Friday is for Friends: Patrick Mitchel

A huge issue has arisen amongst evangelicals: social justice and social action have become front, left and center — in shaping our behaviors and in understanding the gospel … and Patrick Mitchel, from Ireland, we get a pushback that can make us think again. The issue is one of “how much continuity is there between now and the kingdom?”

I’ve been thinking about the link between
eschatology and social action recently. One line of thinking, that can
be called the ‘future continuity’ argument, is hugely influential in a
lot of missional writing and emphasizes the strong continuity between
the future and the present. We experience now the ‘presence of the
future’ – in the kingdom of God and in the Spirit. AND we hope for the
‘future of the present’ – where the present will have a strong
continuity into the future in a renewed earth.

 Since God’s kingdom has broken into the present,
we are called to co-operation with what God is already doing in
redeeming creation. This leads to ‘kingdom ethics’ where what we do now
in this world matters deeply as we are called to help fulfil the Lord’s
prayer ‘May your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. This
calling gives deepened spiritual significance and motivation to all
that we do in this life: for our bodies; our work; for art; for ecology
and so on.

 N T Wright says this sort of thing towards the end of Surprised by Hope
but it has been around for quite a while. For instance, one church I
read about recently was removing rubbish from a local canal. Their
motivation was mainly eschatological; fulfilling their calling to
co-operate with God’s agenda of a renewed creation.

 Now please hear me – I’ve no problem with most
of this. Future hope should profoundly shape our lives and priorities
in the present. The New Testament obviously has some sort of continuity
between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. Social justice is close to the heart
of God. But the more you think about it, the more difficult it is to
draw straight lines between cleaning up a canal (or whatever action you
want to substitute here) and helping ‘complete’ God’s kingdom plans for
a renewed creation. The reality is we know very very little about the
future new creation. Will there be canals there? Art? Forests? Music?
Books? We just have very little solid idea.

 Have we been so keen to reject individualistic
ideas of salvation that separate social action from the gospel that we

have too easily assumed a strong, if not almost literal, continuity
between the present and the new creation? And have we, almost
unnoticed, put our efforts, our fulfilment
of kingdom ethics, centre stage in God’s plan of redemption? Have we
begun to assume that the primary motivation for social justice is an
eschatological vision of a perfectly just future? I’m not too sure the
Scriptures do this – it seems to me the Bible’s primary motivation for
social justice is a deep love of God and a deep love of neighbour.

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  • Yes, but a vision of a better world inspires us to make this one better. It seems that Jesus was encouraging us to bring the climate then into the world now. The two ideas are not at odds with each other, that neighbor love, so perfect in the world to come, ought to be expanded and spread abroad now.

  • I would agree that discerning God’s will can be difficult and sure we don’t know exactly what the “kingdom” holds but I don’t think we have a chose as to whether we should be doing social justice. How can we love thy neighbor as thy self if we knowingly live in systems that hurt people? “What is the effect of a dirty garbage filled canal and how does it effect our neighbor” That is the question.

  • Norton

    Thanks for this post; I have a friend who has raised similar objections. However, it seems that all who take a more “continuous” position would be the first to say that it’s God building his kingdom, we are only his willing agents. If the focus ever moves to us and what we are doing, that’s a problem of pride that affects any theological construct, not just this one.
    Regarding our motivation, it definitely seems to be a both/and, wouldn’t you say? We should love neighbors for their inherent value and dignity and because serving them is serving Jesus. But we also do this because it demonstrates God’s values of love, justice, righteousness, shalom, etc. and we desire to see these values lived out in our entire communities and world as part of God’s restorative purposes. It’s not an either/or. In fact, one could make the case that the Hebrew prophets were more concerned with this second motivation; how else do we explain their over and over visions of a just and righteous future in Zion if the implication isn’t “so be the people God has called you to be so that through you he will create this future.” Any thoughts?

  • Patrick

    Derek, Pam – yes with you absolutely. We are to be a community of the future right now in the present. I’m more questioning an assumption that is popular but might be less obvious than it seems, namely that there is an almost literal continuity between this world and the world to come. Even if the future order is massively discontinuous with this one, we still would have exactly the same calling – to love God, love neighbour and work towards God’s kingdom come in the here and now.

