What About Social Justice?

(This is a follow-up to a discussion I had with some friends two days ago)  

It is very hard for me to imagine that one could be a devout believer and follower of Jesus Christ and not think things around us are amiss.  Much is broken, and while I believe there is some room within the body for differences of opinion about what is righteous and what is just, those views, ultimately, have to align with Scripture, in principle and application.  Otherwise, our views and preferences are just that, our views and preferences.

It is not my intent here to list the things I view as social ills.  That list is way too long. Instead, I want to share some thoughts on two different models of engagement for the purpose of social justice.  More than anything, this is me working through what I think and feel theologically and viscerally. Articulation of these models originated with others, in some cases, spiritual and theological giants much smarter than me.  I choose not to name any of them because I don’t want who they are to overly influence how you may react.  

It is very hard for me to imagine that one could be a devout believer and follower of Jesus Christ and not think things around us are amiss.  Much is broken, and while I believe there is some room within the body for differences of opinion about what is righteous and what is just, those views, ultimately, have to align with Scripture, in principle and application.  Otherwise, our views and preferences are just that, our views and preferences.

It is not my intent here to list the things I view as social ills.  That list is way too long. Instead, I want to share some thoughts on two different models of engagement for the purpose of social justice.  More than anything, this is me working through what I think and feel theologically and viscerally. Articulation of these models originated with others, in some cases, spiritual and theological giants much smarter than me.  I choose not to name any of them because I don’t want who they are to overly influence how you may react.

One response to social justice needs is to confront them (or at least to attempt confrontation) in order to affect change.  Perhaps the metaphor of being salt and light that Jesus references in Matthew 5 is an apt passage underlying this activist view.  Intensity of involvement is the essential spiritual litmus test for being full of spirit (though not necessarily full of the Holy Spirit, as one critic reminds us).  Activism for the sake of justice that is separated from interior righteousness is human rather than Christ-centered. A second criticism of this model is the potential for arrogance born out of pride in the acts of confrontation.  Martin Luther, John Brown (the abolitionist), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, and the many Christians who, over the last few decades have confronted civil rights issues and the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, and who have protested against abortion are examples of those who  expressed this model. The key questions from them are how can you be salt unless you are poured on that which needs to be cured or preserved? How can you be light if you don’t shine in ways that are evident? I have witnessed this enough to know that it can be effective in the long-run, and have personally engaged in it enough to know that it can be costly in the short-run, or even longer.          

A second model is that which promotes separation of Christians from the systems of the world rather than their diffusion in it.  Being in the world but not being of the world is a summation of a fairly long lists of biblical texts which directly and indirectly point to a spiritual separation that is anti-direct confrontation. Some of its weapons are the witness of grace and compassion, coupled with prayer and patience.  This view suggests that the best way to impact the world (and by extension, its social justice needs) is to be so different in deeply held attitudes, beliefs and actions compared to those of the world that the very distinctiveness of Christianity offers an alternative to what is clearly not working well.  The interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate when Pilate was concerned that Jesus was a possible threat to Roman order, is an example: “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were…” (John 18:36).  One criticism of this approach is that, short of intentional awareness of justice needs and a witness within and beyond the boundaries of the church, it easily leads to believers being desensitized to the negative and often harsh realities of the injustices that surround them, but which may not touch them personally.  Another is found in the reality that some have interpreted separation as being physical as well as spiritual.  In either scenario, claims to distinctiveness are moot as the availability of an alternative is invisible to those needing to see an alternative.  A dististinctive that is not distinct in the eyes of those who most need to observe and experience it is of little or no value. The key question for those in this camp is how can you follow the patterns of the world, using the weapons of the world, and still be separate from the world?                                                                                                                

After ending the discussion with my friends, I continued to work through this stuff because I don’t believe it’s possible to be a committed Christian and not care about justice.  It is a theme woven throughout the Bible. What is the best approach then? Where I land is that it depends on the context and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The in-your-face strategy Moses used against Pharaoh was much different than the measured approach Esther used against Haman.  Elijah’s confrontations with Ahaz and Jezebel led to an outright spiritual battle royale. While Jesus had one type of response for Pilate, and no response for Herod, He was overtly aggressive in publicly chastising the religious community for allowing illegitimate use of the Temple. Paul used the conversion of Onesimus to quietly undermine slavery in the household of Philemon (and potentially elsewhere in the city of Colassae) rather than take on this well-entrenched Roman system head-on, a fight he would not have won at that time in history.                       

I think it is important to honestly come to grips that much is broken in our immediate world, conditions which GOD cares about deeply.  People are suffering in many ways, not because of chance but because of choices made by others (individuals and institutions). We in the church come up short when our focus lies exclusively on our personal piety without regard to that which impacts our fellows.  The Church must act like it’s interested in order to be the Church of Jesus. Neither model matters if we don’t care.

Ⓒ Byron L. Hannon, 2019.  All rights reserved to original text content.  

   

 

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