Recently a popular news commentator remarked that all church members should be weary if any of their clergy mentions the term “social justice” in a sermon, as this supposedly implies a hidden agenda for socialistic tendencies in government structure. Needless to say, the comment caused a significant amount of controversy. We ought not be terribly concerned about who made this comment so much as what it reflects about our culture and attitudes toward caring for the least of these in and outside of the church. Why is there fear in the minds of some expressing that concern and awareness about social justice issues can have negative repercussions? Is this fear valid or grounded in anything legitimate, or is it instead rooted in resistance to change or progress in general? It seems that there is some disagreement about how social justice should be carried out, and these are not simple or easily answered questions.
Social Justice is undoubtedly an important theme found throughout the Bible and also the history of Christianity. At times the Church has done great work on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized, but regrettably at other times it has also been the perpetrator of grave injustice. Examining the question of how exactly the church should understand its role and function in society with respect to social issues is a critical task, and one that is often neglected. There are a number of different ways that Christians have understood the relationship between the Church and culture. Questions often arise like the following: What is Church’s concept of justice in the world today? Should the church ever locate itself on a particular political platform or speak out about specific issues, and should there be a preference on the part of Christians for one economic system over and against another? These are some of the essential questions one must ask in order to begin outlining a specifically Christian kind of social justice.
The great twentieth century theologian Richard Niebuhr writes about five different views of the relationship between Christ and civilization. For our purposes, the descriptions will be simplified somewhat, but he implores a helpful model from which we can borrow to further explore this topic. The running inquiry throughout the following examination should be to ponder the extent to which God has asked Christians to participate in ordering society in accordance with Christian principles. Let us assume at this point that the standard by which we want to treat others is best exhibited in what the gospels tell us about Jesus Christ. There is a great deal of interpretation needing to be done in order to work from this point, but we will set that aside temporarily. As is often the case, the following categories are not mutually exclusive, as they allow for a certain degree of overlap and mutuality. The purpose is of this review is to survey different views that have been held by Christians over the course of history so that a better understanding of the various options is laid out.
Christ and Culture
First, Niebuhr describes the view of Christ against Culture. This is the most uncompromising of the views, with exceptional stress placed on anti-assimilation to culture – more or less a complete rejection of the hope that anything good can come from being immersed in the un-Christianized world. The role of the Church herein is to establish itself as independently from society and as autonomously as possible in order to protect against syncretism and infiltration.
Second, we have the view of Christ of Culture. Basically the opposite of the first view, this position holds that culture can be, and often is, actually good. In this view a tremendous infamous is placed on the responsibly that Christians have to be in the culture and maintain fellowship with believers and unbelievers alike. Christ and culture are interpreted through each other. Though there is opportunity for much interaction here and influence, this understanding of Christ tends to get watered-down and to lose its authenticity. Christ and Culture are easily mistaken for one another.
Thirdly there is the viewpoint of Christ above Culture. From this perspective, culture is not really seen as necessarily good or bad, and so there is not a battle going on between Christ and culture per se. Culture does however need to be elevated up to the level of Christ. God works in and is manifested in culture, and so neither Christ nor culture can be seen as independent of each other. We might even say here that God directs and sustains culture, so this view posits a fairly optimistic outlook still of human nature much like Christ in Culture, but there is still something critically distinct about Christ that begets culture’s need for Christ.
Fourth of all, Christ and Culture can be viewed in paradox. Though somewhat similar to Christ above culture, this view is different in that the relationship is not seen as so much of a harmony and cooperation between the two as it is a contrast and tension. Sin is very much the cause of this conflict. Whereas with Christ above Culture grace is found in both spheres, here grace abounds in Christ and sin in culture. This culture still has some grace, but it’s very sparse, broken, and fragmented. The two realms would not be seen as diametrically opposed however as they are in the case of Christ against Culture. This view effectively captures the nature of people as at once sinful and righteous, guilty and innocent, condemned and forgiven. The challenge though with this view is that often we can become comfortable with this duality and slide into stagnation. Martin Luther seemed to talk about this view when he discussed the two kingdoms – the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. He saw it as necessary to live in and be citizens of both.
Lastly the view is depicted of Christ the Transformer of Culture. Those who see the relationship in this light are conversionists and tend to have a fairly hopeful view of culture. Human beings fell from something good, and God is taking action to reconcile them back for glory. Culture can still be good, and it is our job to work for its improvement. The way to overcome this fallen state is to fix our attention and aim on Jesus and orienting our thoughts toward God. The reliance is not upon ourselves but on the Creator to restore.
Having something of framework from which to work for conceptualizing the relationship between Christ and culture will help us somewhat when turning to consider the matter of Church and social justice to which we now turn.
