Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Gospel Truth About Social Justice

This is my first post for Synchroblog, a little community of Christian blogs that post on a particular subject each month. Read more about it here and (assuming you're on Facebook) here. This month our topic is "Social Justice -- What is it really?." The Synchoblogs who posted are listed at the bottom of this post for you to peruse. Visit them all! We're an interesting and eclectic group!

I have a problem with Social Justice.

If you try to research the term on the Internet you won't read long before learning that, while most people agree it probably includes things like helping the hungry and ending discrimination, there's no broadly accepted definition of what it is or the best way to do it. Some scholars even feel that when you analyze it the phrase itself is nonsensical, "like the term 'a moral stone."

But that's not what my problem is.

It's also not that the phrase tends to be identified with one side of the political spectrum or that, as a writer, I find it awkward and non-euphonious. It's hard to write stirring prose using a clunky, two-part, technical term. One doesn't find "social justice" in many poems.

No, my problem is that Jesus' followers (myself included) use it at all.

I was at an informal meeting a few years ago where we talked about the church's responsibilities to the city, the people around us. One snippet of the conversation that has always stuck with me went something like this:

Person #1: "I've been seeing so many more people out on the street lately because of this economy, even some families. We really need to devote more of our resources to the social justice needs in this area."
More Official Person: "I'd really love to but funds are limited. Right now we need to devote the bulk of what we have to proclaiming the Gospel." 

Actually I think he called it the Evangelism budget.

I understand the need to have an efficient budget that accurately reflects your situation (I was a non-profit Debt Counselor for 7 years so I've built a lot of budgets), but the unconscious decoupling of social justice and the Gospel as two distinct things really bothers me.

The Gospel and social justice are the same thing. Or rather, wherever the Great Announcement of Christ's Gospel "happens," there the thing most of us mean by social justice also "happens" (or should).

Let me explain what I mean.

God's Kingdom has always been bound up with what we delineate today as social justice. The ancient Israelites sang of a God who, "protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows," and who incorporated care for the poor into his law (here, here, and here, for instance). His prophets inveighed against the wealthy oppressing the poor and disadvantaged: "Exercise true judgment and show brotherhood and compassion to each other. You must not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor, nor should anyone secretly plot evil against his fellow human being." (Prophecy of Zechariah chapter 7 verses 8-12, NET).

Jesus of Nazareth came as Israel's long awaited Messiah announcing that the Kingdom of God was almost here. As he did he invited everyone in, particularly the sick, the hungry, the poor, sinners, and other "undesirables." Nobody was exempt. Jesus famously proclaimed, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."

When he rode into Jerusalem and fought the Messiah's prophesied climactic battle against the enemies of the Israel, the weapons he used were completely unexpected.

"Instead of the usual military revolt, it was time to show the pagans what the true God was really like, not by fighting and violence but by loving one's enemies, turning the other cheek, going the second mile. This was the challenge which Jesus issued in a series of teachings that we call the 'sermon on the mount.'"

(N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, p. 101)

Today, on the other side of that battle, with Jesus enthroned as High King of the Universe, we who follow him fight to advance his Kingdom using the same unconventional weapons he used: Love, service, and self-sacrifice -- healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and inviting everyone without exemption into the Kingdom of God. This is how the Gospel is proclaimed.

As one of my favorite writers, Eberhard Arnold, said, "The injustice of the world -- sin itself -- is the disease of the world's soul that leads to death. Our mission on behalf of the Kingdom is to be the salt of the earth: to stem its injustice, prevent its decay, and hinder its death." (Eberhard Arnold, Salt and Light, p. 61).

Social justice is not a program or priority, not for us. It is what happens when the Gospel of the Kingdom touches human need.

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October 2013 Synchrobloggers

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