In 2010, the controversial US TV/Media personality, Glenn Beck (pictured at right) asked Christians to leave churches that promoted social justice and economic justice. Beck’s call reflects the ongoing debate among Christians on social justice’s role in the faith. It is a good launching pad for a discussion on Jesus and Social Justice. Did Jesus preach about social justice? Or did he merely preach about charity and mercy, which are different from social justice? Should Christians and the Church consider social justice activism as central or peripheral to the Christian faith?
Beck: Social Justice = Nazis & Communists
According to Glenn Beck, social justice and economic justice are code words for Nazism and Communism, apparently. If you are unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding Glenn Beck’s radio and TV proclamations, you can read the following CNN news by clicking this link.
Beck’s fear mongering aside, there are a great number of Christians, Evangelicals especially, who are suspicious of social activism as something that distracts from the church’s mission of evangelism. More and more Christians, however, see the necessity of both social justice and evangelism as important components of God’s mission. See, for example, this blog by an Orthodox Christian, for instance, as a thoughtful view on the social justice vs. evangelism debate within evangelicalism and a thoughtful, Orthodox solution to the impasse, which required also a redefinition of evangelicalism’s theory of salvation and more specifically doctrine of atonement.
My own personal Neo-Reformed 3D (three-dimensional) Christianity perspective on this debate is that both evangelism and social activism are integral to God’s mission. They are emphasizing different dimensions – evangelism focuses on what I currently call the confessional-cultic dimension (our faith-confessing religious ways of spirituality) while social activism focuses on the communal-covenantal dimension (our social relationships ways of spirituality). BOTH of these dimensions are part of a three-dimensional spirituality (the creational-cultural dimension being the third). It’s not that evangelism is spiritual and social activism is merely ethical. Both are spiritual ways we relate to God and serve God’s mission.
Jesus On His Mission
In the news clip above, Jim Wallis referred to Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus read from the Hebrew Bible’s Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6 to essentially define his mission:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (TNIV)
So often, Christians have spiritualized this passage to mean that Jesus’ mission is about the spiritually poor, the spiritually imprisoned, the spiritually blind and the spiritually oppressed. But in the original context of Isaiah 58 and 61, it was clearly a here-and-now justice and mercy that was in mind (with perhaps an eye to future fulfillment). Isaiah 58:6 for instance clearly connects acts of justice with acts of piety (justice and fasting): “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
I preached a sermon connected to this theme at Friendship Community CRC on Nov. 7, 2010. Most of the following is adapted from that sermon titled, “The Least of These” with textual references to Matthew 25:31-46, Ezekiel 34:15-24 and Matthew 7:21-23.
The Parable of the Sheep & Goats
Now in ancient Palestine, sheep and goats usually graze together. Shepherds usually separate them at night because goats need to be warm at night while sheep prefer open air. So this separation of sheep and goats happens all the time. Jesus uses this as a picture of judgment day: at the end of the day, Jesus the King will judge between the righteous and the wicked. Now sheep was regarded as more valuable than goats because they provide both wool and meat. So, sheep was often regarded as good, while goats have been symbolically used as bad. The right hand was also the preferred side in ancient times, so the sheep or the righteous were on Jesus’ right, while the wicked goats were on his left. The criterion for judgment for deciding between sheep and goat is kindness to “the least of these”. Did you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, show hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned?
I think Jesus here is alluding to Ezekiel in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 34:15-24, we read how “Ezekiel as well used this process [of separating animals] as a picture of judgment: distinguishing ‘between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats’ symbolized for him the judgment of God on Israel for their ungodly treatment of the poor and needy. Ezekiel and Jesus both talk about love for the rest of the flock, specifically about the sharing of water and food with the weak and lowly, the ones with whom the shepherd identifies.” (Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 332)
The difference is that Ezekiel is not separating sheep from goats but judging between the fat, strong sheep and the thin, weak sheep, as in v. 20-22: “See, I [the Lord] myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.” (TNIV) Ezekiel is talking about how Israel’s rich and powerful treats Israel’s poor and needy. In Ezekiel, God is angry at how the fat sheep keep getting fatter and bully the lean ones, even driving the lean ones away from the pasture – not giving the poor access to food. This is not only a charity issue but also a justice issue. There’s a systemic structural reason for the thin sheep staying thin and getting thinner! That is why in Ezekiel 34:16, God promises: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (TNIV) [emphasis mine]
In a cursory reading of Matthew 25, it might seem like there’s no social justice involved but only social charity – feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, etc. But when we read it in light of Ezekiel’s imagery that Jesus alludes to, we see that justice underlies the image. God who placed Jesus, the son of David, as the shepherd over his people is the God who will shepherd his flock with justice. God’s will for the least of these – for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized – is that God’s people do charity and justice for them.
In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ “(TNIV) There’s a parallel between Matthew 7 and 25. In Matthew 25, we see both sheep and goats calling Jesus “Lord” and responding in surprise at Jesus’ judgment.
Jesus: No Social Justice = I Never Knew You
These passages in Matthew might be a warning to believers – to those who call Jesus “Lord” – about what doing God’s will really means. It is NOT simply public acknowledgement (maybe worship?) of Jesus – “not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is NOT prophesying in Jesus’ name. It is NOT driving out demons in Jesus’ name. It is NOT in performing miracles in Jesus’ name. None of these, according to Matthew, are proof of genuine obedience to God’s will.
Taken in connection with Matthew 25 and Luke 4, the conclusion we can draw is that the gospel writers say, if you do all these other pious, charismatic things but do NOT do charity and justice for the least of these, Christ is telling you: “I never knew you! Away, you evildoer!” Obeying God’s will in doing charity and justice for the lost, the left out, the poor, the oppressed, THIS is proof that you actually know God, actually love Jesus, and actually follow Jesus!
Think about that! It’s not praying or singing worship songs where we call Jesus Lord. It’s not performing great miracles, prophecies or exorcisms or other charismatic abilities. Rather, it is the boring, unspectacular, ordinary and tedious works of mercy, charity, and justice for the least of these – whoever the least of these are (and I suggest it’s both Christians and non-Christians who are needy) – that proves you are a genuine Christ-follower.
Given this insight, and in light of Glenn Beck’s pronouncements, I wonder if Jesus would ask Christians to leave those churches that DO NOT preach social and economic justice! What do you think?