The False Dichotomy: Social Justice & the Christian Gospel
Bill Gates once donated 100,000 chickens to Bolivia in an effort to alleviate extreme poverty.  According to Gates, he was investing in long-term economic development, helping families establish a sustainable source of income. Bolivia rejected the offer.  It viewed the effort as demeaning and unnecessary, highlighting that often what we think is best for others may not be what they want, or even what they need.
Social science research continues to find that complex social issues – issues of human rights, economic development, education – require far more than community service as a solution. New models of change involve innovative advocacy to affect public policy, collective impact and collaboration across sectors, and long-term impact investing and strategic philanthropy.
It follows from these models that organizations such as churches would have an integral role in community partnerships for change. If this is the case, churches must do much more than a seasonal food drive or Christmas offering. Unfortunately, this is often the limit of churches’ involvement, drawing criticism for their ignorance, self-righteousness, and apathy.
How did we get here?
In 2012, Todd and Rufa conducted a study to investigate Christian congregational perspectives on and approaches toward social justice.  Previous studies had found that white evangelical Christians thought highly individualistically, minimizing structural explanations of racism and emphasizing individualistic approaches to combating it. More theologically liberal congregations were found to be more engaged in social justice efforts, being more exposed to diversity and social norms within their congregations that encouraged this engagement.  However, despite this perspective, all interviewed participants of this study expressed difficulty engaging with social justice within their congregations due to obstacles such as leadership pushback and rejection of those deemed as having a “social justice agenda.”
In the early twentieth century, some American religious leaders addressed these issues with the introduction of the “social gospel.” This new theology viewed the Church as the “social factor in salvation,” and its supporters felt it was their responsibility to hasten the coming kingdom of God by applying Christian values to societal problems and meeting society’s needs.  Then, in the 1960s came “liberation theology,” which interpreted Biblical Scripture through the plight of the oppressed.  Defending the rights of these people, particularly by way of social activism and political liberation, was seen as central to the gospel doctrine.
These doctrines seem particularly appealing in our current climate and culture. “Social justice” as a movement and practice has evolved into its own sort of religion; we may not agree on absolute morality, but we must all believe in human rights, that racism and human trafficking and poverty are wrong and should be eliminated. When confronted with the fact that the Church itself has justified and even initiated oppressive and deplorable institutions such as slavery,  it feels safer to say that church can be good, as long as it is for social justice, if it effects “good” social change. In this sense, social justice should be the Church’s ultimate aim.
Interestingly, the Bible never uses the term “social justice.” American pastor and theologian Timothy Keller explains that the Biblical conception of justice, mishpat and tzadeqah in Hebrew, involves equitable treatment under the law, upholding human rights, and living out all relationships in fairness and equity.  Considered collectively, these two Hebrew words may be interpreted to connote our modern conception of social justice. However tzadeqah refers primarily to God’s perfect, righteous justice and mankind’s relationship with a just God.
The danger of social gospel and liberation theologies is that they tend to elevate sociopolitical change above holistic, spiritual redemption, thus depreciating mankind’s spiritual need for a Savior and fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the kingdom of God. The Christian worldview asserts that mankind’s primary need is not physical or sociopolitical, but spiritual. This is why the Church is called to evangelize and disciple, to proclaim and teach the good news of Jesus Christ with the hope of eternal salvation for all people.
Nonetheless, gospel proclamation need not be set against social care, for Biblical, spiritual redemption was never merely about individual or personal salvation, but about the establishment of a kingdom – both personal and cosmic.
Why should we care about human suffering?
It may seem obvious – we care because we empathize, and to care is to be moral. But the Christian perspective offers a deeper understanding, motivation, and hope for change that is rooted not only in the dignity of the human, but in the nature of the Creator and in the future that He has promised.
The Bible explains that Jesus died and resurrected not only to save each individual, but to usher in a new kingdom, to restore what has been broken: society, politics, ethics, and culture. The Christian understanding of this future kingdom is much more than a golden city of harps and angels, or even the absence of pain and suffering. The Bible promises a kingdom with complete human flourishing, rooted in the perfect union between and among God and people.
Ultimately, human suffering in all of its forms and causes may be attributed to these broken relationships between and among God and people. The Biblical perspective affirms community psychology’s designation of complex social issues as “wicked problems” -- problems such as poverty, hunger, and racism whose complexity, magnitude, and depth make them essentially impossible to eliminate.  However, while community psychology and other fields of social science clarify that the term “wicked” does not refer to the morality of these issues but instead describes their resistance to resolution,  the Biblical perspective goes further to assert that these problems and their complexity of causes are indeed evil. Community psychology says that we must look deeper and broader to address systemic issues; Christianity says we’re not looking deep enough. The Christian gospel declares that brokenness exists not only in the systems of people and their communities, but within the individuals themselves, and that it is this brokenness that manifests itself in the world. Human suffering is understood, then, as not only a mortal tragedy, but as a corruption of life created in the image of God and a personal affront to the perfectly good and just Creator.