Three Main Theories of Justice
Within society today and specifically the United States, which is our context, many of us have a certain idea about what the best form of government should be, and much of the infrastructure both in the systems of power that regulate society and within the institutional church reflect these ideas.
With respect to national government for example, those who argue for an economic system that supports first and foremost the liberty of people to simply have the opportunity for prosperity rather than a guaranteed level of livelihood tend to prefer free-market systems with less government interference and trickle-down theories of capitalism that promote competition. The idea here is that a larger percentage of the people will be better off in the long run, but the downside is that some will inevitably have to live below the poverty line. Usually this number cannot be directly controlled.
On the other hand, there are those who think it is better to strive toward ensuring that every person has his or her needs met, but this inevitably entails the risk of retarding economic progress to some extent. These folks advocate for more liberal capitalism or even democratic socialism (there are communists, anarchists, and others as well, but we are zeroing in on the more plausible options for our current situation). It’s a game of “pick your poison.” The difficulty with this position is that larger and more powerful governments have not always been able to successfully implement such a system. There have been circumstances particularly in Latin America where dictatorships have arisen instead, and some would say that overall this model has already failed. The other challenging aspect about this view is that it must assume a kind of value system that is more or less universally agreed upon, and the more pluralistic our society is, the less likely it is to achieve consensus on such matters.
A third option for a way to conceive of justice involves love and compassion, but in order for these two virtues to made manifest, a certain type of community must cultivated, and that community is explicitly Christian and imagined in terms of the Kingdom of God about which Jesus spoke. Some have thought that a specifically Christian ethic can be implemented a grander scale to affect all of society, while others dissent and insist that such values can only be really had in places where there is freedom to choose instead of being forced to comply (i.e., not in the mainstream system where a plethora of religions, worldviews, and value systems thrive). This latter view is different from the former and the others above especially in that it is not a model for culture and society but rather for the church alone. The question we are left with from these differing philosophies is whether or not the world is the place where Christians are supposed to administer justice, and if our responsibility rests only in our immediate sphere of influence.
The church itself can take on different forms of government as we can observe throughout history, ranging from top-down, hierarchical structures to bottom-up, more democratic forms of polity, but this is another discussion altogether.
Three views of the Church
Besides our Christian definition of justice, there is also the critical concern of whether or not Christians are supposed to be involved in secular government affairs and be activists therein. Like the justice dispute, a wide range of opinions exists on this spectrum as well within historic Christian circles. Some are convinced that it is the task of Christians to be agents of change in worldly establishments of power, all in the name of Jesus and what he preached. The hope here coincides with a “higher” view of culture falling into one of the categories discussed above of either Christ in Culture, Christ above Culture, and maybe Christ the Transformer of Culture in some ways. Optimism characterizes this outlook on humanity and its sinful condition.
Two major movements in the twentieth century have embodied this approach to thinking about the church and society: The Social Gospel at the turn of the century with proponents like Walter Rauschenbusch, influenced in part by Protestant Liberalism, and Liberation Theology beginning in Latin America during the seventies with defenders to be discussed later on.
Conversely, others are certain that Jesus’ example was apolitical in the traditional sense. Sometimes this view emphasizes only a individualistic, personal message about salvation and religious piety, as if the job of Christians is get as many people on to the life raft to heaven by way of faith in Jesus in order to escape the evil world going to hell in a hand basket as it were. Unfortunately this view has been far too prevalent in recent Christian history within American Evangelicalism. It is unquestionably antithetical to the Gospel and thus should always be dismissed. The reason for this is not because we think hope in salvation after this world is unimportant. In fact it is vital. Rather we equally maintain that Jesus has offered us hope for this world here and now. A message divergent to this is a lie and poisonous to the body as it breads escapism and indifference to the needs around us.
There is another way of looking at the apolitical view though, as there are still those who believe that Jesus came to set up an alternative community consistent with the values found in the Kingdom of God, to be wholly distinct from society and to thereby be a light and witness to the world. Such a view can still be socially oriented, but it applies strictly to the church and not society at large. Because of this, the church is not responsible for transforming culture or even influencing it in the bigger scheme of things. People from society can be invited into the alternative community, but rarely would the church see itself as responsible for “being all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9), or something of that nature. A fairly recent advocate for this approach would be John Howard Yoder, or even more contemporarily, Greg Boyd.
