Social Justice is not a Bad Word

I grew up in a church suspicious of “social justice.”

Social justice issues just weren’t important, you see. The most important thing was to make converts, and just below that was to get people motivated, Spirit-filled, active in the church, teaching others, and being discipled.

Was there any room for taking on social issues? Marching for civil rights, protesting injustice in public life, standing for the dispossessed? Not really.

It led to an imbalanced Gospel. Worse, in some people (including myself), it actually led to the opposite of social justice. Some of us actually defended social injustice, too often insisting that the status quo must be God’s default setting, and that upsetting the status quo was threatening, radical or destructive.

As Stephen Mattson writes in Sojourners, this view is antithetical to the true message of Christ.

Christians do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’s ministry and watering down his message to one of religious platitudes.

Because everyone is created in the image of God and loved by God, we are responsible for identifying the victimized — not rejecting their existence.

That’s why the New Testament goes into great depth detailing the newfound worth given to the Gentiles, slaves, and women. These countercultural instructions to believers were radically progressive, to the point where the gospel writers had to put them in writing to make sure they were implemented within the newly formed church.

I think many believers get freaked out by social justice issues because they falsely see such issues as secular. Some issues — like environmental care or campus rape awareness — seem to be exclusively the domain of the secular world. But aren’t those issues important enough to warrant a Christian voice?

It wasn’t always this way. The church was once a leading voice in the fight against slavery. The African-American church was the driving force in the modern civil rights movement, and in fact continues to champion several social justice causes.

But more is needed. If American churches were leading drivers in advocating for higher wages for the poor, for example, there would be more pressure — politically and culturally — for true change to begin. As it is, many churches have a very hands-off approach to such things as social safety nets and wages, or (worse) many churches preach for an ever-diminishing safety net.

Such stances run counter to the words and actions and ministry of Christ. May we be bold, as Christ was, and stand up for those who ware marginalized.

Day 12: The ‘Worthy Poor’ and Other Stuff Jesus Never Said

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.    Luke 17:14-15

I hear this all the time: “I don’t mind helping others, but not when people abuse the system.”

There’s no way to continue a conversation after that. It’s similar to one of those “I’m not racist, but” declarations that, despite the author’s protestations, end up being really, really racist. If you want to make sure that every dollar of your charitable giving will never support an “unworthy recipient,” you should probably start donating to an animal shelter or an environmental cause; by all means, avoid charities that actually help human beings, who are imperfect and unpredictable.

So, do I endorse charity without accountability? Certainly not. I have spent much of my professional life working for, with, and on behalf of charitable organizations. All of them have had systems of checks and balances. These organizations have engaged board members and auditors and external consultants to evaluate their efficiency and effectiveness and help them uncover potential problems.

My advice is to give to good causes and exemplary organizations. But don’t expect perfection.

Taking this thought a step further, I think the criticism of “people abusing the system” reveals something else. It’s not so much that they are concerned about the fiscal responsibility of a charity, but rather that they frankly don’t trust the poor. They’re sure that people who have needed a lot of help for a very long time, and who don’t seem to appreciate the help they are getting, represent a serious problem. The problem is so serious, in fact, that for some it becomes an excuse to not help at all.

Is that an acceptable stance?

Our ultimate example in matters of compassion and human relations, Jesus Himself, seemed to avoid making such exceptions. There’s no record of any of the following statements:

  • “I’ll feed five thousand but can we make sure no one takes home leftovers?”
  • “I’ve been here all day, so I’ll heal these next two lepers but after that, I’m done.”
  • “I’ll turn the water into wine today, but don’t go thinking this will be a regular thing.”

We can be thankful that Jesus was so much less petty than we are! And we are even told in Scripture that the reality of human self-centeredness and ingratitude was something that Jesus faced. In Luke 17, Jesus was met by ten men with leprosy. His response? He healed all ten.

One of the ten fell to his feet and thanked Jesus for the gift of restored health — while the nine others moved along. Jesus remarked on the lack of gratitude, but it didn’t stop Him from doing good deeds. In the very next chapter of Luke, we see Jesus welcoming children and restoring sight to a blind man.

To truly follow Jesus, even when people are not grateful, we must continue to err on the side of generosity.

Pray: That our compassion will be perpetual, even when we do not receive the thanks we thought we deserved. Also pray that we will resist those who want to restrict aid based on arbitrary criteria.

Read: Luke 17:11-19