Saturday, December 4, 2010

On Social Justice and the Gospel

I have spent much of the weekend reading about how the church is dealing/should deal/cannot deal/must embrace/must run from issues of social justice. Everybody's got something to say about social justice, especially after the whole Glenn Beck tempest, and the arguments seem to fall this way:

Progressives embrace social justice at the expense of speaking of salvation and eternal life.

Conservatives embrace salvation and eternal life at the expense of speaking of social justice.

Or, you can make the formulation a little more crudely, but I think this is a fair description of the traditional arguments:
Evangelicals or Conservatives care only about salvation of souls and the world hereafter. Liberals or Progressives only care about issues here and now, such as social justice.
So, the argument goes, each group cares about one or the other. And even those good folks who are trying to make some sense of God's call to social justice in the midst of this crazy political environment basically counter this argument by saying, "This is not a fair description," or:
Evangelicals/Conservatives care as much about life in this world as Liberals/Progressives care about eternal life. But very often, obstacles such as varying perspectives, differing emphases and vocabulary, and disagreements regarding strategies to solve issues such as social justice come into play.
The apparent issue, then, is that both groups care about both spheres of concern, just in different ways and with different "emphases." This, I think, is the standard way of finding middle ground. Conservatives do too care about social justice! Liberals do too care about eternal life!

While I am thankful for those who are trying to find that middle ground--it seems harder and harder every passing day--the way through this issue is less about granting that the other side does care and more about realizing that at the end of the day, the church ought not draw bright lines between concerns of eternal life and concerns of social justice, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between saving souls and saving lives. If we are to understand religion as a holistic enterprise, with no part separate from the others, drawing such a distinction just does not make any sense.

Just as we celebrate the diversity of witnesses in the Bible, we are called to live as one people, under one God. And to divide our concerns into the here-and-now vs. the yet-to-come is to needlessly cut God in half, to miss the fullness of God's revealed self for the sake of making the life of faith easier, making the challenge of God less challenging.

The issue is this: since when did we remove the service of others, in the name of social justice, from our understanding of what it means to follow and worship God? As we throw around arguments about how social justice fits into the Gospel, it is increasingly apparent to me that all the Christians must have gotten together and decided that--while they may disagree with the importance of social justice--at least working for justice and worshiping God are two very different things. They must have had a conference and decided this. Now, why they decided this, I do not know. I was evidently not invited to this gathering.

I jest, but the sentiment is quite serious: presupposed in the arguments about liberal vs. conservative churches, social justice vs. salvation, program churches vs. worship centers is the notion that justice and service are quite different than worship and concerns of eternal life.

My concern is that when we separate salvation and social concerns, we do neither justice. And implied in this separation--implied in any separation!--is that you can have one without the other: like you can have peanut butter and jelly, or you can have just peanut butter or just jelly.

I am fairly certain that if you asked the early Christians how they understood the need for salvation and the need for social justice, they would not even understand the question. Acts is clear: bound up in the Christian community was the notion of the common purse, of taking care of physical needs, of looking after those who needed looking after.

This is a nuanced point, I realize, and the church does not always do nuance so well! But it is a vital point for the church, especially the United Methodist Church, which uses John Wesley's language of "works of piety" and "works of mercy" to separate what I suppose you can call concerns of salvation and concerns of social justice. Even Wesley, it seems, separated these two spheres!

But even as he separated these two areas of spiritual concern, he did note that they were areas of spiritual concern! And rather than being guiding principles, "works of piety" and "works of mercy" were subtitles for what he called "Means of Grace," or:
outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.
God works within works of mercy just like God works within acts of piety, and I have to believe that you can't master one without the other.

In our quest to have "authentic worship," to talk about Christ's redeeming power over sin, we have forgotten, I think, that the Imago Dei--the image of God--is not just in me, but in everyone I meet. When I meet someone for the first time, I am seeing a picture of God as much as I am seeing anything else.

If you want to get scriptural about it--and I do--you need only look at Jesus's command to look after one another, for in that service you will serve God.

You simply cannot separate salvation and social justice. Christ was as concerned about the saving of the human race on earth as he was the saving of humans from sin. In fact, the way that Christ most powerfully said that we serve him is by serving others.

With such a clear scriptural command, I just don't understand why we are still making this distinction. There is no such. When the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said that "faith without works is dead," he was not saying that faith and works were two co-equal parts of what it means to be a Christian. He was saying that social justice is a fundamental part of following Christ, and you can no more separate social justice from faith than you can pull your heart from your body.

Faith without works is dead. Not difficult, not wrong-headed, not painful. Dead.

I think it's pretty clear, right?

1 comment:

  1. i love reading your blog. it provides me time for reflection and is great food for thought. i'm so proud of you and stacey and all of my friends who are doing what they love and are always working hard.
    thanks d-ton, jw