Contrasting Understandings of Violence
Implicit to the consideration of whether liberty or equity is of greater priority for the Christian community is also the question of what exactly constitutes violence and whether or not violence is ever acceptable. First, one must consider whether coercion or manipulation of power, even if not explicitly violent, is ever something in which Christians should take part. If we are supposed to be imitators of Jesus in principle, do the accounts we have of his life and teachings give warrant for support of or participation on our part in anything that involves law enforcement or even killing (e.g., Child Protective Services, the military, etc.) In so many ways what can seem like good and necessary agencies are corrupt and broken manifestations of sinful people’s attempt to control and dominate, even if for reasonable or defensibly just causes. What about protests or demonstrations, or any kind of non-violent striking that could, with relatively probable predictability, lead to violent reactions or riots such as the Civil Rights Movement?
Let us review several different perspectives on such questions and try to think about what might be the most accurate way to perceive the justification for our actions and involvement in various imperfect systems and movements. One even better known twentieth century theologian and brother of Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr, maintains that violence is a necessary evil and a last resort. There will inevitably be times when Christians will have to cooperate through violent means or even directly participate in violent acts. Afterwards, however, we ought to recognize the sin committed in what we have done, confess it, and repent.
Another influential thinker of the last several decades is a Latin American man named Gustavo Gutierrez from Peru. Gutierrez believes that in certain circumstances, violence is not only necessary but justified. The context for such an occasion for Gutierrez might be similar to what many of the disenfranchised and oppressed people groups in Latin America have had to experience throughout most of their history; namely, for instance, a situation where starving and dying, marginalized persons rise up and overthrow an elite, wealthy, and ruling class in the name of God’s preferential option for the poor and in declaration that all inhumanity is contrary to the will of God.
One might be quite tempted to sympathize at least somewhat with Gutierrez here. Reinhold Niebuhr might be imaging a different set of circumstances where repentance after violence is appropriate. In Niebuhr’s case, for example, repentance should definitely take place after the U.S. decided to bomb Germany in order to end the war. Many innocent people died, but perhaps ultimately more lives were saved as a result. Nonetheless, everyone knew it was still a terrible, sad, and unfair deed. The situation in Latin American is obviously different, but does this give justification for the violence, and can we even say, speaking as people of affluence and from a privileged or relatively wealthy perspective?
Examining the Scriptures
How does one begin to discern and decide which combination of the above ideologies is correct? Well, obviously one place to start looking for answers is the Bible, and in particular the Gospels. It is clear that Jesus called for passivity and non-violence in his teachings on love, charity, meekness, and forgiveness. Or is it? What about stories like the cursing or cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19), the political demonstration of the Triumphal Entry on the donkey (Matthew 21, John 12), and the many instances where Jesus directly undermines the authorities of his day by calling them names, accusing them of lying and cheating, of being hypocrites and fools? Could these deeds be construed as violent? It is true that Jesus commands humility, generosity, and even love of the enemy rather than defensiveness, and he was submissive even unto death. Wasn’t his brutal execution intentionally provoked though despite his innocence? What are we to make of this?
Indeed, Jesus instructs us to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5, Luke 6), to “go with him two miles” (Matthew 5), to “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5), and to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18), so there is surely a tremendous call to surrender, to empty, and die to self as Paul expounds upon later on in Philippians and elsewhere. Yet we have these laws and prophetic texts in the Old Testament that so strongly command us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant, and to not pervert justice (Exodus 22-23, Amos 5, Zechariah 7), so at what cost, and to what potentially violent end? Jesus warns us too in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) that there will be a reversal one day of roles for those who are rich and fail to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and take care of the sick. Those who make much of themselves will be brought down, but the humble will be exalted (Isaiah 2, Matthew 23, Luke 14, 18). “Small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7). Anyone who does not deny his or herself and take up his or her cross daily is not worthy to come after Jesus (Matthew 10, 16, Mark 8, Luke 9, 14). These are the kind of demands that caused the disciples to ask, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19).
The seemingly unrealistic nature of such expectations has caused many to conclude that Jesus does not actually think we can expect to keep this “law.” Others, however, like another Latin American theologian named Juan Luis Segundo, are convinced that Jesus himself was not able to be completely free of violence, loosely speaking. Like any human being, even if we believe he was also God, Jesus had to choose spending time with some people over others. Certain decisions that he made and actions that he took had to have caused some harm and some bother to some people inadvertently, and not just those whom he opposed. This need not signify that Jesus sinned; rather, he subjected himself to human limitations. According to Segundo, Jesus stereotyped the Pharisees. He had to though in order to say anything substantial about them, Segundo would say. Is this justification enough to get us off the hook when we hurt others? Not hardly, but the point still stands that we should not give in to the allusion that we can ever live totally free of violence.
