Saturday, August 3, 2019

What is Biblical Social Justice?

This is a personal blog. The views on this blog do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the Salvation Army, it's employees, or partners. The views on this blog are solely of those making them, based on the teachings of the Bible, in the Spirit.

Let's talk about social justice in the context of Christianity.  What exactly is social justice?  Depending on who you ask you might get any number of definitions.  But we see that justice ministry is an important subsector of the historic Christian church, and an important teaching in the pages of the Bible.  

From the book of Isaiah chapter 1 verses 16 and 17: (NIV)
16 "Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow."

Again in Proverbs 31:8-9 (ESV) "Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy."

These old testament scriptures are telling, and we also see modeled by Jesus in the New Testament, his seven woes to the pharisees (Matthew 23) and his teachings to care for our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37) and to be salt and light to civilization (Matthew 5:13-16).

Justice ministry is certainly a biblical practice.  But what exactly should it look like?  What issues should we speak out on?  And how do we go about doing it?  

For the founder of The Salvation Army, William Booth, winning people to the gospel of Jesus Christ was the primary concern in 1865. That's what he wanted, to win people to Christ, the destitute and afflicted, who had no one to preach to them.  But along with that, as a secondary concern, there was justice ministry.  Let's consider a few examples.

Salvationists fought for the age of consent to be raised in London.  At the time it was only 13 years old, and they fought successfully, by politically advocating, and by drawing attention to the sexual misconduct taking place, to get the age of consent raised to 16.

Salvationists seeing harmful work conditions, decided they would create their own match factory with more safe conditions and better pay/benefits for workers.  

Salvationists seeing so many Londoners addicted to alcohol traveled around picking people up and putting them on the water wagon, to help them get sober.

There are numerous additional examples. So we see that in the history of the church, and particularly in the Salvation Army, justice ministry has been an important part of the work we do as Christians.  

Historically as well in the larger church, Christianity has in the protestant vein been a force for liberty and freedom for the western hemisphere. God given rights were enshrined in the American founding, as well as other similar democracies throughout the west. The freedom of religion, the right of assembly, and other personal liberties were largely fought for and enshrined in law by Christians active in human history. 

Christians were on the front lines of justice conflicts like the fight to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom, with William Wilberforce successfully defeating the slave trade.  In the United States abolitionist societies cropped up everywhere, and produced the underground railroad, ferrying escaped slaves to freedom. 

Today justice ministry continues in many ways. The Salvation Army has been on the forefront of many of those ministries, including emergency disaster services, feeding programs, utility assistance, child care, hospitals, and orphanages.

If I were to apply a simple definition to Christian justice I would define it as: "The process by which the body of Christ tactfully advocates for the lost, hurting, and marginalized of society, by activities that preserve, protect, and build up human civilization."

Justice ministry however, in the past 10 to 20 years has morphed slightly into social justice. In the recent past we've seen the growth of social justice culture on college campuses across the United States and Europe.  We've seen these social justice warrior groups holding protests, preventing certain 'controversial' speakers from visiting campuses, and promoting ideas like wealth inequality, rape culture, institutional racism, and white privilege among other things. We see the concept being taught that white supremacy is a growing danger in the west.  We see concepts like intersectionality being taught on college campuses.  We see a sort of political correctness taking hold in these institutions.  We see the curtailing of freedom of speech and the development of hate speech laws that often target people with viewpoints that dissent against the current prevailing orthodoxy.  The west's academic institutions have increasingly become places where things like trigger warnings and safe spaces are overriding freedom of speech, and free thought.

So we see these more secular social justice concerns have increasingly migrated from the universities, and have taken hold and been institutionalized as justice ministries within many churches and evangelical/mainline protestant movements.  So we see this wider umbrella ideology of social justice being intertwined with Christianity, and then we see churches beginning to advocate in similar ways to social justice warrior culture.  Is this a good thing?  Should we thoroughly embrace these secular social ideas?  

The important question to ask ourselves is: Are these ideas truly Christian and biblical?  Or are they rooted in something else?  Unfortunately many of these ideas are not rooted in historic Christianity. They are not rooted in natural law, or in any sort of underpinning of a worldview that sees God as the creator, and truth as inherently objective.  Instead these sociological theories of oppression and systemic racism and intersectionality are rooted in a contrary worldview, that of cultural marxism.

