Social Justice

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted; I hope my previous post wasn’t too alarming, particularly when combined with my silence since.  It’s taken a while to get going this semester, particularly in my theology class, which was cancelled once for a blizzard.  Also, without Bonhoeffer to drive me to new thoughts this semester, I simply haven’t had much to say – until today.

You may have noticed that my journey thus far has been one that veers away from my spiritual upbringing, as I discover the wide world of theology outside of the Pentecostal and even Evangelical world.  While I am deeply aware that every denomination and tradition has its faults, the faults of my own tradition have become underscored by comparison to some other views I am now discovering.  One thing that stands in stark relief to my background is the relationship between Christianity and social justice.  I’ve always been aware that there is some connection – it’s hard to miss all references to social justice in the Bible, for there are many – but my tradition has long been focused on personal salvation that comes through personal faith in and personal belief in a personal God.  It’s all very internal.

Evangelicals have taken the personal and internal nature of this salvation quite far.  I was shown an advertisement today that depicted an obviously destitute, barefoot child, probably in a third-world nation, crouched in the street; it said “we give Bibles to people who can’t afford shoes.”  While I think it’s wonderful that they give people Bibles, I seriously doubt that poor little girl can read – and it’s already been established that she can’t even afford shoes.  Give her some shoes, for crying out loud.  I agree that it’s very important for people to hear the gospel, and I think it should go hand-in-hand with practical aid, but after spending a school year working in a homeless shelter where people must listen to a sermon before they get a meal, I can honestly say that a hungry homeless person rarely gives a hot damn about the gospel – all they want is a hot meal.  What on earth makes us think that the poorest people of the world will be satisfied with a storybook about a guy who can multiply bread?  They don’t need a story about multiplied bread nearly as much as they need the real thing, and I don’t doubt that many of these Bibles have been traded for food.

Also (and this is an aside), what type of Bible would you give her?  Our personal faith is so personal that there is a different Bible aimed at every demographic you can think of.  While searching for this ad online (I can’t find it), I came across Holman Publishing’s newest edition: The Golfer’s Bible.  Because some truths can only be discerned by analogy to Tiger Woods.

We come from a tradition with a specific eschatology: premillennialism.  While I think it has been poorly represented by Tim LaHaye, he still gets the gist of it: the earth will be totally destroyed any minute now in an epic battle between God and Satan for the souls of humanity – but don’t worry, because us Christians won’t even have to endure these hard times; we’ll be whisked away in the “rapture”.  I hope I don’t sound too cynical about this; this doctrine is based on a particular interpretation of prophetic and apocalyptic texts that are notoriously difficult, and I haven’t as yet been able to come up with a better interpretation altogether, and a lot of very intelligent people for whom I have the utmost respect adhere to it.  But I despise what this doctrine has done to us and our theology, causing us to devalue the physical world (including our own bodies, and the bodies of every person on the planet), because it will all be done away with very soon.  It discourages compassion, because it teaches us to view all humanity in light of the judgment, in which all people are separated into the sheep and the goats, and we don’t approve of goats.  It puts an awful lot of pressure on us to save souls, because after all, that’s the only thing that’ll survive the coming apocalypse – which means that the physical needs of the poor, if they register at all, only come after we ram our so-called ‘good news’ down their parched throats.

Today, Isaiah 58:1-10 was read to me.  To sum it up, God is condemning the returned exiles even though they seem to be doing everything right: they’re rebuilding the temple, they’re fasting, they have no other gods, and they’ve gotten rid of their foreign wives, yet still He’s not happy with them.  Why?  Because they’ve failed to grasp the essential fact that despite all of their efforts to perform the proper tasks of worship and to give charity to the poor, they’ve failed to address the unjust system that made the poverty in the first place.  What was needed was not more fasting, but real justice: to set the captives free, to feed the poor – essentially, to bring justice.  Deuteronomy 16:20, talking about what it takes to live in the land, says “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue…”  Ezekiel 16:49-50 identifies the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah – not that they practiced homosexuality or other sexual sins, but that they were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; there was a lack of justice.

Righteousness means “right relations” – with God, self, others, and the earth.  Surely justice is implied in right relations between yourself and others, and with the planet.  In the Old Testament, the word “justice” occurs 152 times, while righteousness (which we in the holiness traditions so often like to preach) occurs only 115 times – and they quite frequently occur together, the natural pairing of “justice and righteousness”.  It’s a pretty big theme of the OT, and quite central to the Torah, which constantly talks about proper treatment of the orphan, the widow and the sojourner.  Justice is certainly the prevailing theme of Amos’ prophecy.  It’s also quite central to the New Testament as well: when Jesus began his ministry, he chose to describe it by quoting Isaiah.  He came to declare good news to the poor, declare the release of the captives, and declare the year of the Lord’s favour (i.e. a year of Jubilee, when slaves are released and debts are cancelled).

