The web is abuzz with the recent comments made by Glenn beck in regards to churches that preach “social justice” and “economic justice.” His assertion that these are “code words” for communism and Nazism have ignited a debate on a topic that the modern church has been mired in for at least 100 years. The debate became in vogue again when the Emergent Church flashed on the scene and called Christians to show that they were Christians by not only what they believed but also by what they did. Brian McLaren championed the call to couple “orthopraxy” with our orthodoxy.
The debate as a whole is one that, as Albert Mohler states, all “serious-minded” Christians need to consider. I agree wholeheartedly. If we really want to understand our faith and really want to see ourselves as a part of historical Christianity, we must come to terms with where we stand in the debate. Historically, sadly, these are the sorts of things that have divided the church. And they are threatening to again, thanks to Glenn Beck, Jim Wallis, and the Christian community as a whole.
At its core, the reason we find ourselves dividing over issues like social justice is because we all have a different understanding of what the terms mean. Conservatives hear “social justice” and immediately think of big government and welfare programs funded by taxpayer monies. Liberals hear the phrase and think the same thing. The only difference is that the former is opposed and the latter is in favor of these things. But, as is true many times in these sorts of debates debates, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
To say that social and economic justice can be reached through government intervention is a fallacy, as Conservatives in the debate are ready to point out. The government is not going to bring “social justice” or “economic justice” unless the government treats everybody equally. Governments don’t. Not even our American government. Case in point: the recession. While unemployment among those with Bachelor’s degrees is up 179%, our government officials have not been effected in any way whatsoever, with most earning around $120,000 a year, not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but it doesn’t exactly give them any insight into the plight of those of us directly effected by the current economic state. The government tried to distribute some wealth to get the economy started again, but where did that money go? The business elite. Bankers. Very few of us really saw any economic stimulus money and, in fact, many of us were harassed even more by our creditors. To try to advance economic justice, especially, by means of law or government policy is simply not going to happen. Ultimately, those with the most financial influence, or those who will get the candidates reelected, will receive the most funds. Not exactly economic justice.
This is not indicative of a particular political party, though. Both of the major political players are guilty of giving large sums of money to their respective special interests. One cannot argue that Republicans would be more just in their distribution of wealth than Democrats. Both parties are, ultimately, controlled by special interests in one way or another, whether directly or in more subversive ways.
On the other hand, and as liberals in the debate are quick to point out, justice is an integral call to both the Jewish and Christian religions. They will point out Old and New Testament quotes stating the necessity of the people of God to “do justice.” The conservative in the debate will personalize these ideas, using Jesus as their springboard, and turn it from a corporate call into an individual call.
But Scripture calls both governments and individuals to “do justice.” If governments are not acting justly, then it is our responsibility as God-followers to confront our leaders and take them to task for their lack of concern for the common good. The same with individuals. If individuals are not living up to their end of the call of God, then it is also the God-follower’s responsibility to take the individual in question to task as well.
But the debate goes deeper than just social justice. Many Christians try to argue that, while the individual needs to be doing good deeds for others, our first priority is to “share the Gospel” and try to save people from hell. The attitude tends to become, though, one of either meeting people’s needs or sharing the Gospel.
I don’t believe that this is a Biblical attitude. The Bible does not divorce what we do from what we believe. James is very clear on this matter:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17 ESV)
The Christian religion is not something that we can do half-assed. We must give our all. We must assent to the beliefs of our religion and then internalize those beliefs and allow them to change who we are. We can’t just do good deeds or just believe the right stuff. We must do both or our faith is worthless.
What it all boils down to is this: no human government will bring economic or social justice. That can only be brought about by God. But, He has entrusted His people to be messengers of justice and to work for just societies in whatever ways they feel called. We must take our leaders to task when they are behaving unjustly. And we must seek to meet people’s spiritual and physical needs as best we can simultaneously. Focusing only on social justice or spiritual regeneration is an incomplete picture of what the Gospel is. We must do both or our Gospel is ultimately worthless.