The words “justice” and “social justice” have long drawn the ire of segments of American Christianity, particularly white evangelical leaders. They have consistently said that it is unbiblical, un-Christian, and yes, un-American.
Baptist News Global reported on May 18 that this sentiment may be coming to the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention this summer in the form of a resolution drafted by Pastor Grady Arnold of Calvary Baptist Church in Cuero, Texas.
Arnold’s resolution cites political commentator Glenn Beck who said on his radio show in 2010 that Christians who find the words “social justice” in their church’s literature or teaching should “run as fast as they can” from that church and find a new one. (It is worth noting that Beck has since apologized for how he “helped tear the country apart”).
The rhetoric from this camp has not been subtle. Arnold’s resolution bluntly says that “social justice and Christian ethics are clearly antithetical to each other.” Richard Land, who once led the Christian Life Commission, said that social justice was an idea “hatched in hell.”
Although none of this is new, it never ceases to amaze me how those among us who call themselves “Bible-believing” and claim to have the highest and most literal reading of scripture can so unabashedly dismiss a subject that is among the Bible’s most mentioned, and that Jesus explicitly affirmed.
In Jesus’ long list of woes against the Pharisees and teachers of the law (Matthew 23:13-36), he rebukes them for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness” (v.23). There it is; first in a list of the top 3. Jesus was essentially quoting Micah 6:8 in which the prophet says that what the Lord requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
In the Old Testament alone, “justice” is mentioned hundreds of times in reference to the systemic oppression of vulnerable populations at the hands of the rich and powerful. Here is a very small sampling:
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free…” (Isaiah 58:6)
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is right and just. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)
“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor.” (Jeremiah 22:13)
“There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:12, 24)
What you should see in these passages is not just a clear concern for vulnerable populations, but also that they are identifying large scale, systemic issues that are not possible to address by way of mission trips, church service projects, or benevolence. These verses and many others mention things like wages, taxes, greed among the rich, and bribery.
Evangelicals who rail against the idea of justice do not deny that the Bible commands Christians to care for the poor and needy, but they seek to make a distinction, saying that individuals and churches are supposed to help the poor and needy, but not try to do so through political processes nor demand that the government do so. This ignores the context of these Bible passages and the problems they mention. How can injustices caused (and maintained) by political forces be remedied by individuals and churches?
If Congress passes a law that makes health insurance unaffordable for millions of additional Americans, compassionate churches trying to pay a few medical bills or run a clinic drain their resources while leaving the root cause of the problem in place. If our president halts refugee resettlement programs and cancels protected status for certain immigrants, it’s virtually meaningless to talk about helping them since they won’t even be here to help. If your city or county is focusing all its resources and energy on the middle to upper class parts of town and neglecting the poor section, your casserole or clean up project is almost insulting.
Proverbs 31:8-9 calls us to “defend the rights of the poor and needy.” How are we supposed to do that without engaging those who are taking those rights away? A bucket of water doesn’t do much for a house that’s on fire.
Modern faith leaders’ opposition to justice can be traced to some sinister roots in the 1930s. Justice was more commonly preached in American pulpits in those days as the corporate power structure had lost clout with the people because of the 1929 stock market crash. The corporations hated the New Deal, but they were going to need some help in getting Christian America back on board with their agenda. Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse says that they found that help in Los Angeles-based Congregationalist pastor James W. Fifield, Jr., who started a movement called “Spiritual Mobilization.” His main sponsors were Sun Oil President J. Howard Pew, Alfred Sloan of General Motors, the heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, etc.
Using a version of the prosperity gospel, Fifield engaged in a successful campaign to bring tens of thousands of preachers around to the idea that government protections of workers and consumers were antithetical to Christianity. He even sent cash prizes to ministers who won “sermon contests” by obediently preaching their desired message. The business magnates desperately needed Christians to keep their love stuff confined to compassionate handouts rather than the Bible’s message of justice. Some 80 years later, their successors are still reaping the rewards.
I don’t see how it’s possible to love my neighbor without justice. This is my call to the Church to put more weight on the “weightier matters,” and follow the One who said that he was anointed to “proclaim good news to the poor…proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18).