Each year at Veteran’s Day, we reflect on the sacrifices made by those who served in our armed forces to preserve the freedoms we value so highly as a nation. We remember those who died and honor those who returned. We celebrate that we live in a country whose ideals have survived wars, social change, political upheaval, expansionism and isolationism. No matter the prevailing winds, the commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “liberty and justice for all” reign in each philosophy though we have many different ideas about how to get there and what those phrases exactly mean. Nevertheless, we celebrate them unquestioningly.
In the last decade, and most vociferously in the latest election, debate raged over what these things mean in the scope of the government and the church. Labels like “socialist” and “bigot” flew from both sides toward anyone who believed differently than the insulter. Rather than examine the beliefs of the other, name calling became the easier tack. Anyone who understands what either of the terms means, knows that they were grossly misused, thus meaningless except for the sting of insult and serve to hurt the Christian image on both sides.
It is no wonder the fastest growing religious group, is the group of people affiliated with no church whatsoever. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, Jr., noted that their message had gotten out to the public, but that it was rejected. The polls finding that more people were turning away from the church are doing so because of the judgmental attitudes of those who proclaim Christian morals.
This is exactly where the Church gets it wrong. From the books of the law through the prophets, Gospels, and epistles, acting with justice toward all overwhelms every other direction given to God’s people in the Bible. The Bible is equally explicit that God will be the judge, not us. As long as we spend our time fighting over who is or is not a Christian, both sides are being equally unchristian. We only regain Christian when we turn our faith into action by doing what Jesus commands.
Let’s be absolutely clear. Christian social justice, be it church or state originated, is far removed from Socialism. Social justice, from the Christian perspective, means removing barriers to equality for all people and caring for those, who, in times of need, are incapable of caring for themselves. Removing barriers involves guaranteeing that the justice and financial systems do not lock people into a lifetime of need, but that even the poorest can work their way out. Caring for others includes making certain people have the food, shelter, and medical care needed to overcome whatever situation makes them incapable of caring for themselves. Social justice means elimination of barriers keeping people from equal access. No one should be trapped in a lifetime of poverty or need due to confinement of social systems.
Likewise, social justice does not mean a lifetime of support from church and state systems. When the barriers are eliminated and the basic needs met, one is expected to leave the situation behind, move forward, and then help others who are needy as they become able. Some, through illness (including mental illness) or injury may need a lifetime of support, but it is not the norm.
The central Gospel in New Testament social justice comes in Matthew 25, though it is hardly the start or end of the social justice message. The other Gospels include teachings from Jesus regarding wealth and the poor. Acts and the Epistles offer examples of how the church cared for the needy, the orphans, and the widows. Jesus brought all the law and prophets down to two commandments in Matthew 22:37-40. Love God wholly and love your neighbor as yourself: the laws about treatment of the disenfranchised continue into the New Covenant.
While there is no doubt and little disagreement about what the Bible tells the church and Christians to do regarding the needy, much debate rages about the state role in social justice. Here too, the Bible makes it clear, that nationally, we are responsible to those in need. The law for Israel demanded that the nation care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the traveler: it was a national responsibility. Verses across the prophets describe the judgment of God on the nation coming because the nation refused to take care of all its residents. Nationally, we are responsible to make certain our social systems (legal, financial, medical) do not protract the length of time anyone spends in need.
Unfortunately, the churches are spending too much time fighting over theology to meet those temporary needs for most, so nationally we are responsible to minimize the need within our boundaries if we are to call ourselves a Christian nation. If every church lived their theology as much as they publicized it, there would be little need for the government to do social work beyond education. We, who call ourselves Christian, must do, not just believe. The doing is much harder than the believing, but it is what makes us Christian. If we believe it then we must do it. If we do not do it and shift the responsibility to the state, then we have no right to call anyone who advocates for state programs socialist or liberal.
We, Christians, abdicated the responsibility and likewise relinquished any authority for name calling. The last election showed that the majority of the country do not buy fundamentalist social arguments, divisive rhetoric, or scare tactics over religious liberty and it is killing the (big C) Church. The only way left for the Church to regain credibility is for the Church to start being church and doing those things necessary to act on the mission of Christ.
I am the first to admit that there are missions I have never been able to do. I have tried, but cannot bring myself to work with the homeless. As a trained counselor, I see too much mental illness among the homeless in the times I experiences I have had with homeless populations. I feel the need to “counsel” and help, but the opportunity to do meaningful counseling does not exist within any current structure. As an educator, though, I have ample opportunity to make a difference with that population and that is part of my ministry.
My counselor training says not to use words like “must” and “should,” but as a Christian, the Bible directs us to the “musts” and “shoulds” any follower of Christ is to do. For me, God surpasses counseling philosophers. No matter where one looks in the Bible, social justice is the directing philosophy. The church will always lose the argument on social justice when its words, rather than its actions, dominate the headlines. We, people of the church, have been even farther behind at some points in history. We, people of the church, have overcome at some points in history to guide state policy.
It was done with action, not words. Listen to the prophets. Live the Gospel. Love God wholly. Love your neighbor as yourself. That is social justice. That will change the world.