We’ve been chatting a lot this past week about social justice. One commenter wrote this at Paul Martin’s site:
What is better? Bread that causes you to never hunger, or bread that fills you only for a time?…BOTH are important, but feeding the soul with the bread of heaven is the far greater of the two. If you are doing both great. If you are emphasizing the physical needs over the spiritual you are not doing what Jesus did.
Of course, this raises all kinds of questions and issues. When it’s put crudely, social action is seen as something “even atheists can do” and therefore vastly inferior to evangelism. If you have a choice between offering someone a cup of cold water or telling them about Christ, the argument goes, let them go thirsty – if you have to choose. Social action is seen as a secondary duty. But maybe we’re not exactly framing the question properly. Maybe better questions are ones like these: What does the gospel mean for whole people, not just souls trapped inside a body (which is a lousy way to see people anyway)? What does the gospel mean for societies and structures? Or is it all about spirits and heaven one day when you die? Tim Keller gets it right in his book Ministries of Mercy. He argues that Christianity leads to a completely different type of social action than anyone else can do:
Only the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ, and the millions of “mini-churches” (Christian homes) throughout the country can attack the roots of social problems. Only the church can minister to the whole person. Only the gospel understands that sin has ruined us both individually and socially. We cannot be viewed individualistically (as the capitalists do) or collectivistically (as the Communists do) but as related to God. Only Christians, armed with the Word and Spirit, planning and working to spread the kingdom and righteousness of Christ, can transform a nation as well as a neighborhood as well as a broken heart.
Exactly right. Keller later argues that social relief work is not secondary. “Jesus uses the work of mercy to show us the essence of the righteousness God requires in our relationships…The striking truth is that the work of mercy is fundamental to being a Christian.” Keller later quotes Robert Murray McCheyne, a preacher from 150 years ago. McCheyne says that when Christians ignore the poor, he worries about the poor – but he worries even more about the Christians. Speaking of Matthew 25, he said:
You heave a sigh [for the poor], perhaps, at a distance, but you do not visit them. Ah! my dear friend! I am concerned for the poor but more for you. I know not what Christ will say to you in that great day…I fear there are many hearing me who may know [now] well that they are not Christians, because they do not love to give…Oh my friends! enjoy your money; make the most of it; give none away; enjoy it quickly for I can tell you, you will be beggars throughout eternity.
Social justice and social action are not secondary. They are fundamental to the gospel and what it means to be Christian.