The church is to both fix messes and address causes when doing something about injustice
By Pierre Gilbert
Social justice is on everyone’s lips these days. Churches, government agencies and community organizations have created an endless array of social programs that seek to eradicate poverty, injustice and every form of inequality. And yet a major crisis is looming.
The reality is that there is a lot of debate about whether every one of these programs is in principle justified and whether they help rather than harm those they target. Americans, historically among the most generous people on the planet, are now forced to examine more carefully their commitments. A tanking economy that shows few signs of recovery is leaving them no choice.
Governments, nonprofit organizations and companies may be forced to calibrate their involvement in social causes in the light of looming deficits and shrinking bottom lines. Many individuals may retreat altogether due to their own financial challenges. But Christians do not have the luxury of simply shielding their eyes and their hearts from those in need.
A Christian conundrum
While Christians agree that we are to care for those in need, what does that exactly entail? Common sense dictates that there is more involved than simply one’s ability to give. What constitutes true Christian compassion? How do we prioritize limited resources in the face of overwhelming needs? Can or should we explicitly maintain some degree of public Christian identity? These and other questions must be addressed.
Such issues are exceedingly difficult to resolve. Over the years, I have found that every time I face such a conundrum, the best exit strategy, even if the outcome proves to be less than ideal, consists in clarifying the basic premises that pertain to the problem. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to examine some of the important principles that apply to the issue of social justice in the hope that such an exercise may provide some guidance.
The poor: Then and now
The first principle is a nonnegotiable. Followers of Jesus Christ are called to express love and care for all and especially for the poor. Jesus himself says that whatever we do for “one of the least of these,” the stranger, the homeless and the hungry, that it is for him that we do it (Matt. 25:40). As Jesus gave his own life to give us what we most desperately need—life itself—so are we to give our lives for others.
The Old Testament constantly reminds us of the necessity to care for the poor and destitute. These injunctions found in the Pentateuch and the prophetic books reflect the very core of the Sinai covenant and are in fact an expression of God’s very own heart. Simple enough, right? Well…not quite.
If we are going to invoke Jesus’ words or the Old Testament, which represents the backdrop to Jesus’ discourse, it is crucial we at least clarify whom exactly the poor were. Strictly speaking, there is not an exact equivalence between those we commonly refer to as the “poor” in America and the “poor” in ancient Israel.
In Old Testament times, the poor were those who could not literally take care of themselves, either because of a physical handicap or because they were disconnected from their immediate family network, as was sometimes the case for widows and orphans. The constellation of social agencies we take for granted simply didn’t exist.
The family unit represented the average Israelite’s primary safety net. In accordance with the principles of personal responsibility found in the Pentateuch (Gen. 3:14-24; 4:7; Lev .26:3, 14-15; Deut. 28:1, 15; etc.), which are even to this day at the very heart of Jewish culture, able-bodied men were expected to support themselves, and families were responsible to look after their own. Paul echoes these axioms in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11 and 1 Timothy 5:8.
Some readers will surely point out that the Old Testament prophets were quite strident in their calls for social justice. Micah 6:8 is often quoted as the classic expression of the prophetic concern for the poor: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Fair enough. But contrary to popular opinion, Micah was no Marxist. It would be a mistake to think that the prophetic books were simply about the struggle of the poor against the rich.
The sin of the upper class
The injunctions found in these books target every layer of Israelite society. The poor are condemned for indulging in a kind of idolatry that expresses itself in the creation of places of worship dedicated to foreign gods. As for the rich, they are rebuked because they harness their resources to corrupt the priests, judges and prophets, their intent being to steal land and property.
What is the sin of the upper class then? A form of idolatry that takes the shape of a vicious economic attack mainly against the farming class, which in ancient Israel roughly corresponds to our own middle class.
As disgraceful as stinginess might be, it is not a mere lack of generosity that the prophets critique. The source of their anger is the systematic destruction of the mechanisms that enabled Israelite society to create wealth. By their predatory behavior, the rich were in fact destroying the structures that enabled average Israelites to support themselves. Now that’s a reason to get agitated, for when a society (intentionally or not) moves in a similar direction, it rapidly becomes a vast poverty-producing “factory.”
Plumbers and engineers
Christ calls the church to express his love toward all and particularly the poor and the downtrodden. In that sense, Christians are a little like plumbers who are tasked with “unplugging toilets” whenever it is needed, without asking questions or counting the cost.
But that is not all. In the image of God himself who addressed the root cause of the human condition, true Christian love also seeks to figure out why the “toilet is plugged.” If God is always looking for plumbers to take care of the messes that are inherent to the human condition, he also calls engineers to address the structural causes that lead to “plugged toilets.”
Concretely, this means, for example, that Christians are not only responsible to assist victims of oppression; like the prophets of old, they also seek to neutralize the forces that cause oppression in the first place. This is something the great abolitionist William Wilberforce had understood.
If we are going to be engineers who look for solutions and not merely plumbers who clean up messes, then it is imperative we become conscious of the historical and cultural distance that exists between the world of the Bible and ours. Clarity in this respect is absolutely essential; not only to bypass superficial comparisons but also to avoid being captured by harmful ideologies and policies mistakenly believed to be sanctioned by Scripture.
In the image of God
The Bible proclaims that men and women are created in the image of God. If that is indeed the case, then true Christian social activism must go beyond mere charity. At the very least, it will promote and cultivate, wherever possible, a sense of personal responsibility, self-reliance and personal dignity that alone can enable men and women to live with courage, honor and resourcefulness in difficult times.
Because human beings are infinitely more than the sum of their appetites (Matt. 4:4), Christian social action should both emerge out of the gospel and seek to integrate the message of the gospel. While we may not always be in a position to proclaim openly the claims of Christ, it is delusional to think that we can create an impenetrable firewall between our concrete expression of God’s love in the world and the proclamation of the good news (Matt.11:5).
The church that is committed to social justice without maintaining a sharp focus on the message of the gospel is destined, at best, to become the State’s lackey; at worst, an active obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel.
Pierre Gilbert holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from the Université de Montréal and teaches at Canadian Mennonite University