  • Todd Erickson

    Maybe it works like this:
    There are a lot of things that we do that seem to serve the world (creation) itself more than those things serve actual people.
    Social justice can be a precarious thing. It can become far more about institutions and objectives than Christ very easily, because A. we like to have a list of objectives we can accomplish; it makes us feel useful B. It’s easier to just do concrete things (run a soup kitchen, paint the women’s shelter, make dinner for somebody) and claim them as witness than it is to actually preach the gospel, and C. maybe a lot of us have really shakey ideas about what love is, anyway.
    I think that if our choice is between cleaning out a canal that nobody is using, for the sheer beautification of it, or finding a bare patch to turn into a garden or park in the middle of a city, then that garden or park should be our objective, because it actually makes the lives of others more beautiful and meaningful. Our objective always needs to be the lives of others. Now, obviously, that will mean long term thinking at times, because sometimes there are things that we can do to make people happy in the short term that will actually be bad for us in the long term. But that’s just part of the package.
    So much of this descends from our need to separate everything into separate boxes and categories anyway. It should all just be life in Christ, neh? But it’s not…

  • Nathan

    The literal continuity is, I think, a flawed one. The idea what we build today literally is part of God’s future Kingdom is a bit foolish and prideful. Prideful in the sense that we believe OUR creation by redirecting a stream or building orphanages will last into the life to come. When more likely, time will pass and the orphanage will crumble and a stream may dry up.
    But what won’t ever vanish is the child whose life was changed by your caring, or the community’s benefit from a clean and vibrant stream. Namely, the love you displayed — for God and fellow man — will never fade nor be forgotten (perhaps by men, but not by God) and which will be remembered for the life to come. That, I think, is the true essence of continuity.

  • Patrick

    Thanks Norton, great points. Lots of questions start surfacing around this issue
    Future hope must shape social justice, as does love. Both are motivations (and I’m all too conscious that it is easy to talk about this rather than do!). I just wonder if the vision of a renewed earth as the primary motivation for social action is a bit overplayed. Seems to me that fulfilment of God’s purposes and the complete coming of the kingdom are not necessarily the same as, or even dependent on, continuity.
    Closely related to this is ‘how broad is the kingdom?’ Todd hints at this – where kingdom work gets defined broadly so that some have argued that the kingdom extends outside of discipleship to Jesus and outside those regenerated by the Spirit.
    PS on motivation – thoughts on the place of rewards in all of this?

  • chad miller

    This discussion is an important one, our vision of God’s present and future reign have everything to do with how we live and our efforts for social and ecological justice. The Vision Presented in The Prophets ie. Is 65 is earthy and creational – as kingdom people we are to live in that Vision -pointing people to the coming renewal. I guess the degree of continuity is up for debate – acting out the reign of God in our present day – creation care, working for justice, wecloming the stranger – Non-violencence is Our call as followers of Jesus. Great book – Heaven is a Place on earth – Mike Wittmer

  • Patrick is on to the key question: epistomology. How do we know what the Kingdom looks like that we are to proleptically evidence in the present? How do we know that any particular social action we advocate in pursuit of some vision of the Kingdom actually achieves its ends … that it doesn’t just become a case of good intentions that leads to unforeseen bad consequences?
    Could someone define “social justice” for me? Who arbitrates which things are just and determines which courses of action are optimal in pursuing justice? For that matter, prior to Christ making all things new, how do we know that present circumstances with regard to a given social issue are not the optimal that can be achieved?

  • Eleanor

    At the risk of sounding very simplistic, I find that when we overthink why we are to do social justice, everything gets messy. Evangelicals get to accuse mainliners of working their way to heaven or ignoring the gospel in their work with the poor. Mainliners say evangelicals are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good. Are we building the kingdom? Are we wrong for saying so? Where do rewards enter into it. And on and on and on. Overthinking and overanalyzing has been killing me lately.
    Why can’t we just say that Jesus thought loving one’s neighbor and paying attention to the poor, sick, widowed, orphaned etc. was important himself, he himself worked in these areas, and he admonished us to do likewise. And before Jesus, the Father implored Israel to do these same things. Shouldn’t it be enough for us to say we are obeying Jesus’ commands when we serve others, and forget about all the rest of this baggage we create for ourselves?

