Jesus came to proclaim the gospel, which he described as “good news to the poor”, and he came to set the oppressed free. If we are to follow Jesus, the Gospel and justice go hand in hand. I wrote about the way Gospel and justice go together right from the start of the ministry of Jesus in Social Justice and Gospel Justice, Part I.
Among some evangelicals, though, we tend to see these things as almost diametrically opposed. Gospel and “justice” are almost viewed as the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, conservatism and liberalism. We have allowed a separation to creep in between the Gospel and Justice. And I dare say we have become unbalanced.
Of course, the same thing has happened in reverse. A “social justice” has developed that denies the gospel and is disassociated from the gospel. This, perhaps, explains the reaction of the orthodox church to the term “social justice”.
I will try to make sense of this divorce of Justice from the Gospel in evangelical circles, and the divorce of the Gospel from Justice among non-evangelicals, in this blog post.
One of the problems, as I see it, is that we now live in a post-Christian world in the west. The largely secular, western world has taken over the Christian concern for justice, and they have done it to suit their own ends. They stand in the footprint of the church that set a standard for seeking justice (not always well, and sometimes only reluctantly), but they have rejected the heart and soul of it.
As we see in the letter from Julian the Apostate (see Julian the Apostate Letter to Arsaciusc), early Christians were salt, and light to the pagan world. They were a city set on a hill living out the example of Jesus. The Christian example of caring for the poor, sick and outcast spurred that pagan world to take on the same attitudes as the Christians to the poor and marginalized members of society.
Through the centuries that followed, as Christianity gained prominence in the western world, that salt & and light continued to have its influence. Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, traces all the values we hold dear in our western (now post-Christian) society to Christians.
Though darkness crept into the church structure at times, Christians have had a leavening influence on western society that we still see in evidence today. The standard has changed so much that, in this now largely post-Christian world, those attitudes remain, even if the original motivations and reason for that influence have been culled out of the public square.
The Christian motivation for justice is that people – all people – are made in the image of God. All people, therefore, have intrinsic value. Jesus died for one and all. Thus, what we do for the least – the marginalized of society – we do for Jesus; and what we fail to do for the least, we fail to do for Jesus. (Matthew 25:40, 45).
Of course, it’s true that the church has often failed to do justice well. the failure of the Church is not evidence that God, the ultimate Standard Bearer, is not God. Though every man be untrue, still God is true! (Romans 3:4) It simply means that we have failed to live up to the standard, failed to embrace God and follow Him completely.
As someone once said, “To err is to be human,” but truth is truth; and justice is justice. Into the void left by an unfaithful and compromised church comes the post-modern world, throwing off fear and acknowledgment of God, but seizing the power of the divine command for justice.
The post-modern world has taken our light and wields it like a light saber against us in self-righteous display. Only they have bent it to serve their own ends: the light of love has been divorced from truth; doing unto others as you would have them do unto you has been interpreted to mean that people should demand their rights; caring for the least has turned into governmental largess.
The motives that drive a post-modern world are not grounded in faith or God. They are grounded in human striving – the oppressed throwing off the oppression of the oppressors. Tension, violence, revolt, upheaval – these are the tools of modern justice warriors. Freedom of speech served its end until an advantage was gained; then freedom of speech was reimagined as a tool of the oppressor needing to be quashed.
The ends that justify the means aren’t grounded in anything other than a timeless struggle and change of power. As the oppressed become the oppressors, the ideology that informs the post-modern world is nothing but a vicious cycle of oppression, rebellion, revolt and violence. There is no promise or hope other than for the oppressed to achieve the status of oppressor.
The non-Christian world does justice from very different motivations and pursuant to a very different framework than the Christian who is motivated by taking up his cross out of gratitude for grace to follow Christ. The kingdom Jesus introduced involved the last becoming first and the greatest becoming servants of all.
This is a very different paradigm than the secular view of doing justice. If the Church was better at doing these things, the secular world would have no desire to step into this space. (The secular world would undoubtedly find another angle to rival the Church.)
What I see in the 21st Century is a kind of seismic shift from the Third Century reality in which Julian the Apostate felt shamed into demanding that pagans match the Christian ethic of caring for people. I see a post-Christian world that has been leavened by the Christian ethic, but which rejects the heart and soul of it, shaming (or trying to shame) Christians who have stepped back from the effort of doing justice. The result is a very imperfect and warped sense of justice that has taken a foothold in our society.
We have lost our position as a city set on a hill. Our light is hidden under the bushel. We have (to some degree) abandoned the cause of justice as the world has rushed in to appropriate the idea of justice from us.
The idea of social justice began in the body of Christ, but it was overtaken by outside forces. The gospel was deemphasized and then discarded along the way as the Church allowed the social justice effort to be recharacterized by outsiders to the call to do justice.
But justice is still justice: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner, caring for the sick are still good in themselves. Justice is still fertile in which the Gospel grows. God still desires for good news be preached to the poor while the oppressed are set free, prisoners are released and the blind are given sight. (Luke 4:17-21)
The fact that the world “does justice” motivated by different ideals does not mean the body of Christ should not do justice motivated by the grace and love of Christ. In fact, the Church is needed all the more to do justice motivated by truth than ever before because the world is now full of people who think that justice can be accomplished apart from a just God.
We should not be content simply to stand opposed to those people who seek to do justice from a secular framework, lest we fail to justice ourselves. Anyone who has a heart to do justice is reaching for God, though they might not even know it. If we set ourselves always in opposition to them, how can we be salt and light to them?
I believe God is calling us in the Body of Christ to roll up our sleeves in these times and do justice in earnest. I believe we have some ground to make up that we have ceded to the world. When we do engage, I believe we will be plowing some very dry ground and making the soil of this generation ready, which is already attuned to the needs of justice, to receive the Gospel and bear fruit.