Some Thoughts on Jesus and Social Justice -- Part I

Social Justice Jesus

In left wing political rhetoric one hears a lot about ‘social justice’. What’s wrong with that? At first blush it sounds like a concern every Christian should share. After all, the phrase evokes the image of God’s people coming to the rescue of the weak and the helpless, the oppressed and downtrodden whose cares and needs tend to get ignored or whose injuries or rights tend to get trampled underfoot by the privileged and powerful who live by the golden rule (“them that’s got the gold makes the rules”). What Christian wouldn’t be sympathetic with an agenda like that? Wouldn’t Jesus be all over that like bark on a tree? But there is disingenuousness in that picture, as there almost always is with almost anything emanating from the left wing of the ideological spectrum. It turns out on closer inspection that ‘social justice’ is not really about what the phrase might suggest it is about. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that ‘social justice’ disguises a more narrow, materialistic vision. For evangelical Christians that is a troubling consideration. When stripped down to its essence, I think it is fair to say that ‘social justice’ parlance in the rhetoric of the left turns out to be a project mostly about relieving poverty, Robin Hood style—by legislative (or perhaps other) means, taking from the rich who supposedly have too much and don’t deserve it and redistributing it to the poor who have too little and (supposedly) deserve it a lot more. A dubious philosophy right there, not to mention a highly romantic vision of the poor (i.e. they are the good guys and when they aren’t, it is the fault of their rich and powerful exploiters). That image is about as true to reality as that misty eyed concept of the so-called Noble Savage (Rousseau).

The Kingdom of God Is Not All About The Benjamins

As mentioned above, the whole project, when one gets beneath its idealistic surface, is rooted in a severely materialistic worldview. That Weltanshauung grounds the good life (and justice) in economic well-being. If this is the case, such a rooting ought to give pause to any disciple of Christ tempted to drift leftward in his aspiration to make the world a fitter place for human occupation. The fact is, Jesus bluntly trashed that notion (that the good life is found in greater material well-being). A certain man once complained to Jesus (Luke 12) that his brother had shafted him in the division of the family inheritance. To remedy this inequity, he implored Jesus to somehow force his brother to redistribute the goods so that he had a more equitable slice of the family wealth. (One will please note a socialist ring to all this.) Notably, our Lord flatly refused this role as irrelevant to His earthly mission. Warning first against greed which has just reared its head in the spirit of the angry sibling, our Lord then disabused His followers of the myth that prosperity is the key to human felicity:
“Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed. For not even when one has abundance [including the poor enriched from a rich man’s store] does his life consist of his possessions.” (verse 15) [brackets mine for clarity]
Ah, there’s a reality check! Left-leaning Christians risk getting sucked into socialist-like thinking in their concern for the plight of our planet’s poor or the struggling neighbor next door. Should you be one of those, you might want to take a step back and check your ideological bearings. The left is not headed in a biblical direction. It is not working off our same premises at all.

People Do Not Fare Well Under Welfare

Yes, caring about the plight of the unfortunate is a good thing just like loving our children is a good thing. However, as the Proverbs (21:10b) teach us, “the compassion of the wicked is cruel.” Sometimes our misguided compassion can in effect produce all the damage of hate. Their ‘solutions’ not only fail to solve the problems; they only make matters worse. The infamous welfare state is a classic example. Even if their proposals do not actually make the predicament of the poor worse (and it can be argued that they do), they almost always make the ‘beneficiaries’ worse people. For example, I grew up in the southern West Virginia coal fields where I witnessed that first hand. Incrementally it largely ruined the character of a once proud people. The reality is, one cannot ‘give’ people their way out of poverty. One can perhaps give poor folk a way to earn a stable and sustainable living, but handouts over time leach the pride and dignity out of any human being. There is a right way and a wrong way to address human problems. Let us care, but be wise about it.

Giving a Man a Fish, Teaching Him to Fish, or Salvation from Sin and Death

We come back to Jesus. Our Lord made it clear enough that giving everybody a bigger piece of the rock in no way creates the good life. So why should Christian people camp out there as if this is what Heaven is most concerned about? That project does not address the root problem of either the rich or the poor. What the poor (and the rich) most need is Christ, not cash. So how come the Christian left doesn’t seem to focus all that much (if at all) on that? Anything less is a band aid. Now if programmatic humanitarian endeavors function as a tactical bridge for bringing these folk the gospel and to the knowledge of Christ (like the healings of Jesus), then bring it on. Anything less essentially short circuits our Christian mission. The real urgency in this world is to get people off the Titanic, not feed and clothe them while the ship is sinking. Clearly then the Church should not adopt a mission that Jesus himself flatly refused. Hence, it seems to me that those Christians who lean left and are sympathetic to socialistic notions for achieving some sort of economic redemption betray a concerning tincture of a temporal obsession and materialistic worldview. That is, they seem to see money and things as mattering more than they did to Jesus and that, to me, is a troubling priority. Otherwise, it is hard to understand how they envision economic uplift for the poor as a more compelling or meaningful preoccupation than gospel proclamation. And to me that really does seem to be the case. I say that because that seems to be all they really talk about.

“What You Did Unto the Least of These… You Did Unto Me.”

