Social Justice: Finding the Balance

Some believers preach a "social gospel" that may address society's ills but is very little gospel. Others preach the gospel, but do very little to help others. Where's the balance?

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Jesus Christ has never been a social activist or a moral philosopher. To pitch Him that way is to drain His glory and dilute His excellence. While justice is important, justice apart from Christ is a dead thing.

The only battering ram that can storm the gates of hell is not the cry of justice, but the name of Jesus. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of justice, peace, holiness, righteousness and every other virtue.

When Jesus becomes an abstraction, faith loses its reproductive power. Some have made Jesus the chaplain of the American dream. Others have made Him the chaplain of the Democratic Party. Still others have made Jesus the chaplain of capitalism and Republicanism. All are equally blasphemous.

Some today teach that the kingdom of God is a political utopia taught by Jesus that we Christians are charged to bring about. This is essentially the old-fashioned “social gospel.” Those who hold this view are still caught up in the old “fundamentalist individual gospel” versus “social gospel” dichotomy. Advocates think that the only way to talk about social justice is to do it in social gospel terms.

We do not reject Jesus, or justice, or the kingdom. But we reject the notion that you can take the justice side of Christ and push it into a separate theme on its own.

Origen said that Jesus is the autobasilia. He is, in Himself, the kingdom. Jesus’ own person and work are the establishing of a new humanity—a new social form of existence. In Him, we find the kingdom of God. In Him, we find what freedom and equality genuinely mean.

Practically speaking, the church (when she is functioning properly) is the new society that Jesus is creating. Christ and the church cannot be separated.

A good definition of the kingdom of God is as follows: the manifestation of God’s ruling presence. “The kingdom of God is in your midst,” Jesus said (see Luke 17:21, NASB). In other words, Jesus was saying, “I’m standing here in your midst. I am the kingdom incarnated. Not only in what I do, but in who I am.”

The kingdom of God is made visible when the community of the King embodies justice, peace, and love together, and then shares it with the world. The church, therefore, is the embodiment and instrument for displaying the kingdom of God.

We must never avoid social issues. But the distinctive mark of a Christian is that you don’t begin with a social or moral issue. You begin with God. You start with God’s revelation in Jesus, and the relationship of justifying/sanctifying/glorifying grace that the “heir of all things” releases in all of us.

You make the Light of the World, not culture, your reference point. Our time should be spent figuring out our relationship to Jesus, and what He is doing in the world. Why? So we can join Him in what He’s already doing.

If we start anywhere else but Christ, we lose our way. If we start with the social and political as our reference point, the “social gospel” becomes very much “social” and very little “gospel.” In truth there is no “gospel” that is not a “social gospel.”

For example, when we reach out to the poor and sick, we are not doing so because of some principle of justice, or some theology of poverty and sickness, or some political platform or legislation, or some responsible way of dealing with surplus wealth. We do so for three reasons:

  1. The deepest hungers of the human heart are for forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
  2. We are reaching out to Jesus Himself (see Matt. 25:36). In the poor and sick, it is Christ whom we attend, feed and love. Followers of Jesus exist for others, not for themselves.
  3. The life of Christ within us compels us to reach out to such. The Galilean prophet who healed the sick and cared for the poor continues His ministry in and through us today.

This reframing of “the poor” was one of the greatest contributions of Christianity. The pagan world called poor people “base and shady.” The Christians called them “sisters and brothers,” and identified them with Christ.

The “needy” and “afflicted” received more than alms; they also received prayer, affection and relationship. The poor were not a political problem. The poor were “us” not “them.” Care of the poor is a matter of orthodox faith.

The story of redemption is where we begin talking about moral and social issues. Of course, it is one thing to get the meaning of what Jesus said and did; it is another thing to start meaning it. Meaning is meaningless until and unless you start “meaning it.”

But “meaning it” means something other than politicization. The pressure on the church to “pietize” politics and mumble polite noises in political directions will only get stronger. What happens when these siren songs are heeded is evident in any reading of the history of the church, where the worst in the history of politics is on display. The perversion of the best yields the worst.

It is a Christian’s fatal conceit to think he can bring in the kingdom. A careful reading of the Scriptures reveals that the kingdom is not something that we bring, or build, or cause, or create. The kingdom is a presence that we enter, a gemlike gift that we receive and treasure, a new creation that engulfs and embraces us.

In other words, the kingdom of God is Jesus the Christ, and His righteousness. In seeking Him, “all these things [are] added” in our lives (see Matt. 6:33).

Adapted from Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, copyright 2010. Published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. No portion of this article may be copied or redistributed in any form. For more information, check out Jesus Manifesto on Amazon.com.

author of Jesus Manifesto
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