It is interesting to note that in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) there is no notion of salvation by grace through faith.  When people ask Jesus how they can be saved, he says “follow me”, i.e. do what I do.  When Jesus gives the famous Great Commission in Matthew 28, he says to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them…and teaching them to obey all of my commands.”  He doesn’t say that we should teach them all about him, so that they can have a private and saving belief in him – he says we should teach the world to obey him, and do what he did.  He didn’t send the apostles to individuals within the nations, but to the nations themselves: this is not a private thing, and individual people are not the only parts of a nation that need to be redeemed.  All of this is not to say that we are not saved by faith, but as our friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Faith is only real when there is obedience.”  It is also interesting to note that in the sheep & goats judgment that we evangelicals place as so central to our theology, the people are separated not by their belief but by their actions – or more specifically, by their lack of actions: they did not enact justice.  It’s not that we’re “saved by works” – but please recognize that when the New Testament talks about how we’re not saved by works, they’re talking about “works of the Law”, i.e. the code of laws and traditions that were built up around the Torah that Jesus so criticized the pharisees for.  There is definitely such a thing as “good works”, and they are the lived expression of the faith that we have in Jesus Christ, the proof that we actually believe him and take him seriously, the proof that we have been redeemed and renewed.

But of course, anyone who’s read James knows that much.  Then why is it that Evangelicals are always the least involved in social justice?  We’re named after our desire to evangelize, but we’re drastically underrepresented in the Christian efforts toward social justice.  The Catholics, mainline protestants, and anabaptists definitely have us beat.  Do we really “love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God”?

I should mention that this was inspired and informed by a presentation by my friend and teacher Dennis H.


7 thoughts on “Social Justice

  1. Enjoyed reading this, Jeff. Could you explain what you mean, in the
    last paragraph, by the Catholics, etc., having it right…

    • Thanks guys.

      Simply put, other denominations and traditions have a much stronger emphasis on social justice than evangelicals do. Catholics have had a consistent presence in missions around the world for centuries, and a stronger emphasis on social justice in their teachings. Mennonites, who come from the Anabaptist tradition (sometimes included in Evangelicals) have MCC, one of the largest aid organizations in the country.

      Quite notably, the Salvation Army still represents the Social Gospel movement that began in the industrial revolution. The classic book In His Steps, from which we get the line “What Would Jesus Do?”, represented this movement. Today, Evangelicals have appropriated WWJD and applied it to personal morality – “What would Jesus do if his girlfriend wanted to go all the way?” The book is in fact all about enacting social justice, following “In His Steps”. Instead of taking a lesson from the actions of those involved in the Social Gospel, we Evangelicals tend to only address the movement to pooh-pooh their liberal doctrines. While I agree that many denominations involved in the Social Gospel movement have wishy-washy doctrine, Jesus makes it pretty clear to the pharisees that it’s not their doctrine that will save them, but their actions. James agrees; what good is doctrine without its tangible expression in what we do?

  2. Well, it’s no surprise that attempting to turn the genre of apocalypse into some sort of predictive history would cause problems.

    • Indeed, though certain interpretations of the text, though they don’t necessitate such a predictive reading, certainly lend themselves to it. In Bible college I tried to figure out a millennial position, and couldn’t – and I have 75 pages to prove it!

  3. “What would Jesus do if his girlfriend wanted to go all the way?” BWA HA HA HA HA! I guess that kind of question shouldn’t surprise me, but still, very funny.

    Great post. I’d be interested in seeing that commercial as well. It reminded me of the response to the Haiti earthquake disaster by one Christian organization in the U.S.: they send tens of thousands of solar-powered audio Bibles. And they were proud of this accomplishment! How, in their minds, is that helpful, I wonder?

    Speaking of Bible marketing, I was thinking of the “Green Bible”, which has every verse even remotely connected to creation/the environment and God’s care for it printed in green. A bit strange, but in many respects no more odd than red-letter Bibles. I was thinking that I would be interested in seeing a “Justice Bible” in which all verses talking about caring for the poor, the stranger, the homeless, the widow are highlighted or a different colour. I wouldn’t want to encourage further marketing, of course, but I’d be interested to see how much of that Bible would not be printed in black.

    Re: Eschatology and social justice/environment. I may have recommended this already, but I do so again: N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. It was a paradigm-shifting book for me. (I see it’s coming out in paperback in March.)

    • Solar-powered audio bibles? I sincerely hope they were at least in the right language…

      There is such a thing as a justice Bible – I’ve heard of it before. What I’d like to see is a Bible that talks about justice, eco-stewardship, community, reason, faith, practice and spirituality all in one! But how would they manage all of those colours? I guess they’d just have to print it in black…

      I’ve been meaning to read Surprised by Hope for over a year now, since I saw it reviewed in a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada magazine. I was certainly “surprised by hope” when the PAOC reviewer reccomended Wright’s eschatology!

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