“Social Justice” and “Systemic”: Christian or Not?

“We don’t have two gospels. We don’t have a spiritual gospel and a social gospel, or a salvation gospel and a social justice gospel. . . Jesus binds the spiritual and social into a seamless fabric that shouldn’t be torn in two.” Donald Kraybill

The other day a friend told me that “social justice” is inextricably connected to a “social gospel,” which offers salvation on the basis of good works. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least for me. An editor with whom I consulted on my most recent book on the Sermon on the Mount told me that a lot of Christians won’t give the book a second look with the word “social” in the title. Though I knew he was right, I kept it in anyway. Another alt-right friend urged me to find some alternative to the phrase social justice in all of my speech and writing because it makes me sound like a socialist. He meant well, but in light of Scripture and in good conscience I couldn’t comply.

People keep telling me that creation care, social justice work, and the like are OK, but the Christian’s primary, if not ONLY mission, is to preach the Gospel and introduce people to Jesus. If you know me, you know that I’m quite committed to doing all I can to bring others to salvation in Christ. In fact, I’m on my way back up to San Francisco’s Tenderloin this weekend to preach on the street and share God’s good news. Sharing Christ, especially with the marginalized, is a passion of mine.

But to imply, if not outright say, that preaching and presenting Christ with others is the sum total of our mission on earth is what I call “misinformation.” (See this…)

If there were time and space here to list all the biblical passages on our calling to serve the poor and address its causes, you probably wouldn’t take the time to read it. I mean, it’s all over the Bible, where the poor are mentioned in over 2,000 passages! Check out these few from only the Gospel of Luke: 1:53, 6:24, 12:16, 12:31, 14:12, 16:1, 16:19, 16:21, 16:22, 18:24, 18:25, 21:1

It’s not charity, as in giving money or food to the unhoused (which I also do, BTW) to which I refer. I’m talking about the larger and more sustainable work of ongoing justice. I’m fully aware that some of you can’t read the phrase “social justice” without slipping into a panic attack and accusing me of espousing a “social gospel,” which is something altogether different. Many of my Christian friends are somehow unable or unwilling to believe our mission includes doing justice. Loving mercy and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8) made the cut, but justice has somehow mysteriously lost its place in the work of the Kingdom.

Don’t get me wrong, I acknowledge the multitude of generous followers of Jesus who serve the poor in their preferred ways. But when it comes to addressing systemic causes and exasperating factors of poverty, they seem to draw the line. Oops, there’s that other term that raises the heart rate of many in my tribe: “systemic.” (So as to keep this within readable length, allow me to address the systemic another time soon.)

As they don’t directly win people to Jesus, some of the usual suspects––creation care, economic equity, racial justice, etc., don’t appear to be “spiritual” enough for many of my friends. I guess they conflate those sorts of efforts with the evils of politics or confuse them with a “social gospel” that denies the reality and necessity of new birth. They mistake them as an attempt to replace the Gospel message with “polishing the brass on the Titanic” before it sinks.

I’m not willing to bifurcate the spiritual and the social implications of our mission on earth. Some streams of Christianity emphasize prayer and evangelism, while others focus their attention on social justice. Why do we need to separate these streams and overlook one or the other. God’s vision includes both streams into one rushing, raging river!

“An individual gospel without a social gospel,” said the great 20th century missionary to India E. Stanley Jones, “is a soul without a body, and the social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost and the other a corpse.” Translation: It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

Any gospel without feet isn’t the gospel at all. For instance, one of America’s most prolific evangelists, Charles Finney saw no disparity between spiritual regeneration and social reforms. His revivals and antislavery work were never mutually exclusive efforts. He denounced slavery from the pulpit and used his altar calls not only for salvations but also to enlist his converts into the work of abolitionism. He wouldn’t allow slaveholders to take communion at his New York churches and considered the destruction of the slave system as a major prerequisite for the coming of the millennium. I assume he was censured in some “spiritual” circles for this. I can hear it now: “That’s political. Just preach the Gospel, brother!”

“No one can demand that religion can be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life,” says Pope Francis, “without influencing societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.”

Instead of going on and on about this, let me just cite one of a multitude of contemporary faith-based initiatives that addresses a systematic injustice, in this case, related to creation care. The mission of “A Rocha” (see below) is about serving the poor who are disproportionately affected by the warming of the planet. Check your pulse again if you’re inclined to politicize climate change away. (BTW, you don’t have to believe that the planet is warming due to human factors to concede that it is indeed warming. I’ll address climate care from a biblical vantage point in a future post. Something for you deniers to look forward to.)

Got questions? Rebuttals? Feel free to share.

And speaking of sharing, feel free to share this post with your friends!

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