The kingdom vision
Christianity asserts that Jesus sacrificed to reconcile all relationships and establish a coming kingdom of perfect justice and peace, ruled by the One who is Himself perfect justice and peace.
With the future kingdom in mind, Christians cannot be satisfied with a “personal faith,” one that prioritizes individual moralism and good behavior. Furthermore, the solution is not to find a balance between internalized faith and outward works of social justice. It’s not a balance to be pursued, but an understanding to be gained – an understanding of the gospel, of the mission of the Church, and of the coming kingdom of God. Without this understanding, I find that even our goals in social change fall far short of the flourishing promised in the kingdom of God. Are we hoping simply to reduce oppression and minimize harm? Or to empower impoverished and underprivileged communities? And what does this empowerment even look like?
I fear that we tend to equate success in social change with the “American Dream” -- mere acquisition of material wealth or social agency. If this is our goal, we may be lulled into a false sense of security and accomplishment, setting our highest goals at providing Thanksgiving meals for 500 families or Christmas gifts for 1,000 children. These are good and necessary pursuits, and I believe the Bible does call Christians to express love in generosity, but both social science and a right understanding of the Kingdom of God remind us that this is not enough. We cannot and should not be satisfied with mere material provision.
Projects or people?
In recent years, social change agents have emphasized collaborative and participatory research and action, seeking first to understand and frame problems through collaboration with the target community members themselves.  Rather than attempting to solve problems with little firsthand experience of the issues and retaining power among those who often already hold it, this model gives agency to the community and encourages a culture of learning and respect among those outside of it. A foundation of empowerment also relies on relationship-building instead of service- or resource-providing. Professionals and others outside of the target community are seen as collaborators rather than experts, seeking to help identify existing strengths of the community and develop the necessary knowledge and skills among its members.  Empowerment theory also emphasizes psychological empowerment, the combating of destructive cultural narratives among both the target and agent communities. Therefore, relationship-building across diverse communities is seen as crucial to social change.
A gospel-centered, kingdom-focused vision of change similarly values relationships. However, the Biblical perspective views relationships as not merely “social network development,” a means to an end, but as an end in itself. Intentional and ongoing relationships across diverse communities are not merely a means to upward mobility, but an end that Christians believe Christ died to make possible: reconciliation and unity among all people. This is Christ’s design for the Church, and it’s why Christianity affirms these models of collaboration and empowerment in social change – because people aren’t viewed projects to fix, as though we were God and able to do it. While we too easily define others by their history and circumstances, limiting our perspective of their potential, the Bible reveals a God who can resurrect the dead.  With this God, there is limitless potential.
In their study, Todd and Rufa cautioned against individualism and proposed, as an approach to social justice, community: communities with mentoring, diverse exchanges, and effective leadership.  Interestingly, their proposal seems to describe God’s design for the Church: “in Christ,… many [who] form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”  Perhaps a strange idea in the context of our American individualism, I believe this idea of belonging encapsulates the need, perspective, and motivation for truly effective change. Social science emphasizes collaboration, empowerment, and community because it recognizes what the Christian gospel affirms: that human flourishing is measured not only by our ability to have and do what we want, but by our ability to live well in relationship with each other.
Understanding to be gained
In this article, I’ve offered merely a framework for understanding social justice in the context of the kingdom of God, mostly because I’m still on a journey to discover what this will look like practically for my life, and because I don’t think the answer stops with just another technique for social change. It requires a deeper understanding of and care for the whole person, a pursuit of eternal belonging for all people, and an understanding of the belonging offered in God’s kingdom.
I wonder what it might look like to not only donate food and clothing for the homeless and impoverished, but to fight for affordable housing, innovatively combat food deserts, and work toward vocational training? What might it look like to not only volunteer at kids’ summer camps, but to address childhood trauma and abuse, engage in foster care and adoption, and support struggling parents? And what might it look like to not only donate to prison ministries, but to address adverse childhood experiences like abuse and neglect, fight for humane and restorative treatment of those in the system, and care for those affected by drug addiction?
This care is not a “social” gospel or a “liberal” theology; this is the nature of God, expressed in relationship through the Church. And the gospel is not good news because it offers security for the underprivileged; it’s good news because it offers hope for the poor in spirit, for all of mankind. It reminds us that our problems are worse than we think, but the future is better than we could ever imagine.
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13. Ephesians 2:5, ESV
14. Todd, N. R., & Rufa, A. K. (2013). Social justice and religious participation: A qualitative investigation of Christian perspectives. American Journal of Community Psychology, 51(3-4), 315-331.
15. Romans 12:5
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