The Church and Social Justice

The Church and Social Justice April 22, 2013

Poverty, homelessness, AIDS — how should the Christian help? How should the local church help? What is the “help” done by Christians to be called? (This matters to me; some don’t care what it is called.)

David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, in Prodigal Christianity, play off of two tendencies but here is where they will end up: “Falwell and Wallis are two sides of the same coin” (138). “Wallis was arguing for a Christian nation … just as Falwell and Dobson were” (138).

Do you agree that both Falwell and Wallis are two sides of the same coin?

Now to the two tendencies:

Tim Keller contends from individual redemption to social activism, from justification to justice. Though the authors do not bring this out, Keller’s contention here  is a revision of how many in the Reformed tradition would understand justification but I think Keller’s point is in part rhetorical (good play on words). The big idea is that the new birth creates a new kind of person, the kind of person who becomes involved with others.

Brian McLaren, the authors argue, moves from social redemption to personal redemption. “… we participate in salvation by joining in with God’s work for justice in the world” (135) — this is their summary statement of McLaren’s approach. It is undeniable that Brian’s approach is liberation theology while Keller’s is evangelicalism’s classic model of personal transformation.

Fitch and Holsclaw make the important observation, largely ignored, that both the right-wing and left-wing activists have anchored their hope for a better world in the political process and in social activism. These authors think the approach ought to be the local church and local Christians living out a vision for justice in their own neighborhoods. Instead of big government they propose local church. That is, “the church itself … is never considered an entity that lives God’s justice and reconciliation before the world and in the world” (139). There is no justice if there is no Jesus (139).

This happens when justice is kept relational — instead of institutional and distant. It happens from a posture of humility, not condescending money or power. It must also be seen as the extension of Christ through the people.

Big issue for me in all this discussion: the fundamental Christian ethic is love, not justice. Justice is a manifestation of love. So, in discussions of justice, if it is not anchored in love and a theology of charity/love, then justice becomes too closely connected to laws and constitutions and secularized theories of rights. Justice in the Bible is moral behavior that conforms to the will of God (tsedeqah is always relational to the one who sets the law or will of God in place), and as Volf says, when justice runs its course it becomes love. The help Christians offer to others is called love.

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  • Paul W

    How should the Christian help? — More students could get degrees in social/human services; more workers could seek such employment; more donations could be made to non-profits.

    How should the local church help? — Use their buildings for temporary shelter and land for local food production (planting a garden or orchard).

    What is the “help” done by Christians to be called? — Philanthropy.

  • Jennifer E.

    Christians can help by demonstrating a willingness to enter the suffering of others. That is love. To enter another’s suffering and sacrifice what time and resources (if any can help) to alleviate that suffering beyond being with those that suffer.

  • Susan

    But Christians also can speak up in love. If I oppose health care reform + Medicaid expansion on the rationale that I have good health insurance and it would cost me more for my neighbor to have it as well, then we’ve missed the point. (I recognize that some oppose it for other reasons, and I’m not saying those are illegitimate, necessarily). That by itself is not enough if I don’t also literally offer myself in love to my next-door neighbor.

  • john

    Exactly… both (wallis and falwell… et al) rely on the use of “coercion” and the hoarding and wielding of “power”… both are antithetical to the Kingdom.

  • chris williams

    I agree that the approach should be centered in the local church. However, as the local church enters into its local context of injustice whether it be education or housing or whatever, it inevitably will have to seek out those in power (public officials). The power holders need to know that the church sees the issue and wants to do something about it. Whether the power holders will partner with or fight against the church is up to them. Jesus told those in power the injustices he saw and that he was going to do something about it (his kingdom plan). He invited people to join him, even the power holders. He let them decide. It’s about the kingdom being the center and inviting others to join in; not about conforming/conflating/synchretizing the kingdom to the culture. Great book on this is “Resident Aliens” by Willimon and Hauerwass (sp?)

  • Robin

    Is there a reason for the church to have a global justice/love plan?? When I look at the new testament I see specific local churches meeting specific local needs, not trying to cure all the ills of the Roman empire. I see them raising a contribution for another local church that is hand delivered.

