[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]
In the light of the recently ended Justice conference and my recent reading of the book Rethinking Social Justice by Darrow Miller, I thought it would be appropriate to pen some thoughts on the issue of social justice and the church. I did not attend the conference, though many of my friends did. I have been challenged by both the conference and the book in how I think, how I love and how I engage in this area. I will be the first to put my hand up to say that I can do more. But before I or we (especially as young people) try to change the world, I found the book challenging us to think about this area through the Biblical lens.
But isn’t this the time for action you say? Absolutely. Yet the challenge we face is like that of the son being addressed in Proverbs expressed in a tweet from a man named Carey Nieuwhof: “When you listen to the loudest voices you miss the most important voices.” And in every age, the most important voice remains the word of God, no matter how loud the voices of others become. And if God could command Joshua to meditate on His word day and night in the heat of fighting battles for the promised land, we should do the same in the heat of burning questions about social justice.
Here are a couple of reasons to think before acting. Rick Warren, in his foreword in the book The Poverty of Nations, writes a sobering statement that most programs do not actually end up helping the poor. Secondly, I have discovered that this term social justice can mean a world of different things to different people who have different agendas and end goals. Mine hopefully is to extend the Kingdom of God. When it comes to social justice, some are trying to do this but many have another agenda. Regarding bringing justice or mercy to the poor and society at large, the question is not whether we should, but how.
Defining biblical social justice
As I discovered in law school, definitions are so important and can lead to radically different results depending on what is meant. Words are worlds, and he who controls the words controls the world. Just because words like ‘justice,’ ‘compassion’ ‘equality’ and the like are used, it does not mean that they are currently used in the manner that God prescribed in the Bible.
Darrow Miller writes: “… the modern usage of the term social justice is code for statist solutions to poverty. Today social justice is more likely to be associated with Marxist and socialist zero-sum economic policies. Rather than individuals forming voluntary associations to care for needs in the community, solutions are more likely to be based on government redistribution … Christian generosity and compassion are not the same as government run welfare programs. In the Bible, compassion literally means ‘to suffer together with another … By its very nature, compassion cannot be done from a distance. Government bureaucrats who are physically removed from needy people cannot exercise compassion, and yet for many this is what social justice implies.”
These very same government run programs often emphasise the need for equality. In our own context, we are often reminded of how unequal a society we are. In this regard, Miller draws us to the important distinction between equality and equity: Whereas equality seeks numerically equal outcomes for all people, equity seeks impartiality for diverse people. Because people are born unique, there will always be diverse starting places and outcomes. The only alternative to this is tyranny. Regarding all humans as equal before the law leads to freedom, while forcing a material equality of outcome promotes tyranny. Social justice as God intended seeks equity, not equality, for a nations citizens.
African-American economist Thomas Sowell similarly writes: “Lofty talk about ‘social justice’ or ‘fairness’ boils down to greatly expanded powers for politicians, since those pretty words have no concrete definition. They are a blank check for creating disparities in power that dwarf disparities in income — and are far more dangerous.”
Biblically therefore, social justice must involve our voluntary time, talent and treasure at the centre. Crucial to this is discipleship and the gospel. How often do we forget that Jesus not only fed the poor, but came to preach (yes, preach) the gospel to the poor? How could this be helpful in social justice? Author Dennis Peacocke elaborates: “The biblical response to poverty … is to call the poor into the Kingdom, disciple them to adopt the mental and moral attitudes of good stewards under God, and train them with the skills to begin to create wealth themselves.”
Therefore, part of our discipleship should lead to social justice, and our social justice should also lead to evangelism. If these are not happening, we are doing something other than what we see in the Scriptures. As Matthew 5:16 declares: let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Jesus called his church to shine with good deeds so that men would praise the Father. Societal structures and government laws can help, but without the engine room of converted souls, we will accomplish very little. As William Booth, preacher, social activist and founder of the Salvation Army unashamedly declared: “I must assert in the most unqualified way that it is primarily and mainly for the sake of saving the soul that I seek the salvation of the body.”
Social justice wars and the generation gap
In a similar vein to some sentiments expressed at the Justice conference, Darrow Miller highlights the critique of young Christians of the church’s lack of involvement in addressing poverty. He writes: “Many young Christians read these passages (in the Old and New Testament dealing with caring for the poor) and wonder how previous generations of Christians could miss something so obvious. How could their predecessors have been so consumed with ‘spiritual salvation’ and so unconcerned for the cultural mandate…’” He then quotes C.S. Lewis, who wrote: “But it did not happen, however, without sins on our parts: for that justice and care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips. With our actions we brought slavery of Mammon…”.
