For the past two weeks I have been editing my blog posts of the past 13 months in preparation to publish the third book written in installments on this blog. The title will be A Course in Christianity for an Unchurched Church. As I worked through the chapters I paused at chapter 44 and thought about the state of the churches in the United States and, by extension, in other English-speaking countries. I see so many changes in process and on the horizon. In almost all cases, change is morally and theological ambiguous, that is, it includes some change for better and some for worse. The change this chapter considers is the change in evangelical and theologically conservative churches from emphasis on evangelism and soul saving to social justice works. The criticism of the soul saving model of outreach is that is treats people as disembodied souls rather than as whole persons. Of course, there is some truth to this criticism.
However, in my view, the shift to social justice as the church’s primary outreach to the world also distorts the mission of the church. I see three obvious ways this distortion takes place. (1) The social justice model possesses a strong tendency to play down the need for individual repentance, faith, and conversion. The evil it aims to address is socially systemic injustice rather than personal sin. It views the human problem as rooted in its racist, sexist, colonialist, homophobic, environmentally exploitative, plutocratic, etc., social structures rather than in each person’s idolatry, ignorance, and rebellion against God. Or, it engages in relieving poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, etc. without engaging in evangelism and establishing churches. (2) It tends to blur the line between the kingdom of God and the world. It allows the church to become an adjunct to the world, functioning as a social agency devoted to ameliorating the world’s ills. Christianity, originally understood as the present, supernatural manifestation of the future reign of God, is transformed into an ideology whose value is based on its usefulness in support of social activism. Christians working for social justice are tempted to root their identity more in a cause held in common with nonbelievers than with a cause exclusive to believers. (3) It tends to utopianism, that is, the naive view that we can bring about the kingdom of God on earth by dent of human effort. It seeks to cure human sin by reorganizing social structures or meeting bodily needs.
A Question for Social Justice Ministries
To what degree does the move from evangelism to social justice represent a loss of faith in power and truth of the gospel and abandonment of belief in the necessity of personal faith, repentance, and conversion? How far does it go to subordinate the body of Christ to the body politic of a nation? To what extent does it replace the cause of Christ with the cause of an interest group?
Hence today I want to re-post the edited version of an essay I posted some months ago. It will be published as chapter 44 in A Course in Christianity:
Is “Social Justice” a Christian Concept?
In a time of increasing emphasis on social justice in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless,” “the widow,” and the “poor” (Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isaiah 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.
Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.
Seeking Justice for Others
To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity of seeking justice morally ambiguous. True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of disdain springs to life.
Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we are trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.
One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible rule that we become like what we hate.
Seeking Justice for Yourself
Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous for sure, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We enjoy a highly developed and finely nuanced power for detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge.
Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself; and the foundation for loving justice more than yourself is loving your neighbor as you love yourself. How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t act justly in all our relationships? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.