This is not to somehow label all those who espouse such beliefs as "marxists" or "socialists." This is simply to recognize the reality that these theories are based in general viewpoints of the world as fundamentally a struggle between oppressor and oppressed. This is to recognize the reality that these viewpoints see the story of civilization as power struggles between groups of people vying for dominance.  

The vast majority of those who espouse viewpoints within this realm are not bad people.  They are good, decent people who are trying to improve the world for Jesus Christ.  They are simply taking what they were taught in the universities and attempting to apply it to Christian faith and practice. 

These people should not be demeaned or mistreated, or told that they are socialists or feminists or Marxists.  They are using information they were taught, to try to make the world a better place.  What we do need to do however is take time to sit down, and process a lot of these ideas and viewpoints, and test them according to the scriptures, according to prayer, and according to their results.  

Do these viewpoints like intersectionality, group identity, institutional racism, and so on really bring people together?  Do they bring people closer to Jesus Christ?  Do they bring about racial reconciliation?  Or do they in fact actually drive people further apart?  Do they bring about Christian love, or do they stir up increased hatred?  That is the real question.  Would Jesus Christ if he were physically on Earth right now be asking people to "check their privilege?"  Or would Jesus Christ be more concerned with me checking myself, and me actually loving people and serving people, instead of me telling others to check themselves?  

We need to have a conversation about social justice, and how Christians should live out justice in the world.  And we should recognize that if we want a fair balance of Christian justice practice, we have to be willing to think outside the box. We have to be willing to talk about issues that are not just sanctioned by the culture, but also issues that political correctness tell us we can't talk about: Yes, like abortion.  Yes, like biblical marriage.  Yes, like human trafficking.  And yes, like racial reconciliation.  

We need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves: Are these Christian practices we see in the realm of social justice? Or are they something else?  Are they really biblical, based in humility, love, kindness, and truthfulness?  

When we get up on the stage at the conference and tell people about how racist they are, and how hateful their ancestors are, and how awful their country is, and how their culture is virtually beyond redemption, honestly, is that really a humble, loving, reconciling Christian way of speaking and living?  When we get up there and virtue signal about how we have all the culturally-correct viewpoints on race and class and gender, is that really helping anyone?  Or is it just making us feel morally superior?  Maybe we need to talk less about justice, and get out there and do more of it.  

So what is Biblical Christian justice?  To me, it means yes, some of the flashy topics like human trafficking and abortion and fighting racism, but it's also a lot of other less glamorous causes to fight, like advocating for the rights of the elderly, and making sure orphans are cared for properly, visiting those nursing homes, visiting those orphanages, and visiting those at-risk youth centers, and sitting down and talking with those addicted teenagers.  It's about setting up those food pantries and soup kitchens. It's about developing educational and after school programs.  

Is it super glamorous? Probably not as much.  But it sure is biblical Christian justice, straight out the Bible.  Does it mean we get to speak out and call out injustice verbally? No, I suppose it doesn't. But it does mean we get to serve people in love.  Does it mean we get to jump on stage and talk about how mean Donald Trump is, and how racist and evil the border wall is?  No, I suppose it doesn't.  It doesn't get that controversial when you visit some old ladies at the nursing home, and tell them that Jesus loves them.  It doesn't get that political when you stop over at the at-risk teen center and tell the kids about how Jesus changed your life.  But boy is it beautiful, full of love, and a glorious, quiet, humble expression of biblical Christian justice.  

I know Christians with a desire to promote justice and equality have a lot of passion to speak out and fight the man, and we can do those things in proper biblical ways.  But we should also focus in on how we do those things, and if we're crossing the line from Christian justice, and into partisan politics.  It can easily go both ways sadly. In a rural community it can mean pretty soon a church is becoming increasingly right wing in their 'justice causes.'  And in the urban context it can look like 'social justice' causes that look pretty left wing in their political agenda.  We have to avoid both of those extremes, and walk the narrow way of biblical Christian justice.  

I'm the first one to say that we need to speak out on controversial issues like racism, abortion, human trafficking, religious liberty, and marriage.  But let's consider our methods.  Is it better to love, or better to stir up dissension and anger?  Is it better to mock and ridicule, or better to understand?  Will racism be destroyed by dividing up people based on the color of their skin, or by bringing people together as one body, one people, united in Christ Jesus?  I'll let you make that determination.  Let's consider our ways carefully, and let us return to the Lord, in love, in truth, and in great humility, great compassion, and yes, a great zeal for justice to be done. 

“Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways." -Haggai 1:5-7 NIV

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