  • Eleanor #10
    What I hear you saying is that justice is living Jesus’ ethics, and social justice is Jesus’ ethics writ large … lived out by our societal institutions. Yes? If so, I want to challenge that
    There is no concept of “social” justice in the Bible. Justice and ethics is discussed in terms people in face-to-face relationships. Social institutions per se are not in view.
    In face-to-face relationships, we have daily interactions with others. We know their gifts and abilities. We know their character. We know who has been a victim of circumstances and who repeatedly engages in self-destructive behavior. We know who is likely to be responsible and who is likely to be careless. There is a history that informs us as to what degree we can trust another. Familiarity and relationship makes us reluctant to engage in behavior that will damage the relationship. Familiarity and relationship tends to build bonds where we come to care for each other and seek out the best for others. This is the context of the ethics we read in the Bible and much church history.
    But we can each have a social network of “face-to-face” relationships with up to maybe a maximum of 125 people. Congregational growth experts will tell you that the dynamics of congregation changes as it reaches the 75-150 range. People no longer know everyone else. They can’t accurately assess everyone else’s abilities and character. Accountability diminishes and “free riders” (people who sponge of the work of the others) begin to emerge. This is why communes almost never make it beyond a generation or two. As they grow beyond about 120 people, accountability and trust brakes down. The Hutterites have been a notable exception because they have a rule that when a community reaches 120 people they must divide and from a new community.
    So not only do we have face-to-face communities but also impersonal relationships with larger groups of people. How do we coordinate and cooperate with others beyond our face-to-face communities? No individual or government entity can intimately know millions of people, carefully tailoring decisions to each individual’s circumstances, capabilities, and character. There isn’t sufficient knowledge. There is no way to know if any given policy to direct society toward a desired outcome will indeed create the optimum outcome of all possible outcomes.
    I’d suggest that social justice at level of impersonal relationships should not be the same as face-to-face ethics. In face-to-face relationships there should be partiality in decisions based on the qualities we know about others. However, at the level of impersonal relationships, impartiality is key. Social justice is primarily about having general rules that apply to all impartially, not about achieving the “common good” which is utterly indiscernable. To advocate face-to-face ethics for society is the fallacy of the family writ large … expecting impersonal relationships to work the same as family relationships do. Having effective impartial large impersonal structures it what gives us the stability and predictability to be able to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our face-to-face communities.

  • I recently read this bit from Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” p. 109:
    “Even while She waits for the last day,the Church, as bearer to the historical inheritance is bound by obligation to the historical future. Her vision of the end of all things must not hinder her in the fulfillment of her historical responsibility. She must not leave only the end to God’s decision, but also the possible continuance of history…In devoting Herself to the proper task, that is to say the preaching of the risen Jesus Christ…through her message of the living Lord Jesus Christ the Church makes is clear that she in not concerned merely for the maintenance and the preservation of the past.”

  • Eleanor

    #11 Hi Michael,
    You wrote: that what you heard me saying is that “justice is living Jesus’ ethics, and social justice is Jesus’ ethics writ large … lived out by our societal institutions. Yes? If so, I want to challenge that”
    Actually, I was not talking about any of that at all, and I’m sorry if you read that into my post. I was strictly talking about what Christians personally should be doing *as individuals* to help widows, orphans, the poor, etc. I had absolutely no intention of getting into what societal institutions should or should not be doing.
    But thanks for the reply anyway. 🙂