    I’m not saying a global, national strategy is irrelevant to the conversation, but it is certainly secondary to local, personal acts of love/justice.

  • Robin

    On a positive note, one of the churches in my town has a ministry that purchases and assembles beds for people that don’t have them. They took their inspiration from “The Blind Side” and a local girl who wanted everyone to have beds. They have been running it for 4 or 5 years now, 99% of the people in our small town don’t even know about the ministry…but I sit in executive meetings with our human services cabinet and one of the commissioners last week, who doesn’t live in our town, brought up this ministry as an example of local activities that our cabinet should be trying to reproduce throughout the state.

    I guess I am saying the church should be the church locally, first and foremost, and if the power brokers notice, then good. But even if we don’t affect the entire system we would still have fulfilled Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

  • I would love it if the local church actually were a place where people could get help, but it’s kind of a farce to act as though this could happen with our current configuration of staffing. Every parish would need to have social workers, nurses, lawyers, carpenters, and plumbers on the payroll.

    As it is, we have a script that we go through if somebody comes into our building asking for help. We can give them a bag of groceries filled with non-perishable, i.e. highly processed food. We can pray with them. But if they’re about to be homeless, then what we’re supposed to do is essentially give them the run-around. Call this number where the people on the other end will say, “We’re sorry but our shelter is full. Why don’t you try asking the church in your neighborhood for help?” It’s a pinball machine. We kick them and one way and then they get kicked back to us until they get tired and give up.

    Of course there are a lot of people out there who try to scam churches. Because we don’t have social workers on staff, we just can’t take anybody’s story at face value. In any case, I would love to see us engage in actual ‘parish ministry” in the original geographic sense of the word. Suburban church culture is completely antithetical to that.

  • I’m part way in agreement with this post. I agree that Wallis and Falwell or mirror images. I also agree that our central focus should be on living out justice and love in our neighborhoods. But I question whether abandonment of macro level politics is a sufficiently robust expression of our witness.

    We live our lives in face-to-face communities but also in constant integration with commercial society, the latter being the intricate web connections we with countless people will never know or an encounter in only the briefest, most superficial ways. Love to me is about relationship and I distinguish it from generalized benevolence or market exchanges with people I do not know. Love is action directed at a particular person whose life is known to me and is done for the benefit of that person. I can only “know,” at most, a few dozen people. Yet, our lives consist in rings of relationships extending out from our family, to close friends, to co-workers, to fellow members of organizations, to fellow citizens of our city, to citizens of our state, our country, and our world.

    Many Evangelicals have taught (and some still do) that we must concern ourselves only with personal salvation. When people are saved they will naturally move on to address injustices and physical needs of other as an extension of their salvation. But the logic doesn’t follow. If each generation teaches the next generation into perpetuity that personal salvation is all that matters, the other issues, requiring careful and persistent dedication never get addressed.

    I worry that what is said in the post is an overreaction. What I hear is that if the church just loves each other in neighborhoods, that will naturally to correction of injustices and physical needs at broader societal levels, somewhat similar to the “personal salvation” model. Some issues must be addressed beyond the neighborhood level. I’m thinking particularly of many emerging countries where freedom of the press is absent, rule of law is negligible, economies are constructed to protect ruling elites while 80% of the citizens are compelled to operate in a tenuous informal economy without clear title to their property or protection by the courts. These people can be “loving” all they want in neighborhoods but without some carefully considered systemic change at some point, they will always be trapped in poverty.

    This why I continue to resist what I hear as the new Anabaptist model, despite having a strong affinity for it. I agree that the key to revitalizing our world is healthy face-to-face community and I think the problem has been trying to solve problems that can only be solved, or best be solved, in face-to-face communities are being made the work of large impersonal governmental institutions. There has been an effort to dislodge face-to-face communities as the central players in care for individuals. But large macro structures are essential and need our moral reflection. There are challenges that cannot be addressed by face-to-face communities.

  • Jim

    By continually harkening back to the City on a Hill notion of Winthrop, Falwell was calling for (or at least seeking) a theocracy. He was pushing for laws that would reflect his idea of the OT and the 10 Commandments. Wallis is calling Christians to live out the Sermon on the Mount and use their influence to help lawmakers set priorities and budgets. Maye too subtle a difference for some.

