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When I was in college, I fought hard (probably too hard) against Christian social justice efforts.
If my university would have paid my a dollar for every time I heard “Saint Francis of Asisi’s” quote, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words,” they would still be paying me, not the other way around.
Christian social justice is a complex issue. Too often, I think, Millennial Evangelicals seek to provide for the physical needs of others in place of attempting to provide for their greatest spiritual need. Nobody rejects food or money, but they do reject Jesus, and we don’t like being rejected.
On vacation a few weeks ago, I started Andy Crouch’s book Playing God. Andy is the most brilliant guy I have ever driven to the airport (sorry, Trevin). Andy’s probably forgot more about the Greek language this morning than I have or will ever know.
Andy writes about a visit to India, where he met Jayakumar Christian, the director of the Indian affiliate of World Vision. Throughout the book, Andy breaks down the relationship between idolatry and justice, shifting my paradigm and changing the way I view the two issues for the rest of my life.
Meeting the physical needs of the poor wins attention and affirmation from a watching world. Naming the spiritual poverty of a world enthralled to false gods provokes defensiveness and derision from those who do not even believe there is a god. Disaster relief and economic development seem like achievable goals that bring people together; religious claims to know the one true God seem like divisive mysteries that drive people apart. Our secular neighbors care, many like never before, about relieving human need—and more than them than ever before are indifferent or hostile to the idea that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and the one who meets the deepest human need.
In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.
Inevitably, then, as Christians recover a calling to justice and receive the affirmation of neighbors who do not believe in a world beyond this one, we can begin to wonder whether evangelism is really necessary after all. To put it another way, our vision of “justice” owes less and less to the rich biblical concept of shalom, interwoven as it is with the story of the Creator God and his yearning for restored relationship with his people. More and more it conforms to the necessary but thin language of human rights and international humanitarian efforts. Justice becomes simply a name for improving certain, often fairly superficial, social conditions, without probing very deeply into the roots of those conditions.
In short, we do not truly believe that the gods of the nations are idols. Our vision of justice has become secularized; we have lost the biblical conviction that God alone is good. In a sense, John Piper captures this thin conception of justice in his reduction of the work of justice to address “suffering.” You do not have to believe in the Creator God to want to alleviate suffering. But justice is about much more than relieving suffering—it is about a vision of human flourishing. And the audacious biblical claim is that even good things that seem to contribute to flourishing become idols when they become our ultimate ends. Even the laudable goals of economic development, political freedom and human rights are only ultimately good when they are put in the context of something more ultimate than themselves. When we try to establish justice apart from worship of the true God, at best we will, as Jayakumar reminded me, simply replace one set of god players with another. (Playing God, page 82-83)
Christians must be interested in social justice, but only inasmuch as our understanding of “social justice” ends in the restoration of humans to the image of God.
Next time you go on a missions trip of some sort, ask yourself, “Am I replacing idols with God, or am I just becoming the ‘god’ of these people?”
Let’s pursue a social justice that goes far beyond fixing temporary discomfort. Don’t give people bread without sharing the Bread of Life.