Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Social Justice Is Not a Bad Word

Through Twitter, I came across a story yesterday reporting that Glenn Beck called upon religious people to leave their church if their church claimed to be concerned about and/or involved with issues of social justice or economic justice. According to Beck, these ideas are "code words" to hide socialist and communist philosophies.

To start with, if you are going to leave your church because Glenn Beck tells you to, then I dare say you weren't all that interested in being in that church is the first place.

Now, let's talk about social justice. What exactly does this term mean? I don't know if "social justice" means the same thing to all people in all circumstances. Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. The development of liberation theology in the developing world. Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farms. All of these individuals and movements, as well as many more, could be classified as representative of "social justice" movements. While there are some similarities that would connect these movements, to say that they are exactly alike would be, I believe, inaccurate.

To me, "social justice" refers to the recognition of inequalities that exist in society, the suffering that results from those inequalities, and working to change the results and/or causes of those inequalities in order to bring relief to the suffering. Notice how that sentence started - "to me". I believe that "social justice" has become a term like "Coke". There are places where people ask for a "Coke" and they are not asking for a Coca-Cola drink. They are asking for some other soft drink, probably brown in color, that has some qualities in common with Coca-Cola but is not a Coca-Cola. I think "social justice" has become, in use, an umbrella term for a wide range of ideas and actions designed to impact larger communities. My concern when I read some of Beck's comments is that he is basing his argument on an extremely narrow (and questionably accurate?) understanding of what "social justice" means and then tossing aside anything that bears the label of "social justice" without stopping to truly consider and investigate whether or not what is being tossed aside actually matches his own definition.

But even more than that, the reality is that the church has been concerned with social justice long before social justice became the popular term it is today. Go all the way back to the Torah, and you will see Moses commanding the Israelites to insure that all people, regardless of wealth or social status, get a fair hearing in the meetings in the city gates. Prophets like Micah chastised Israel for neglecting justice and kindness: while Israel was more concerned with sacrificial ritual, Micah said in Micah 6:8 that what the LORD required was not rams or oil or firstborn children, but that God's people "... do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?" When we move into the New Testament, we see Christ identifying himself with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned and identifying His people as those who met the needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. In Acts, we are told on a couple of occasions that the believers held nothing of their own but shared all their belongings in common so that no one among them would have need.

I believe these are Biblical examples of "social justice". Should believers really walk out of churches that take these ideas and put them into practice?

I will not deny that there are times and occasions when churches and believers can become so concerned with issues and doing works and taking up causes that they neglect their identity as the body of Christ and forsake the proclamation of the good news of salvation. There is a danger at times of the church trying to be the savior of the world rather than allowing Christ to be the Savior of the world. However, I do not think that a concern for social justice contradicts a church's message and identity. As I look at the Scriptures I mentioned above as well as the fuller witness of the Bible, I believe that to be who God calls us to be requires a concern for justice. I think it would be a tragic mistake to let "social justice" become a bad word within the church.