The Root of Justice

The Root of Justice

Where – exactly – is the interface between Christian faith and society at-large? In its 2,000 year history, Christianity has been deployed in some way or another in virtually every society in the world. Many of these societies do not look like modern American society and, outwardly at least, Christian expressions often look very different. Sometimes, Christianity has operated at odds with secular society, from early Roman days to modern Iran, for example. Some societies have been purposefully built up around Christianity, like Calvin’s Geneva or some early American colonies. But all of these examples point us to the question of the essential purpose of Christianity: personal salvation, societal transformation, or both?

Jesus is unequivocal about our command to help relieve human suffering. In the parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25) Jesus says that those who take care of the stranger, the sick and the prisoner will inherit the kingdom, while those who don’t will be cursed. The parable is expressed in such a way that these acts of kindness and charity are clearly an extension of Christ’s love. The one who does not perform these acts is not only abandoning the needy, they are also abandoning Christ. Works of mercy and charity are inexorably bound up with the love of Christ: the one cannot exist without the other.

This necessity for the care of others less fortunate eventually led to the establishment of hospitals and groups specifically dedicated to relieving human misery and suffering. Eventually enthusiasm and commitment to this principle grew to embrace larger concerns – societal concerns – that went beyond the realm of individual suffering. The justification for this was a desire to address root causes rather than the resultant effects.

The revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790 – 1840) spawned or strengthened two broader social movements: the abolition of slavery, and women’s rights. It is difficult to argue against the worthiness of these movements. For example, although slavery is often treated as a normal part of life in the Bible, there is clear biblical justification for the abolition of slavery. If Paul can advocate for the release of Onesimus in his letter to Philemon, it’s not much of a stretch to apply the same principle to slavery as a whole. If Deborah can lead the Israelites in their ongoing battles with the Canaanites (Judges 4) why shouldn’t all women have the opportunity to lead and be heard?

And yet . . . we still struggle with echoes of these problems today. Issues of the extent of bodily autonomy and equal pay persist for women. The evil of racism and racially based inequality continues well in to the 21st century. Does this mean that Gospel based approaches to these problems didn’t work and should be abandoned? Since Gospel based approaches have lately been sidetracked, is that in itself proof they didn’t work? But if works of mercy and charity are inexorably bound up with the love of Christ, doesn’t abandoning Christ automatically turn our efforts into failures?

We could hide behind the complexities of these questions and simply throw our hands up in the air and proclaim, “well, I’m doing the best I can.” But I wonder if Jesus might not point out to us that, in our attempts to recreate the zeal of 19th century reformers, we may only have copied the form but not the substance. For example, programs that reward drug addicts by giving them easy access to the source of their addictions seem antithetical to Christ’s message of caring, but are supported by many Christians. Systems that seek revenge against one race for the injustices their ancestors perpetrated on another don’t even remotely fit into Christ’s messaging of forgiveness or justice, but are nevertheless supported by many Christians.

Persistent and seemingly intractable social problems have caused some to effectively give up on God, even if nominally calling themselves Christians, and strike out on their own to fix society. Others have given up on the idea of God completely, claiming that human problems can only be fixed by humans. Yet, somehow, with Christ out of the equation, the same problems persist, and some solutions appear to be making things even worse. This is quite simply because the modern social doctors have normalized human frailty, brokenness and sin, while the 19th century revivalists knew what they were up against. Here is a poignant case in point: under a new program in Oregon, when given the choice between treatment or more drugs, fewer than 1% chose treatment. Drugs are highly addictive and adversely affect behavior. So does sin.

This is not to imply that all modern social justice efforts are futile or anti-Christian. But because many emanate from non-Christian or nominal-Christian sources, we need to evaluate each effort in the light of furthering our movement towards God’s kingdom using the light provided to us by Christ. Movements that classify people into groups of universally shared common attributes and behaviors should warrant a closer examination, since they likely subvert both individual responsibility and individual achievement. Movements that help open up the Gospel by relieving the interference of hunger, poverty or drug addiction might be more in keeping with Christ’s message in Matthew 25.

In the end, the joy of Christ’s grace will not be realized by trying to fix society using human, materialistic tools. Even Christ admits the poor will always be with us, and not everyone can be “fixed.” The joy comes with the realization that the Holy Spirit, through you, has actually touched someone, and that their spiritual resurrection might actually make a positive difference in more lives, ultimately leading to a more widespread positive change across society. Even though it is still unfolding, this has happened with women’s rights. Even though we still struggle with racism, the great evil of slavery in America was overthrown, and advocates for the way of Jesus like Martin Luther King Jr. touched many lives of all races. Social justice starts with personal justice, which is not a gift of man, but of Christ.

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