Does the church have a role in working for social justice? Conversations that begin with this question usually take one of two diverging paths. When the response is enthusiastic, the discussion very quickly takes on a political tone. If the response is, “Don’t you feel like the church already focuses too much on social justice?” the discussion turns to explaining why we shouldn’t mix politics and religion. These two divergent conversations have led me to a conclusion: Our ideas about issues of social justice are, regardless of ideological standing, largely influenced by cultural and political forces rather than biblical ones.
Perhaps unconsciously, we have failed to include our faith in our reasoning. Regardless of how we feel about social justice, we have isolated this important issue from church life. We have compartmentalized personal spirituality and social engagement and that, I fear, is problematic. By examining the Bible, we can discover that Jesus’ message and the message of social justice are in fact synonymous and should be treated accordingly by the church.
To see how social justice fits into the work of the church, the prophetic nature of Jesus must be understood. Walter Brueggemann suggests that to be a prophet is to “…nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”[i] Jesus embodied this definition when He stood up for the oppressed and rebuked the politically powerful pharisees, actions which ultimately led to His crucifixion. Present day American Evangelicalism has often avoided this prophetic persona of Jesus and has instead turned all attention to the cross, emphasizing abundant grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Focusing only on a personal Savior theology like this presents a diminished, myopic view of the Gospel. The church has largely emphasized Jesus the Redeemer and neglected Jesus the Prophet, falling captive to Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace.” The first step in understanding how social justice is central to the work of the church is to acknowledge the prophetic character of Jesus.
Scripture also emphasizes the importance of social justice in various passages. Luke chapter 4 puts social justice at the center of the Gospel message when Jesus proclaimed the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV). Jesus fulfills the central Isaianic message of hope to the oppressed. He also fulfills the prophecy laid out in Isaiah 42 which carries a similar theme of justice: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations… He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth… I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon...” (Isaiah 42:1,4,6-7 NRSV, emphasis added). Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies of justice, righteousness, and hope to the oppressed, all key elements of the biblical mandate to engage in the work of social justice.
Jesus also brought a message of peace. If the church is to take the biblical concept of social justice seriously, it must be equally committed to peacemaking. History indicates that peacemaking is a sustainable solution for bringing justice to the oppressed. The nonviolent direct action of Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi all exemplify peacemaking without sacrificing justice. Followers of Christ should seek to emulate this approach, not only for its efficacy, but also because of the Gospel imperative to “love thy neighbor.”
Isaiah famously proclaims the coming Messiah as a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” He continues to emphasize peacemaking by stating that “[Jesus’] authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness...” (Isaiah 9:6-7 NRSV, emphasis added). Biblical scholars Gushee and Stassen, in their book Kingdom Ethics, wrote that “Jesus taught, lived, and died the way of peacemaking, the way of deliverance from the sinful pattern of violence.”[ii]
Jesus’ entire ministry was an embodiment of peace. His crucifixion was the ultimate act of peace; the Son of God withheld any use of force and instead chose to shed no blood. Many Christian traditions, including Adventism, have fallen away from the widespread commitment to nonviolence of the early church. It must be remembered, however, that Jesus did not call for conditional, convenient peacemaking but for a breaking of the sinful cycle of violence. Followers of Jesus should be committed to breaking this cycle, especially as the Gospel unifies peacemaking and social justice in its message to the church.
Some may object that the church has no role engaging in social justice, arguing that it distracts from issues of inner spirituality, faith and prayer, or personal morality. Implicit in this argument is the belief that the church is only responsible for bringing individuals into a relationship with God. However, this viewpoint fails to acknowledge the church’s role as a social institution. In Jesus’ time, there was no “public” and “private” church; rather, the church was fully engaged with the community and society.
Today, the church must do more as a social institution, especially working with those who are most vulnerable. The author of James would agree. He stated, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27 NLT). When there is an imbalance between “faith and works,” there is potential to fall into the temptation of dualism. A dualistic view bypasses church involvement within social justice initiatives and compartmentalizes the “secular issues” and the “spiritual issues.” But as Kingdom Ethics correctly points out, “God has sovereignty over Caesar; we render to Caesar only what fits God’s will.”[iii]
Thus, if Christians are to be truly faithful to God, we cannot partition Him to the “secular” and “spiritual” areas of life. God is not a cosmic Santa Claus who only makes a weekly appearance at church to answer prayers received in worship. Additionally, cultural, political, and ideological influences often govern our lives more than we are consciously aware of. A dualistic way of thinking does not give God dominion over all, and thus opens the door to these outside forces. By engaging in matters of social justice from a biblical perspective, the church gives God sovereignty over everything, both spiritual and social.
The words of Jesus and the prophets make it clear: the church has a theological and ethical responsibility to engage with issues of social justice. How this is actualized will undoubtedly vary. Regardless of what our personal or political convictions are, however, we should seek to approach social justice with a heart of peacemaking. While there will always be disagreement about how the church should achieve justice, may we as the body of Christ come together in ways that enact positive change. By setting out to “bring good news to the oppressed” (Isaiah 61:1 NRSV) the church can actively take part in the work of bringing the Kingdom of God to this earth.
Notes & References:
[ii] David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, Michighan: Eerdmans, 2016), 318.
Nico Belliard is obtaining a dual-degree in medicine and bioethics from Loma Linda University. He is a recent graduate of Walla Walla University and enjoys spending his spare time exploring the outdoors via bicycle, reading, and playing board games.
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