Here I may be misunderstood. There is no notion on my part that just because money and material things really aren’t the answer to abundant life, that we who have more should ignore the problem, turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the unfortunate, refusing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and put a roof over the heads of the homeless. Not at all. In fact, historically speaking, evangelical Christians (i.e. those usually associated with more right wing values) have always been at the forefront of the compassion brigade. Nobody does ‘compassion’ better or more consistently than Bible-believing Christians. We bring both ‘soup and salvation’ to the helping equation. For centuries we have been the first to open our hearts and our wallets and the last to turn the poor away from the door. That spirit however is our Christian reflex; it is not our Christian mission. It wasn’t with Jesus nor was it with the apostles. Never, in all my years, in any church that I have ever been a part of, have I known of a truly needy person turned away—though I myself have lost hundreds of dollars on clever cons who pretended to be distressed. In terms of liberality and compassion, the left wing, Christian or otherwise, cannot match the heart and help of evangelicals at home or abroad. Several years ago I recall a Bill O’Reilly commentary on Fox News in which he mentioned that statistics show that it is not liberals (the left), despite all their pious rhetoric about caring and compassion, who are the most generous in charitable giving but conservatives (whose base is largely evangelical Christians).

Personal Missions of Eternal Value vs. Temporary Political Band-aid

Our preference is to personalize compassion rather than politicize it. The left always wants Big Government to do the heavy lifting. As the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it, they love to spend other people’s money (rather than, I would add, sacrifice their own). We evangelicals, I believe are in the better habit of reaching into our own pockets to help the truly needy or going to them with a helping hand (but always bringing Christ in the process). . The strictly humanitarian type (a constituency that tends to populate the left) is all about the soup part. It recoils at the salvation part. And that distaste is something any believer attracted to the narrow humanitarianism of the left wing needs to think twice about. For their impetus derives, as I mentioned, from a naturalistic, materialistic worldview that mistakenly believes that it can put everything right if only everybody has a stable and sustaining income in their pockets. Nonsense. About 1997 (then) Northwest Medical Teams invited a group of Portland area pastors to go deep in Mexico to see their work there. I must say they had it dialed in. Working with some of the most wretched folk you could ever see, poor souls living on trash dumps, etc., NWMT were doing a remarkable job of tending their spectacular material and medical needs and training many for jobs that would allow them to make a decent living. Yet at the same time they were programmed to aggressively reach those indigent people for Christ. The humanitarian aspect was just a compassionate bridge to demonstrate the love of Christ to those needy people, a platform from which to introduce as many as would hear to the Gospel so that their real needs might be met. The material and medical help, a very significant outlay, was in the mind of the founder and the organization, secondary to the main thing—getting those dear people saved, rescued out of their most fundamental poverty, which was spiritual famine. That’s the right way. That organization is now changed right down to its name. Under new management, its vision has narrowed to the strictly humanitarian with, so far as I am aware, the present iteration having no evangelistic thrust whatever. That positions it within the Christian left orbit. Hence, we no longer support it because the leadership doesn’t get it.

Sin and Death Thrive Among the Poor and the Wealthy Alike

Here is a truth those on the left wing need to comprehend: if somehow material poverty could be magically eradicated this very year, all medical crises relieved and every famine arrested, nothing would really fundamentally change in this world. That is because fallen human nature with all its sinful drives and predilections would remain stubbornly intact and would, like weeds, come roaring back with a vengeance. And shortly the same old social diseases and inequities would reappear, not to mention 10,000 other vices that have bedeviled human existence on this planet since Adam. Economic parity, or even relief, cannot cure the ultimate evil on this earth: death and estrangement from God our Creator. Again, life simply does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions How many of the foolish and unhappy rich have already discovered that raw reality as they vainly attempt to fill up that God-sized vacuum in their materialistic souls with money and the pleasures and properties and play things and paramours their money can buy? One could dump buckets of money extracted from the rich on the poor but at the end of the day they would still be lost—and probably less happy than before! Money has never for long made anybody happy. That ‘solution’ would be as worthless as trucking sweets to parched travelers wandering lost in the Mohave Desert. They may love and long for sweets, the goodies may even distract them temporarily from their peril, but if the object is to save them, what they need is not sugar, but water and the way out of the searing heat. The left with its social justice mantra is basically all about sustaining the perishing with provisions of sweets in the burning desert. We are about bringing them water of life and saving them from certain death. Of course the world does not resonate with our view of things since it does not believe anybody is lost and needs ‘salvation’. That should not deter us however.

A Dystopian Wolf in Utopian Clothing

The left wing approach is a non-starter. It is utopian (when has one of those utopian ideas ever worked?), quixotic (grossly impractical in light of human nature), short-sighted (is all about the here and now and lacks any vision or concern for the end of history), materialistic (thinks of the good life in terms of money and things), and socialistic in its philosophy (desiring by law to extract from those who have more to give to those who have less). In that mental orientation it is hard to see much that apostolic Christianity would have found congenial or compatible. All that raises a question: why would any right thinking Christian want to go there and identify with a political philosophy that in modern times, to my knowledge, has consistently been unfriendly, if not downright hostile, to biblically grounded Christianity? We’ll take that up in Part II
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