  • Joey

    Michael W. Kruse wrote,
    “There is no concept of “social” justice in the Bible. Justice and ethics is discussed in terms people in face-to-face relationships. Social institutions per se are not in view.”
    There isn’t? What of Jubilee? What of gleaning the fields? What of constant calls from the prophets to remember the plight of the alien, fatherless, and the widows in a general sense (which I’ll give that it does take face-to-face contact to do!)? I agree that just relationships is ultimately what all of this is about but the Bible definitely speaks to systemic evils. I mean we have an entire society of people who were exiled because of systemic injustice. Without social justice there is little personal justice.
    I like N.T. Wrights image of building a Cathedral. He says it is like being a builder and having the foreman approach you and give you the task of working on one stone for the duration of the build. Your entire task is to make sure your stone does it’s job and fits in its place. When the Cathedral is built you stand looking at it in awe. A passerby sees you and asks, “Hey, did you build that?” Of course your answer is, “No. But I helped” as you point at your stone. Not a perfect image but a helpful one.

  • Travis Greene

    “There is no concept of “social” justice in the Bible. Justice and ethics is discussed in terms people in face-to-face relationships. Social institutions per se are not in view.”
    Come on, buddy. You know better than that. The law is all about social justice. Israel was a social body with ethical rules at the center of what it meant to be the people of God.
    It’s a tricky question how the Bible’s social justice imperatives apply to our situation, as well as how normative the example of Jesus is, and you raise good points about the differences between family, society, and so on.
    But to claim the Bible is all about “individual relationships” seems to me willfully blind.

  • Joey #14, Travis #15
    Let me go deeper.
    The disciplines of sociology and economics, the two fields to which we most commonly look for indications of macro-level social behavior, did not exist until the nineteenth century. Before that, operations of what we now call socio-economic forces were considered inexorable forces of nature or the gods. The biblical world (OT and NT) was also one of inexorable societal forces (principalities and powers.) There was no clean delineation of economy as a separate institution to be analyzed and modified. But with the Enlightenment’s belief in progress, the tools of science were ultimately applied to conquering and shaping these inexorable forces toward Modernist notions of a more just world.
    So Joey, you wrote:
    “What of Jubilee? What of gleaning the fields? What of constant calls from the prophets to remember the plight of the alien, fatherless, and the widows in a general sense (which I’ll give that it does take face-to-face contact to do!)?”
    Jubilee –Jubilee functions as a lease agreement for labor and land. Sales of labor and land were calculated based on the time between the agreement and the next jubilee. At the jubilee, the agreement expired and land and labor returned to the rightful owner. Weren’t these lease agreements negotiated between people in face-to-face relationships? Jubilee does not call for us to examine society and discern what land distribution would be within the common good and then redistribute according to that standard.
    Gleaning – A face-to-face encounter where the poor come and glean at the edge of the farmer’s field. There is not an examination and discernment of the national demand for food and how it should be equitably distributed.
    Remembering the alien, fatherless, and the widows – This was an exhortation of personal responsibility to be exercised toward the vulnerable folks in the community with whom you had face-to-face relationships. It was not a collection of funds by centralized bureaucracy who, based on some socio-economic metric, funded programs to create a more just society.
    All of these govern the behavior of people in face-to-face communities.
    Furthermore, what do the prophets rail about? They rail against the poor being unable to get justice at the city gate, thus being driven from their land and made to suffer a host of indignities. They rail against bribes that also pervert justice. They rail against the use of false weights and measures. All of these are about ethics within face-to-face relationships. Nowhere is there a prophet saying he has done an economic analysis and finds the income distribution inequitable. The chastisement of the rich is not about the income distribution but about the means through which wealth was accumulated and preserved, and their callousness toward the poor (… that is personal ethics.)
    Now if by social justice you simply mean doing what is morally incumbent upon you in your daily interactions, then what isn’t social justice? But if you are talking about analysis of income distributions, health insurance coverage, educational attainment levels by demographic groups, etc., and reshaping these to achieve some notion of the “common good,” you may be asking good questions but you are in a realm that is foreign to the Bible and to most of historical Christian reflection until the past two centuries.
    Two social justice realms:
    1. Moral ethical responsibilities we have toward others in our face-to-face relationships.
    2. Marco-level analysis of socio-economic data with the aim of fashioning a “just society” that brings about the “common good.”
    The first is clearly within the biblical tradition. The second conjures up the image of sociologists/economists using their impartial objective minds to scientifically analyze socio-economic factors, and then, based on their findings, turning the various dials on the society machine to achieve the optimal balance … the common good. Because the Bible clearly has #1 in mind, many Christians have uncritically accepted #2 as a part of the biblical mission. It is the wedding of Modernist-Positivist social and economic science to Christian mission. It is this Christian-Modernist marriage that so many people who talk of “social justice” have embraced.
    I’m not saying there aren’t things we can learn and actions we can take based on socio-economic analysis. I’m suggesting we aren’t omniscient, or even nearly so much, as the Modernists would have us believe. I’m suggesting analysis must be used with considerable humility and prudence. Our knowledge of the complexities are limited and our ethical compass is always skewed by our present context … not necessarily shaped by the Kingdom of God.
    The twin perils are accommodation that prevents us from imagining ways we can make improvements and, as Patrick is suggesting, possibly working to establish a Kingdom that really has no connection with what God has in mind.

