Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Social Justice Revisted

Around 1980 we were living in Philadelphia. I had taken a new job with a new organization called Evangelicals for Social Action. It was supposed to help churches get involved with "social justice" ministries. It was an idea that began with Ron Sider who had written the best seller Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Many well known evangelical social activists were on the board. We had several meetings with Jim Wallis who was based in Washington DC and who was starting to write about Christians getting involved in social action and he was also founding a magazine and a community called Sojourners. We were part of Jubilee community in the old Germantown part of Philly. Many of the members of that community were publishing a similar social action journal called The Other Side. John and Judy Alexander who started that magazine were part of the community. So, I was very interested in the recent Glenn Beck of Fox news flap. Apparently he has vowed to expose Jim Wallis for the marxist he truly is. He has said any Christian who belongs to a church where social justice is mentioned should flee that church as soon as possible. Who is this guy, anyway? What are his credentials? Why does anyone listen to him? Wallis has served a poor community in Washington for 30 years now. He has lived close to the poor and his efforts have been to make their lives livable. What he thinks has been documented in several books. The latest one is called Rediscovering Values: on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street.

When I was in seminary there was quite a tension between social justice and evangelism. There was a lot of verbal sparring going on. Christians on both sides mistrusted each other. Those who thought Christians should only be involved in evangelism ministries accused the other side of watering down the faith. And those on the social justice side accused the other side of narrow mindedness. One of the things I did in my new job was speak to groups of Christians trying to show how that was a false dichotomy. Jesus called us to evangelism and social justice. It was both - and not one or the other and not one better than the other. Evangelism and social justice were two sides of the same coin. I did a thorough study of the Old Testament and found a multitude of verses that indicated God's concern for the poor and God's judgment of those who oppress the poor. Jesus talked about money and it's misuse more than any other topic. He was always concerned about the way people were treated. Followers of Jesus were (and are) too. God, the creator of our bodies and our souls, cares about both. We are social beings, we live our lives in a social context. Whether it is health care, or immigration policy, or welfare, we are interested in how people's lives are affected. We are for those things that are life giving.

In an article in Christianity Today online called Glenn Beck, FRC Shift Aim from Social Justice to Jim Wallis, David Gushee offers this partial definition of social justice: "... it consists of human acts to resist social injustice by repairing such distortions of human community (ie, caused by greed, domination, violence, and exclusion = social injustice). We work today for social justice when we seek to create religious and political communities characterized by more economic justice, less domination, less violence, and more inclusive community."

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this is we are letting a radio talk show host's rants divide the Christian community and demonize a brother in Christ. The head of the American Family Association called for prayer (to defeat the health care reform bill) and asserted "we understand there are powerful spiritual forces at work here." There are. I am sure the devil is happy whenever he can get Christians fighting with each other over which is more important: evangelism or social action. Let's argue about it and do neither!