Are We Doing Social Justice Wrong?
Injustice is just one of the complex issues our generation is wrestling with. How should Christians respond? We asked some of the leading voices in the Church if our focus on social justice is out of balance, and what they have to say may surprise you.
The most important thing is for us to stop putting evangelism and social justice in opposition as if they are enemies. That shows the degree to which we have become captive to a colonial, consumerist, dualist mindset, where religion or salvation is a private matter of the heart or soul and eternity, and social justice is a secondary concern because it involves bodies and politics and history. As long as we’re playing in that field, we’re playing somebody else’s game. God’s game is about God’s creation and God’s Son entering creation—not to destroy it, but to save it; not to invite people to abandon ship and evacuate for heaven, but to invite people to switch sides and start working for and with God instead of apart from and against God.
We need to remember that Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray, “May we come to Your Kingdom in heaven after we die, where, unlike earth, Your will is done.” He teaches us to pray, “May Your Kingdom come here to earth. May Your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.” When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, people who are alienated from God come back in relationship with God—which is evangelism. And people who are mistreated by others are given justice and relief—which is social justice. In my mind, they aren’t simply two sides of one coin: They are like two metals that form one alloy from which the coin is made.
That’s a false dichotomy.
A follower of Christ doesn’t put on a “social justice” hat and then an “evangelism” hat and then try to discern which hat to wear the most and which hat is the most valuable. Why? Because it isn’t a hat; it’s the head and the heart. You can’t exchange either. They are integral to the person.
When a Christian sees someone who is physically hungry, a Christian feeds the hungry person. Why? Because hungry people can’t understand the plan of salvation? No. Simply because that person is hungry. That’s what Christians do. And if a person is spiritually hungry, a Christian becomes “one beggar telling another beggar where he or she found bread.” Why? Because that’s what Christians do.
When I look at Jesus, [evangelism and dealing with injustice] are inseparable in His life. People are hungry, I think, for a Gospel that embodies a social, political alternative to the patterns of our world. To me, that is the very essence of what spread within the early Church— they were caring for the poor, preaching another Kingdom and another emperor than Caesar’s. And it was absolutely magnetic because the faith people had placed in Rome was at an all-time low, so when they were saying, “We’ve got another Kingdom,” people were like, “Yes, we’re ready, because the world as we’ve experienced it is not working.” The beautiful thing is, people are saying the same thing now.
Jesus went around allowing Himself to be revealed through His work and His love, through touching leapers and healing the broken, setting captives free. And then people were like, “Wow, you’re the Son of God,” and He said, “Shh, don’t go around cramming it down people’s throats; don’t shout it. Allow people to discover that on their own.” I think that’s evangelism at its best, when we invite people into the mystery of God’s love.
In the light of eternity, no question—evangelism. However, I do sincerely believe we will be judged on how we treated the poor and dealt with issues such as Sudan, sex trafficking, prostitution and the like.
Justice and evangelism are three things which have to go on through the work of the Church simultaneously. I really don’t think we have to make the choice, and I think to suggest we do, as our culture has suggested over the last 200 years, is to capitulate, to put a split in the world which has little or nothing to do with the vision we find in Scripture where Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God. He is telling them about God’s sovereignty happening in a new way, which is evangelism. But the way it works out is the fact of what He’s doing for the poor. And it’s often as the Church is getting its hands dirty doing what needs to be done to help the poorest of the poor that people realize this Gospel really does make a difference—it can never simply be a matter of the heart. It’s got to be a matter of real conditions of people.
I think for a lot of people, social justice leads to evangelism. Jimmy Long has written a book called Generating Hope, which talks about how you present the Gospel in a postmodern setting. And I love what he says about community. He says first of all, community really is our best apologetic. I believe that. I believe if the Church can live out community that is raw and vibrant and magnetic, people will be drawn to it. In this postmodern culture, people who didn’t grow up in the Church are going to, if they do come to know God, probably experience two conversions and not one.
The first is the conversion to community. That will allow them to live close enough to God’s people to get a view of the God who sits in the center of those people. Their second conversion then will be to God. So as we authentically live out social justice in our lives individually and in our churches, evangelism will be an outcome of that, and I also think evangelism will bring people into our churches who will be very committed to social justice.
Many churches I come in contact with have all kinds of programs for banquets, and teas, and Bible studies, which in and of themselves are not bad, but there is not an equal amount of serving the poor, and getting our hands dirty, and coming alongside people in need. The Church has to go to them. Many people started clamoring around Jesus initially because He was healing people, and then when they got close enough, they began to hear His message. And His message was, “The Kingdom of God is available right now.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of RELEVANT magazine.