  • Angela Olsen

    Michael, It is astounding to me the circumnavigations you have gone through to disassociate individual ethical relationships with the poor and needy from ethical social ones. Paul spoke to us a Jesus’ Bride and called us the Church. We are one body. We are called to deal with our needy fellow man as that one body, too. As for those who inevitably sponge off any man-made and, thus, imperfect system, hear this. When I account for my life, I would rather see in my life review that I fed 9 moochers than that I allowed 1 hungry person starve. But that’s just me.

  • Patrick

    Michael, very interesting thoughts. I agree that we need a fair dose of humility based on an awareness of how ‘into the unknown’ the eschaton will be (although i didn’t mean to suggest our efforts no have ‘no connection with what God has in mind’). Even a passage like 1 Cor 15 has mysterious discontinuity (flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom) alongside strong elements of continuity (resurrection body).
    One other thought: the vision of the perfect new creation being our inspiration for living kingdom life now is thrilling and biblical. Paul finishes Corinthians 15 by saying ‘Therefore give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because your labour is not in vain’. But this hope is never divorced from the cross. Do we not need an ‘eschatology of the cross’ that has a place for suffering and persecution and repentance as well?
    PS on a lighter note my 11 yr old daughter thinks its nice that I have a friend in America called Scot …

  • Scot mcKnight

    And I a friend in Ireland with the name “Patrick”!

  • Angela #17
    “…to disassociate individual ethical relationships with the poor and needy from ethical social ones.”
    I made no such disassociation. What I said was that prior to the nineteenth century, economic and social forces were inexorable realities. Ethical reflection was on what people do in face-to-face communities. The had no categories for thinking otherwise. Biblical ethics was of this variety.
    Only in the past two centuries or so have we come to see socio-economic forces as alterable realities. The challenge is how to address them. We can’t just uncritically apply the face-to-face ethics of the Bible to the management of macro social forces because the knowledge of the actors that comes from face-to-face communities is (of necessity) missing. The interrelationship of these social forces are so massively complex and highly adaptive to changes that, short of being God, we can’t with confidence know that what we are doing with social policies will shape society toward some predetermined outcomes we intend (and even that assumes we have correctly discerned what the predetermined outcomes should be.) Good intentions can lead to horrific outcomes.
    “Paul spoke to us a Jesus’ Bride and called us the Church. We are one body. We are called to deal with our needy fellow man as that one body, too.”
    Of course the church is to address the needy, both as individuals in our daily lives and as caring communities. This is accomplished through face-to-face community. (I’m perplexed to know where you got the idea that I oppose this somehow?) But what does this have to do with government engineering social policies to get outcomes that government leaders say create the optimal common good … and Christians holding this engineering enterprise as the ultimate in pursuing social justice?

  • Patrick
    A book that has captivated me that you may find a helpful read is John Stackhouse’s “Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World.” I just did one of my blog marathons on this book (Click here.) I think the questions you are asking are spot on. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  • Patrick

    thanks Michael, will check your discussion and I remember Scot blogged through it a while back too.