busyness, comfort and a litany of excuses.
I’ve been there.
Right now, you might still be expecting a huge dose of guilt. You may be waiting for more compelling stories of need than the ones you’ve heard already. Perhaps you’ve already written out some condemnation for yourself in a secret, dark place inside. (I hope not.)
The truth is that this world is in a battle between good and evil. And although God does not need us to be a part of it, He wants us in it. He wants us to fight. He already has the victory either way. This life is not a drama about you or me. It’s a saga about God and how He is bringing His redemptive power to the world. And He has things for His followers to do in this drama to see His Kingdom come here on earth.
Composing well-articulated soapboxes for social justice isn’t bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Likewise, filling our time serving the church but never going outside the safety of its walls isn’t really following Christ. It seems that our American brand of Christianity wants to make the rich young ruler our patron saint—we want following Jesus to be comfortable and on our own terms.
Jesus opens His ministry by quoting Isaiah 61.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And then He does just that! He meets people from all walks of life and gives them all of the freedom they know how to crave. And not only that, He also trains a bunch of nobodies to do what He does, granting them “all authority on heaven and earth.”
This is our heritage as Christians, and yet it seems we’d rather play it safe than actually put our words into action.
Isaiah 58 makes some audacious promises.
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard …
If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
It seems that living a righteous life is dependent on acts of justice. Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t about getting saved! It’s not legalism. We’re saved by grace alone. But clearly, taking action on behalf of those in need is a vital part of our life as God’s people.
Jesus says that, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This is where the hope and joy of this upside-down kingdom comes in. Abandoning our pride, abandoning our safety, abandoning our well-articulated arguments so that we can wholly follow Jesus will bring life—more life than we can imagine! This is my story. Growing up in a Christian home, it took me a long time to know how powerful the faith of my family really was. But God led me, step by step, reaching out in a bit more faith than I knew I had to abandon my will to follow Him in increasingly deep ways. This has led to knowing and loving people who are physically poor close to home and all over the world. This has led to finding brothers and sisters in places where Bibles are illegal. This has led to death for my comfort zone. This has led to my words being fewer, but having people and names behind my arguments. This has led to a fuller understanding of God than what I would have known if I never went outside of my church. This has led to life abounding over all fear.
Social justice—really doing what Jesus does—changes everything for the better. And more than saving the world, I find that I am the one whose life is saved.
So it’s time to stop talking about acting and to start acting. Fortunately, there are lots of places where you can get started! Find out what refugee populations live in your city. Chances are you have skills that someone who’s lived their life in persecution and fear needs. It might be as simple as teaching them how to use a stove. There are also all kinds of programs that are set up to help America’s underserved. Cooking classes and after-school outdoor education camps for kids living in the inner city, adult education classes for people who have never earned their high school diploma, prison ministries. And these are just some local ideas! If you’ve learned a skill or vocation, it’s probable that there is a place outside of America that could really use training in that skill. Teaching English is a simple thing that can help many in the developing world secure better jobs. If you do a little bit of research, you could get to see more of the world while serving those in dire, physical need.
It also gets said a lot, but it’s worth saying again—give generously to organizations working in areas of injustice. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” If you hold “your” money loosely and give to the things God cares about, you’ll find you care more too. But the important thing is to stop sitting on your hands and do something. Your heart needs the adventure that following Jesus will provide.