I am a social justice Christian. I declare this neither because I can say it better than others nor because such a movement needs my voice to be effective. I want to join a growing chorus of voices that can bring attention to the need for social justice in this country and in the larger world in which we live.
Since the recent comments by Fox News personality Glenn Beck disparaging churches that practice social justice, the idea of social justice has come into the forefront of public discussion. That is a very good thing, which I assume Beck did not intend. His remarks have opened the door for us to take this opportunity to reclaim the social justice message that is still at the heart of Jesus’ life and teachings.
I am a social justice Christian but have not always been one. The church in which I grew up never talked about social justice. In fact, I was raised in the racially divided south, where the Bible Belt culture of white southern America is perhaps the most stalwart bastion against social justice we might find in this country. The church in which I grew up was more concerned about the salvation of individual souls than the human dignity of a person that justice can bring.
But over the last two decades, since I started honestly reading the Bible, and particularly the stories about Jesus, I have discovered something very transforming. If there is anything at the center of Jesus’ teachings and his actions, it is the message that the kingdom of God has come, and that God’s kingdom is no spiritual idea that only promises eternal salvation to lost souls. No, God’s kingdom, as it is announced by Jesus, is the idea of justice, social justice for the outcast, the oppressed, the poor and the sick.
Given this understanding of Jesus’ message, I am willing to say that if we are not social justice Christians, then perhaps we might want to consider that we may not be followers of Jesus. To use Beck’s parlance, I would say that if your church does not talk about social justice and does not act to bring about progress toward social justice, then perhaps you should run away, or at least you should raise this important issue as fundamental to the church’s identity and mission.
If we are not for social justice, then we have abandoned our following of Jesus and have become followers of an institutional religion that has discarded justice for the poor and oppressed for some sort of salvation for the soul. Moreover, institutionalized American religion has embraced the American idea of individualism above community and the pursuit of wealth above the pursuit of justice.
Yet, to be followers of Jesus means that we are on the side of God who has a heart of justice. Indeed, the idea of justice runs throughout the Bible as a unifying thread, and most of what is said about justice has to do with bringing justice to others who are victims of a cruel world in which systems have been created that offer power and comfort to some and oppression and pain to others.
I know that some will argue that the church is to care for justice through personal giving and Christian service toward those who are hurting. I would offer an amen to such a view, but only if this is part of the solution. While some argue that government cannot bear the burden of bringing about social justice, I would argue that neither can the church if it simply encourages individual giving and service.
Yes, Christians should act individually and corporately by living simply and by giving generously to provide for the basic needs of all human beings. But Christians and their churches can only do so much.
We should also take up our responsibility to work together with others to accomplish justice in much broader and sustainable ways. To work for social justice means that we are to use our personal generosity and service to help others. But we must also use our voices to support governmental legislation and programs that provide for the welfare of all our citizens, through health care reform, education reform and, yes, tax reform that benefits the least among us. In doing so, we can work to ensure that the programs that bring help to the poor are effectively sustained. Our Christian duty is both individual and personal as well as corporate and political.
But being a social justice Christian is far from being a socialist or a communist. Indeed, equating socialism with communism is also a mistake. Beck and others use these terms interchangeably as a way of ratcheting up the rhetoric. But caring for the people all around us in ways that lifts them up out of their state of poverty and restores them holistically is not communism; it is the gospel of Jesus.
Broken systems that continue the status quo of marginalizing, oppressing and holding down those who need to be lifted up must be changed. There must be a redefining of our values that leads to a redistribution of wealth and power so that all may share. Jesus, in line with the Hebrew prophets, challenged the systems of his day that continued the cycle of injustice that not only entrapped the poor and marginalized in their troubles but also prevented them from experiencing the fullness of human dignity as equal members of the larger community.
Followers of Jesus must stand for social justice that calls us to do more than simply acting as individuals and as churches through our giving. We can give to others in order to bring them help and comfort, and indeed we should. But, unless we act as a collective society through enacting just social and economic policies, we will only continue the plight of the poor, the sick and the suffering.
Continuing along a path that fails to work for social justice in our world will mean that we will not progress as a society that values all humanity as made in the image of God. Rather, we will perpetuate and expand a gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, and the sick and the well that will inevitably plunge us deeper into an abyss of materialism and narcissism, and we will fail in our following of Jesus.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.