When I get asked about churches and what they’re like I sometimes describe them as being either a “Bibley church” or a “social justicey church”. I feel a little bit silly when I do so, because I know that it’s a false dichotomy. Or at least, it should be. You shouldn’t be either a Bible Christian or a Social Justice Christian. Being a Bible-believing Christian should lead to being concerned about mercy and compassion in the world, and if you are a concerned about social justice there is no better place to look than Biblical faith. Unfortunately when we create this dichotomy, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, we lose more than we gain.
Them Bible Nuts
If I’m honest, I fit in the Bible category more than the social justice category. When you’re in the Bible category you spend a lot of your time talking about Jesus and the Gospel. Biblical orthodoxy is important, because in the end that’s what we base our faith on. If we don’t find our truth in something objective and unchanging, then everything is up for grabs. Of course we don’t choose to believe the Bible because we need an objective standard of truth, we hold to a Biblical faith because we believe that it is God’s word to us.
So here’s the issue. We love the Bible, we love Jesus, we love the Gospel but we neglect to live out the Gospel while we proclaim it, we forget to love the world that Jesus died for and we ignore the clear teaching of the Bible that commands us to care for the poor. Sometimes our commitment to the Gospel can lead to pride that we haven’t been distracted by secondary matters like social justice. We might agree that it’s good, but we don’t believe that it’s core, and so we neglect it to our shame. We claim to be Bible people, and yet we disobey the Bible.
In almost every part of the Bible we are commanded to care for those who have less. From the Pentateuch (Deuteronomy 15:7-11), the Wisdom books (Psalm 82:2-4, Proverbs 14:31), the Prophets (Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58:6-12), to the Epistles in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 8:9, James 1:27) and especially Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 4:16-21, Luke 10:30-37, Luke 12:33). There are a whole lot more verses on justice than on many of the other hot topics that we get distracted by so we have no excuse not to be ordering our lives in such a way as to give material aid to those in need, advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves, and teaching others to do the same. It may not be as vital eternally as bringing people to faith in Jesus, but it’s not an either/or situation. Our words of Christ’s love for the world will carry weight when they see his people loving the world. Even if our only motivation is to see people saved (which is shouldn’t be) then obeying these biblical commands is prudent.
Some people use the argument that when the New Testament talks of caring for those who have less it is talking about helping disadvantaged Christians. From my reading of the New Testament, this argument has merit, but it is not the whole story. There are plenty of times when the Bible commands that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ who have less than us, and we make this a priority. But this is not the only way we engage with issues of justice for the marginalised in the world. The New Testament never calls on Christians to exclusively care for Christians. We are called to care for our family (Christians) and our neighbours (everyone else).
My feeling about social justice and the “Bible Christian” is that our neglect of issues of justice stems at best from neglect in preference for the “more pressing matters” of evangelism, and at worst from disobedience and an unwillingness to have our lives made uncomfortable by our engagement with caring for the poor. I suspect that for me, the issue is both, and many of the reasons that fall in between. That’s not an excuse. I believe the Bible, I love Jesus, I must choose to live responsibly and respond to the needs of those who have less than me.
Those Social Justice Crazies
The Social Justice crew… well there are a lot of them. Some of them are Christians, some of them aren’t*. For the Christians, what worries me is that while I see many “Biblely Christians” ignoring to some degree the Bible’s commands to care for those with less, I see many “Social Justicey Christians” minimising the role of the Bible, and Jesus, to merely being a support for the argument for engaging with issues of social justice.
For instance this Easter on Facebook, within the many posts from the bible types talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the new life on offer as a result, and many posts from other people talking about long weekends and chocolate, there were a few from those with a more justice bent to their faith talking about Jesus’ death and resurrection as an imperative for acting with justice. There were quotes about the how the cross commends the power of non-violence to change the world, there were posts identifying Jesus’ unjust suffering with Australia’s unjust treatment asylum seekers and posts about Easter being a time to honour Jesus’ death by eating fair trade chocolate. Now this is not necessarily wrong, in fact, I think Jesus is an excellent example of change achieved through non-violence, I think Jesus is deeply saddened by the Australian government’s treatment of refugees and I think if at any time we should be striving to be ethical in our consumption it is in the celebration of our God’s most significant act of salvation. However I think the danger of using Jesus death and resurrection as only a springboard for discussion of these issues is that it may seem to reduce Jesus’ work at the cross to the only being about issues of justice. Jesus’ death and resurrection achieved more than just the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection to new life for those who trust in him, but it never achieves less than that. When discussion of Jesus always (or usually) ends up in how his life, death and resurrection influences our response to issues of justice, Jesus has been turned into a servant of social justice, a trump card in the argument for action on behalf of the marginalised.