Living with the Tension
It is as if there is a great tension between the mandates to sacrifice much for our neighbor (Luke 10) and to live peacefully so much as it depends on us (1 Thessalonians 5, Romans 12), so what are the social implications in today’s setting? There is a temptation on the one hand to make an idol out of social justice and place it too high on a pedestal. Most of us, however, are probably not in too much danger of this. On the other hand, it is more likely that many of us have fallen prey to the temptation to over-spiritualize social concerns and depend too much on God to fix everything in the end, rendering ourselves blameless for all the world’s trouble.
Sadly, this is what many Christians did in Germany during the 1940’s. How else was so much evil able to come about save from the failure of Christians, of which there were many, to risk their security and speak out against the rising fusion of church and state and of apathy toward propaganda, apartheid and eventually genocide? Sure there were those who were ignorant, but there also those who were culpable.
Some More Practical Questions
Why should Christians take time to ask these questions? Well, there are many practical application concerns and decisions that are affected by these differing ideologies in every day life. Take for instance the question of whether or not Christian families should send their children to public schools, or if churches should partner with non-Christians groups to work on justice initiatives – these are not always black and white issues. How concerned should Christians be about what they buy and where it comes from? Is it petty to wonder about such things? If indeed we are supposed to be following Jesus and caring for people and the planet holistically, then maybe these questions are worthy of some serious consideration. Is it ever appropriate to publically address political party-line controversies in the church, or to preach about them? While most of us would likely be willing to profess that neither Democratic nor Republican positions are more or less Christian necessarily, do we really believe this, or is this in and of itself a mere “political correctness?” Does the hesitation to speak about such things lead to missed opportunities for the church to be a prophetic voice in the world and to stand up for justice when the chance presents itself?
Something else that might be worth considering: Are we as a Christian congregation guilty of placing the priority of unity, however vaguely defined, higher than faithfulness? Do we worry too much about what other people will think and concern ourselves with not being divisive so much so that we fail to speak the truth and act on it accordingly? I fear that this is far too often the case, and we are probably all guilty. Unity, or worse, the allusion of unity, has the potential to be as dangerous of an idol as anything else.
It seems the Church is exceptionally susceptible to the idol of unity when it comes to doctrine. Feeling like we all believe the exact same thing can be quite the false comfort. First of all, realistically most of us are going to have opposing viewpoints on some issues, and this is not something to be shunned. Though unity within the body of Christ is essential, it is mostly essential insofar as we agree upon whom our Savior is and how we have been instructed to build one another up in love. Conflict is an inevitable consequence in any church that is working closely together to have God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven – conflict from both within and outside church. The Church should above all seek to make disciples and by the Holy Spirit’s leading be made cleansed and free from sin by the application of confession, repentance, grace, humility, and forgiveness. Following Jesus’ teachings on how to carefully rebuke each other (Matthew 18), Christians should be able to correct each other and develop unity, realizing that we will all be wrong sometimes.
Please do not hear me saying that doctrine is unimportant. In fact, the two must be balanced out. Doctrine strikes me as particularly important when it comes to what the Church says about the character of God, and this should never be neglected in the name of unity either, just as works of righteousness should not be neglected. The lesson here is that unity can be both a good and a bad thing. We are trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, and that convicting and compelling truth that leads to right belief and right action, above everything else, is what should determine how unified we are.
Action Before Answers
What are the injustices that are happening where we live right now, and what can we do about? Who are the unnoticed, the forgotten, and the unlovable ones in our midst that desperately need our love and attention? These are not so much questions that demand immediate answers as they are questions that need to be raised frequently and reflected upon often. This might be an appropriate occasion to hear the famous bit of counsel from Martin Luther declaring that if you’re going to sin, sin boldly. Such advice should be taken with a grain of salt perhaps, but in this case it seems fitting; that is, I doubt seriously whether there is a “right” answer to this question about what exactly the best view or philosophy is on the relationship between Church and society, and Christ and Culture. Similarly, Richard Niebuhr did not choose one of the models described above over and against the others.
The thought or information we should walk away with is this: that these predicaments are not solved in the realm of hypothetical ponderings or abstract thinking. Rather, we are most likely to arrive at a place of enlightenment and better awareness by moving forward with concrete decisions and intentional actions. We must understand that our knowledge and perception is limited, partial, and often erroneous. To reference Segundo once more, he says that theology begins with a commitment – a commitment to liberation from all forms of dehumanization and oppression, whether physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual.
This is also to say that theology does not begin with coming to the final and correct, inherent or dogmatic belief about something before action is taken. Quite contrarily, Jesus healed on the Sabbath even though it was considered to be “unlawful” at the time. He asks which is better, to do good or evil? This might be the best question we can ask ourselves as well when faced with the decision of whether or not act and move in the direction of what we sense and think is good and just.