    I see it as an extension of the Winthrop v. Roger Williams debate. After reading Sojourners mag for over 30 years and all of Wallis’ books, he appears to be more in the Anabaptist tradition.

  • EricG

    Scot, do you see a place in the church for what MLK did? Perhaps I don’t understand what you are saying, but how would that fit with your or Fitch’s views?

    I also echo Michael Kruse’s comments.

  • Jennifer

    To say Wallis and Falwell are to sides of the same coin is to compare a caricature of each and prop them up back to back. It’s a “good” rhetorical line, perhaps, but it does a disservice to two men of deep conviction who spent/spend their lives trying to live out those convictions. Agree or disagree, they deserve better.

    Yes, love is the core, and yes, justice must be relational. But if it is willing to stop there and insists on avoiding the institutional (however distant it may be), then it is *not* wholly relational. Those “distant” institutions impact individual lives in huge ways every day, particularly the lives of the marginalized. (And I wonder if it may be white males who find it easiest to consider them “distant.”) In order to engage people relationally, you have to meet them for who they are, where they are. And where they are in real life is a context that includes much more than the neighborhood (and no neighborhood is completely self-defining).

    So no, justice can’t actually work if the use institutional activism to hold the personal at a safe distance (and too many churches and people of faith have done that). But it’s failing to recognize the complexities of the whole person to abandon the institution.

  • Kenton

    (Begin rant)

    Yes, Falwell and Wallis are two sides of the same coin. I’ve been saying it for years. Both of them talk(ed) out of both sides of their mouth. Wallis will say “God is not a Republican nor a Democrat” and pretty soon you realize what he’s actually saying is “Well, OK, God IS a Democrat.” Falwell said the same thing switching the labels.

    That may be a caricature (Jennifer #12), but it’s a caricature they’ve made of themselves, and their efforts to make gospel politically partisan makes a caricature of the gospel.

    (End rant)

  • scotmcknight

    Folks, I don’t see Fitch and Holsclaw abandoning social services in the public or State or federal sectors. But I do see them saying that Christian involvement needs to begin at the local level, or neighborhood level, and not simply being taxes used to help the distant poor.

    So they are not seeking to resolve all social ills by seeing its solutions in the local church.

    As I read them they are asking: How do Christians best participate in social justice?

  • Echoes of James Davidson Hunter’s critique of Christian left and right here.

    Maybe a topic for another post: on Scot’s comments on love being the fundamental Christian ethic – I’ve been thinking about that for a while. Maybe I’ve missed it but I’m consistently struck by the marginalisation of a theology of love in evangelical and Christian writing (let alone an absence of actual love in much public Christianity!).

    Pope Benedict wrote Deus Caritas Est. The Cape Town Commitment is outstanding. Other good works come to mind?

  • EricG


    If I am reading this correctly, Fitch leaves no room for Christians like William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to operate. This seems like a big problem with the proposal. Sometimes justice and love need to be worked out on a different level than he suggests.

  • Fitch leaves no room for Christians like William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to operate.


    Wallis efforts are in the same stream as MLK and it could be argued that MLK even more liberal than Wallis in many respects (i.e., in support for “redistribution”/social justice measures).

    Yet the same folk who champion, herald and celebrate MLK cast aspersion at Wallis (and comparing him to Falwell, who opposed almost everything MLK stood for).

    Cognitive dissonance FTW!

  • Marshall

    Nice point Robin #6. Localism is Local.

    the new birth creates … the kind of person who becomes involved with others.

    “Creates” is too strong. Total depravity is one thing, but even the naked among the tombs are involved with others. The new birth is about enhancing something that’s already there. For one thing, trust in God means you can be less defensive about everything else, and therefore more socially-minded with the people that you meet each day.

  • Mark E. Smith

    Social justice must be placed in the context of loving neighbor and faith-sharing. Otherwise, the Church is no more than a non-profit or NGO. As the Body of Christ, we are so much more than that.