The motivation for this is obviously good. As I said before, the Bible is clear in its commands that we respond with love to all people, especially those who are poor or oppressed. However when the Bible, and particularly Jesus, are reduced to being a reason for social justice, then social justice has supplanted Jesus as god.
One article I found called the traditional teaching about Easter “nonsense about dying for sins, and three days later, like a Jack-in-the-box, the Easter-Bunny Jesus springs back to life” and said that the true reason Jesus died was because “He dared to stand up with an unbent back” to the evil Roman Empire. The implication was that Easter demands that Christians “be Jesus” and take a courageous stand against the violence of today’s corrupt and violent governments (source). This is obviously an extreme example, but it shows when can happen when Jesus is used as merely as an impetus of social and societal change.
The folly of this that if you truly do believe in Jesus, as God and Saviour, then he is not only the best reason for caring for the marginalised today, he is the way that this world is transformed and he is the best hope for those who are poor. The gospel teaches that the root cause of injustice is human sin. It is choosing to put our needs before those of others, it is choosing to love ourselves before we love God and love others. The solution to sin is not an external set of rules, it is not merely a reallocation of finances, it is not a change in foreign policy (though these can all be good) but the solution is found in the work of Jesus. Trusting in Jesus as God and saviour is the only long-term viable solution to our sin. His work at the cross wins us all, rich and poor, forgiveness for our selfish, sinful actions, his Holy Spirit gives us the power we need to have hearts changed to love. When Jesus comes back he will make all creation new, to a perfect, just, loving society under his benevolent rule, for all who trust in him. This is the solution to heart change now, and a new world order in the future. It is only Jesus, as God, who can truly transform this world the way that we long for.
And so, using Jesus merely as a rallying point for the cause of social justice, dishonours Jesus and short-changes the movement for justice in the world. More than needing our voice, our money, or our time, the marginalised of this world need Jesus. They need Jesus because only he can save them their own sin and selfishness, only he can offer them true justice for the injustice that has been committed against them, only he can change the hearts of those who have oppressed them, only he can welcome them into the new creation where the last are first, the poor are rich, the oppressed set free, the blind can see, and the persecuted have inherited the kingdom of heaven.
I know I’ve painted both groups at their worst, it’s silly to think that people will fit clearly into one or the other camp. If only we did fit clearly into one camp or the other, our disobedience and idolatry would be so much easier to address. Instead all of us who hold to the Christian faith have a much more complex relationship with the Bible, with Jesus, with faithfulness. But while categorising people is complex, the answer is not. The solution for all us Jesus people – Bibley, social justicey, Holy Spirity, any type of Christian, whatever your mix – is to allow Jesus to take his place as God in our lives. Only in him as risen Lord and Saviour do we receive the mercy we need for our own acts of injustice, the grace we need to have our hearts set free from sin, the power we need to start living out his kingdom now. It’s Jesus we all need. Come, Lord Jesus.
In case you are feeling like you should be doing more, just to get started, here are three Christian aid organisations that you can support. They love Jesus and they love his world. It’s not the whole solution, but it’s a good start.
*For those who aren’t Christians: as far as I know there is no better justification for caring for the world than that God created the world, he created humanity in his image, he loved everyone in his Son, and he commands us to do the same. If the Bible is true, then it gives us an objective reason to engage with issues of social justice. Any godless philosophy of social justice which finds its imperatives for action in the value of humanity and the authority of human ideology will be hamstrung by relativism. Who is to say that humans are valuable? Who is to say that we need to care for all people? One person may say so, but others may say not. Why is one idea more right than the other? Because it feels right? Pragmatism? In the Christian faith we have a much better reason. Our motivation and imperative for love comes from outside ourselves, it is not subject to relativism, because if true, all truth finds its source in God, all goodness begins in him. Needing a good argument for social justice is not a reason to believe in God, but when the merely human-based logic for right and wrong falls down, but your heart keeps pulling you towards justice, maybe the answer is bigger than you imagined.
Photo by Duncan C
Well Tom. This is very strange. I can’t think of one thing you have said with which I wish to argue.