Nevertheless, John Stonestreet, in his foreword to Darrow Miller’s book also states: “We can often be grumpy about the older generation who ‘just didn’t get it.’ Much of the confusion surrounding ‘social justice’ can be chalked up to a selective memory on our part. There are great men and women, even in recent years, whom we can follow in our pursuit of truth, love and justice.”
Russell Moore president of the US Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and staunchly pro-life, pro-adoption, and pro-marriage spoke at the US Justice Conference in 2016. In an eye-opening article, bestselling author Eric Metaxas wrote about how Moore challenged young and old alike at the conference. He writes that Moore “…began by chiding his own allies in the culture wars while applauding the young people who care deeply about the so-called ‘justice issues’ like immigration and sex trafficking …” Moore said, “When I’m speaking to people in my tribe of conservative confessional evangelicalism I often have to say you are pro-life, and rightly so, but because you recognise the image of God and the humanity of God in the unborn child … you must also recognise the humanity and dignity of God in people who might not be politically popular with you right now: with prisoners, with refugees, with immigrants.”
Moore then turned the moral spotlight on his young audience, challenging them that abortion, too, is a justice issue …”We must … stand up and say No to racial injustice, No to refugee-bashing, No to immigrant-demonising, No to predation on the poor, and No to the violence and injustice of abortion.” He didn’t stop there. He irked more listeners when he challenged them on issues of human sexuality, saying that some of us … are “afraid to speak up on a biblical view of issues of human sexuality because they’re afraid that somehow that means they will be associated with people in polyester somewhere that they don’t want to be like. How cowardly.” That comment drew uneasy silence. Then he reminded his audience that the ultimate ‘justice issue’ is our standing as sinners before a holy God…”There is a great valley that separates the just from the unjust, and the basis for that separation is the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Moore said. “We cannot be people who are concerned about justice if we are embarrassed about the doctrine of hell. If you are embarrassed … because it reminds you of some uneducated backwoods preacher … what you’re embarrassed of is not hell … [but] Jesus Himself.”
Metaxas concludes that while some of the young people at the (Chicago) Justice Conference, but by no means all, murmured at his uncomfortable prophetic challenge to expand their understanding of justice, the older generation should be equally provoked to godly action by them, writing: And before we’re tempted to shake our heads at these young brothers and sisters in the faith, let’s remember that we have a lot to learn from their Wilberforce-like passion for justice on behalf of the ignored and invisible.
Similarly, Rick Warren challenges old and young alike when he elaborates in his foreword to The Poverty of Nations: “There are more than two thousand verses about the poor and poverty in the Bible, yet most evangelical pulpits are strangely silent on a topic that God cares about deeply. I am both shocked and saddened to admit that although I attended a Christian college and two seminaries, I cannot recall ever hearing a single message about God’s plan for the poor, except that we ought to be personally generous with them. Unfortunately, due to this shortage of clear, biblical teaching on economics, many believers have, without thinking, subscribed to the most common unbiblical approaches to poverty, economic justice and wealth. The results have been devastating … In a world that God created with a superabundance of resources, the fact that so many live in poverty is inexcusable, it is sinful, and we Christians need to repent. The solution lies with neither Marx nor the market, but the words of the Master. Big government is certainly not the solution. In many countries, it has made the problems worse. Unfortunately, so have many well-meaning, but misguided Christian humanitarian programs. Having travelled the globe for 30 years and trained leaders in 164 countries, I’ve witnessed firsthand that almost every government and NGO (non-profit) poverty program is actually harmful to the poor, hurting them in the long run rather than helping them. The typical poverty program creates dependency, robs people of dignity, stifles initiative, and can foster a “What have you done for me lately?” sense of entitlement. The biblical way to help people rise out of poverty is through wealth creation, not wealth redistribution.”
Biblical social justice should compliment evangelism
Going forward then, have we first got clarity on what a biblical worldview of social justice is and how it differs radically from other worldviews? While we must respond to the challenges of our day, sometimes it may involve politically correct causes, many times it will not. We do not have to choose between socialism and indifference when it comes to social justice. Biblical social justice should not undermine or diminish evangelism, sin, the reality of hell and discipleship, but rather compliment it and feed into it.
As we pursue social justice, it is vital for us to remember what pastor Rice Broocks, author of God’s Not Dead declared: “the greatest injustice we can do to our fellow man is not giving them the ultimate human right: the right to hear the gospel.” In answer to the question of how does the church “balance” a concern for evangelism with a concern for justice, Russell Moore wrote: “A church does so in the same way it “balances” the gospel with personal morality. Sure, there have been churches that have emphasised public justice without the call to personal conversion. Such churches have abandoned the gospel … And we do not react to the persistent “social gospels” (of both Left and Right) by pretending that Jesus does not call his churches to act on behalf of the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, the vulnerable, the hungry, the sex-trafficked, the unborn. We act in the framework of the gospel, never apart from it, either in verbal proclamation or in active demonstration.”