Is Separating the Gospel from Social Justice a Sign of White Privilege?

Is Separating the Gospel from Social Justice a Sign of White Privilege? July 9, 2020

I’m suspicious. When I read or hear something put out by those most critical of the social justice movement, I often wonder if the true reasons for their opposition are more cultural than theological.

There are obvious reasons I’m suspicious. The overwhelming number of voices critical of social justice are white, male, and evangelical/fundamentalist.  Here is a good example.  The great majority have rarely, if ever, had to deal with the same cultural, social, political and economic issues as their non-white or female counter parts.

In their minds, I think most of these voices genuinely believe they are defending the “gospel.” However, I’m just not sure what “gospel” they mean.  Yes, I know they think it the “historic” gospel, but the churches with much longer traditions (Eastern Orthodox for example) than theirs, would certainly not agree with their view of “historic,” let alone their view of the gospel.

Besides, a gospel that is only about avoiding a future hell isn’t good news for those already living in one. The question remains: Why the need to pull them apart, to dichotomize gospel and social justice? Those defending the priority of the gospel, of course, talk about the need for works of mercy, charity, and justice. However, they want to make sure we don’t identify those works as the gospel, but as the result of the gospel.

Is this for fear of a works-based salvation? It shouldn’t be. Those who think social justice is intrinsic to the gospel also believe we are saved by grace; or, at the least don’t try and separate grace and works—in other words, they believe both James (2:17) and Paul. They also see the gospel, salvation, and social justice in the light of Matthew 25:31-46.

Is it for fear we will no longer evangelize, and simply be decent people who side with the least of these and work for justice?  Interesting. What if being decent people who cared (in action, not just sentiment) about the least of these, turned out to be true evangelism? Regardless, this is hardly a valid fear.

Is it based on the idea we must change hearts before we can change culture and law?  They certainly don’t believe that when it comes to abortion or the LGBT community. They don’t seem to believe it when it comes to illegal immigration or religious liberty issues. In these areas, it’s all about legislating and law—hearts be damned.

They do seem to believe this (hearts before laws) when it comes to social justice, racism, and sexism though. Here, rather than the law, they believe hearts need to change first. While non-white communities and women suffer, lament, and protest, they would rather talk about hearts than laws. Interesting. Why is that?

Is it the fear that “social justice” is some sort of code for leftist or progressive politics?  Is it the long-held fear of Marxism and Communism?  If so, I suppose something predicated upon battles played out in the 1940s and 1950s is what happens when so many people are that out of touch with the present moment. The past is all they have.

There is a reason non-white communities were much more open to leftist political and economic thought, especially prior to the 1970s. Many did not feel included or able to participate within a white world of political and economic domination.  It’s hard to feel “free,” when one begins to learn (Jim Crow) the entire system is weighted against them.

In my opinion, I do think the true issue is white privilege. I would answer my query in the affirmative. I think the reason these voices want to separate the gospel and social justice is because the great majority of them have rarely experienced a life where social justice was an issue or needed.

Adding (in their minds) social justice to the gospel complicates the current formula and brings a haunting and, no doubt, unwanted sting to the conscience. Rather than a simple prayer and cognitive theological affirmation, it requires seeing the world from the perspective of the least of these. It requires living and working toward a world where the “least” become fewer and fewer.

As long as we can keep the gospel and salvation in the abstract, in some metaphysical/spiritual location, where they initially don’t touch this life, then we never really have to change. We never have to work toward making the good news concrete for those who suffer in this life, while we, too often, rest comfortably waiting for heaven.

But to keep the gospel and social justice together means acknowledging white privilege. It means understanding how we were (are) part of the machinery creating the “least of these,” to begin with, the very ones upon which our salvation now depends (Oh, the irony).  They are, after all, Jesus. Whatever we did for them (or didn’t do), we did for Jesus (Matt 25:40).

For far too many in this life, a gospel separated from social justice is not good news. If it’s not good news for all of us, then it’s not genuinely good news for any of us. It’s a truncated gospel—a gospel too small.

Here is how Jesus described the gospel—the good news:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

    and recovering of sight to the blind,

   to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

If one takes the entire Biblical narrative as a whole and not just proof texts from St. Paul’s writings, there is no separation of the gospel and social justice.  And if one is longing for justice, then such is easy to see. If one is not, then the gospel is first, an abstract concept about salvation; secondly, it’s a ticket to a future heaven, and only tertiary about our actual life here and now. But only a person with little worries in this life can afford to view it that way, to see the gospel and social justice as separate.

The rest don’t have that privilege.

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