Is Social Justice Ministry A Substitute Gospel?

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

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.

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10 thoughts on “Is Social Justice Ministry A Substitute Gospel?

  1. nokareon

    I’m fairly confident that the reason I’m so passionate about social justice is because I grew up in churches that stressed personal salvation by faith alone to a fault and the exclusion of discussion about the social aspects and ramifications of the Biblical message. In a church setting representing the opposite extreme, I’m sure I would be equally polemic in insisting on the role of individual atonement as well. UCoC was the exception, I think–it seemed to strike a fairly healthy balance, so I was able to be mpre balanced myself.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      I have in view the trajectory that overtook the mainline churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The evangelicals of the early 19th century became the liberals of the late 19th century.They replaced the message of conversion with social change. This change was accompanied by loss of faith in the supernatural elements of Christianity. It can happen again. I have a feeling that it has already started.

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      1. nokareon

        Very interesting that you see the pendulum as swinging towards the social gospel end again in the present! I suppose this also has to do with one’s church setting, but I have seen a rather tenacious clinging to Billy Graham style “believer”-ism among the Baptist churches of the south. Any mention of charity or social justice as being intrinsically linked to the practice of faith is dismissed as “works-based salvation” (which we all know is false due to Luther, they say). But perhaps elsewhere in the country or in the bigger scheme of time, the trend is moving towards social gospel again as you say.

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      2. ifaqtheology Post author

        For one thing, I am looking at young graduate students and PhD students and what they choose to study. And you are right about different regions and different churches. But theologians are supposed to think way ahead, not merely depend on the newspapers for their understanding of where things stand. I am looking at where the trajectory may lead in 20 years. I just want to remind people that we’ve been here before. Thanks!

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  2. Charles Hanson

    (In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).)

    That was as a prophecy. The kingdom lives inside us now, the Holy Spirit is the kingdom.

    (But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves.)

    We who “seek” receive the kingdom of God with when we are baptized receiving the “gift” of the Holy Spirit; the kingdom of God.

    (But seeking it for yourself is at best “ambiguous”; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.)

    One can only seek justice by the Holy Spirit.
    I am confused on what you are teaching here or is it you do not understand the kingdom of God?
    Charles

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  3. John

    What I find interesting is that when conservatives strive for laws forbidding abortion and for enforcing capital punishment, they do so in full conviction that these laws are required of the gospel, of Christian scripture. Yet, the evangelical conservative church has no problem with accomplishing these through social pressure and politics. Why the difference?

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  4. ifaqtheology Post author

    John: you ask a good question and a fair one. When I spoke of social justice ministries, I was not thinking of direct political action. I was thinking of good works like taking care of the homeless, the poor and orphans, intervening on behalf of the unjustly incarcerated, standing against any form of injustice. I believe these can be good works, things a Christian ought to do; indeed we must do them! As for political action, I have no objection to Christians advocating as citizens for governmental policies they think are just, good, and reasonable. And Christians can and do disagree about what those policies should be. But clearly the state is limited in how much it can force people to be good. Everyone agrees on that. I simply want Christians to understand that the mission of making the world a better, more just, and happier place should not be divorced from calling all men and women to faith in Jesus and life in the community of Christ.

    When you speak of “conservatives” in your first sentence I assume you mean political conservatives, small government, economic freedom advocates. Okay. But there are some liberals and even atheists who also think the state should protect unborn life. Viewing abortion as immoral and unjust taking of human life does not require that one be a Christian. If taking a human life is immoral according to the moral law, the law of reason, then killing a human being before she or he is born is also against the universal moral law. Since all societies make laws against taking human life without just cause and due process, strict regulation or outright prohibition of abortion is certainly within the purview of the state’s function. Again, my post does not address political action and advocacy.

    So, I hope I am clear tthat he viability of the argument of my post does NOT depend on accepting a politically conservative position. Rather, it depends on accepting the premise that our relationship to God should be the first priority in any human life, since Jesus taught that the greatest command is to love God with you whole heart, mind, and strength. Social justice ministries arise out of the second greatest command, love your neighbor as your self. I believe Christians should obey both and neglect neither, but in the proper order. My blog post is a reminder not to forget the order.

    Peace.

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  5. falonopsahl

    Some thoughts on just a couple points:

    “(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.”

    I would argue that many sins are, indeed, social, and to address these social sins — which individuals may otherwise, perhaps, take for granted as the way things must or even ought to be — helps the individual recognize their role in social evils, and thus their own ignorance and idolatry. Identifying social sin seems to be vital to honing in on the root of many (though of course not all) sinful acts, especially since many social and individual sins are so intimately linked to cultural expectations and acceptations. However, I definitely agree with you that it is easy to lose sight of the reasons Christians pursue social justice — to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and to call sinners to repentance and faith in the resurrection. One of the most important things here is keeping the theological reasons behind the pursuit of social justice at the forefront of one’s mind instead of highlighting the “secular” or political language that is often used in churches. I also think there is a danger of transforming the pursuit of social justice into a sort of prosperity gospel that doesn’t necessarily entail material wealth, but perhaps an entitlement to that which is really grace as opposed to justice (as you mentioned today during our meeting).

    “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.”

    This is a really interesting point, and one I hope the collective church and individual Christians take seriously in their pursuit of justice and their advocation for those in need of justice. The way in which Christians seek justice should revolve around dialogue, compassion, and most of all, love. We are called to love our enemies (and presumably the enemies of those whom we love — in this case, the oppressed). If we were to turn against the “oppressors,” then we would be contributing to division, prejudice, and hatred, rather than Jesus’ ideals of unity, compassion, and love.

    “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.”

    This is a profound and telling point. Talk is meaningless if it is not supported with actions. In this paragraph, you focus on the individual, but I think it must necessarily expand to the church — doing justice with other believers. Furthermore, not just the attitude of the collective church toward justice, but the behavior of the church toward the oppressed will inevitably shape how, if at all, the individual acts justly. Like sin, as I mentioned above, morality is shaped in community and heavily influenced by culture. What is the culture of the body of Christ? What should it be? I think the answers to these questions (and others) heavily influence how the collective church, and therefore the individual believer, acts toward and for the oppressed.

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