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.


Welcome to the Jungle

I’m writing this on Saturday, July 9, in the aftermath of a truly horrific week.

  • In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by police officers. Video of the incident revealed a shocking and unwarranted use of force, and immediately generated outrage on social media.
  • A day later, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, another black man, Philando Castile, was pulled over for a minor offense — a busted taillight — and shot four times by police as he was reaching for his wallet. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, captured the shocking aftermath on her cellphone.
  • The following night, protests unfolded across the country. A large and peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, erupted into violence as former Army sniper, Micah Johnson, opened fire on Dallas police, killing five cops and injuring seven others.

Waking up on Saturday morning, and realizing that we had actually made it through a day without another awful, national incident, was a relief. But the issues are still with us, and it’s not far-fetched to suggest that things are getting worse.

Race relations are tense, sometimes lethally so. Across the country, police forces seem to be targeting African-American residents (primarily men) for dubious or non-existent crimes and employing absurd levels of violence in the process. Our veterans, like Micah Johnson, are returning from war zones with untreated trauma. Civilians (like Johnson) are allowed to be armed to the teeth in gun-happy America, thus placing more police at risk, which thus causes them to be more likely to preemptively lash out.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and death, played out in our cities and suburbs.

I don’t presume to offer any insight, any depth of understanding, on such tragedies. Far smarter people than I — the president, members of Congress, criminologists, pastors, big city police chiefs, mayors and governors — are as baffled as anyone else in developing solutions that are politically and culturally feasible in 21st century America.

I’m also not interested in adding to our nation’s trite dialogue after such tragedies, although the fact that I’m composing such a piece as this probably makes me guilty of that. Blogs and articles are rife with injunctions to think about what just happened, pray and hope it doesn’t happen again, and go about your business.

I’m not going to knock prayer. Prayer accomplishes much, I believe. But prayer in a nation awash in guns, and prayer in a nation infected with racism, will be little more than spiritual comfort food that we eat after another heartbreaking tragedy. And really, does God even listen to the prayers of a nation that hugs its guns and spits on its marginalized minorities, and pledges its intent to maintain a bloody and hateful status quo?

I do indeed want change. As my more conservative brethren say, I do want national revival. But I think we’re talking about very different things.


Day 11: Trickle-Up Economy

They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.   Amos 2:7

If it looks like the folks in the executive suite are having fewer money problems than the rest of us, that’s probably because they aren’t.

According to former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, “the share of corporate income devoted to compensating the five highest-paid executives of large corporations ballooned from an average of 5% in 1993 to more than 15% by 2005 (the latest data available).”

At the same time, wages for the poor, the working class, and the middle class are declining. Even as national productivity increases, wages stay flat; in other words, the benefits of increased productivity are primarily given to those at the top.

To add insult to injury, it is common for many of these CEO’s with stratospheric compensation — pay that sometimes exceeds $100 million per year — to be the same leaders who oppose any increase in the federal minimum wage, which is currently at about $8 an hour.

Is there any hope for a culture that so deliberately concentrates wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people?

If you are as outraged as I am, speak up about it. But be prepared to be dismissed, criticized, and demonized all the way. They will tell you are engaged in “the politics of resentment.” That you “want to take from the makers and give to the takers.” That you are a radical, unpatriotic, or plain jealous.

But let them talk. The folks who defend such a system have left a complete and utter mess. If they are proud of a system that has left nearly half the U.S. population near the poverty line, there’s no helping them. They are ignoring the cries of the poor, and the prophets and the Son have harsh words for them. For an example of a prophet who preached against injustice in blunt and harsh terms, read the prophecy of Amos, where he crusaded against the idle rich who oppressed the suffering poor.

New systems, new safeguards and new values (actually, ancient Christian values) are needed. Christians need to stop defending this status quo and create something new, fairer, more equitable going forward. That’s what it means to be salt and light.

Pray: For God to raise up people who will challenge the status quo and bring about an economy that reflects the person and example of Christ. 

Read: Amos 4