In the North Texas Conference, I am the chair of something called the Board of Church and Society. This is a fancy, United Methodist term for “Committee for Social Justice Issues.” (Or as the Good News folks would put it, “Everything That is Wrong with Liberal Christianity.”)
The name is a holdover from the sixties, I’m sure. It implies that only this committee deals with issues that concern both the Church and the wider world, because everyone knows that worship certainly doesn’t. Or prayer. Or discipleship. Sigh.
The fact that “social justice issues” are dealt with only in this particular committee of the larger church is problematic for me. I find it fundamentally disturbing that we so easily partition off so-called real life issues from the rest of our faith.
There is a seamless integration between the things we believe about God and the way we live inside God’s creation, just as there is no difference between the command to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and the command to love our neighbor. It’s one and the same thing. It’s simply two ways of talking about the same exact thing.
You can’t be a great Christian in your heart, while at the same time taking advantage of folks in your neighborhood. You can’t be a wholehearted Jesus-follower in some mystical, spiritual sense, while also being a dickhead to people you don’t like.
Those things don’t hold together. As John put it, “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”
But something insidious burrowed its way into our churches and congregations and persuaded us that “faith” was somehow more important than “action,” and that “belief” has primary over “behavior,” and that “evangelism” is the main task of the church while “justice” is something we can only hope to get around to every once in a while.
John Wesley liked to say that there is no personal holiness without social holiness, to which I say, “Amen!” And to recover the sense of vitality in our own movement, we must rediscover the importance of the pursuit of justice in our lives as followers of Jesus.
Perhaps one problem is the very word, justice. It’s a fuzzy word for lots of us. For some, it conjures up “Law and Order” episodes, in which good guys chase after bad guys. For others, it hints at all sorts of left-leaning causes, which makes a lot of people in my neck of the woods very nervous.
For me, Biblical justice is a very simple concept. It refers to the restoration of right relationships with God, with others, with self, and with the rest of creation, including the earth and its elements, plants, animals, and the outer limits of our knowledge. While we cannot literally restore right relationships between every person and God or others, we can certainly begin the work of demolishing or changing the structures and powers that keep relationships fractured and broken.
I would say this definition of justice describes very well the entire story of God and God’s interaction with the world, as it is told in Scripture. Justice is the reason Jesus Christ came into the world. Jesus came to put things right.
And that’s what what folks who claim to follow Jesus are supposed to be doing, too. We’re supposed to be doing justice work! We look at the world with a yearning for things to be made whole again. We should be looking at our communities and asking the really difficult questions, such as, “Why are children in our neighborhood dying from malnutrition and lack of basic medical care?” and “Why do the poor live in such rotten parts of town?” and “Who benefits from such arrangements?” and “Do we have to let things stay like this?”
But these are dangerous questions. And that’s precisely why most of us DON’T do justice work. It verges on the political, on the controversial. And we want so badly to steer a middle course. We don’t want to appear to be “partisan.”
OF COURSE WE HAVE TO BE PARTISAN!
Has anybody noticed that Jesus was clearly partisan? He took the side of the least of these, the poor, the oppressed, and all the other motley outsiders. He was on THEIR side, as opposed to those who were powerful, greedy, arrogant, self-righteous, and overly pious. Yes, he took sides. He played favorites!
In his coming-out party at a Nazareth synagogue, he stood up and said, “Well, I can see that the poor need to hear some good news, that there are prisoners who need to be set free, that there are blind folks who need to see, and there are some oppressed people who need to stand up straight again. Let’s do it! Let’s put things back in their right place!” And as soon as he said this, the townspeople attempted to throw him off a cliff.
But Jesus never once stopped to preach and said, “I think I’ll do some spiritual work now,” after which he said, “OK, back to my secular work, back to real life.” Evangelism and social action were one and the same to him. God’s work was everyday work, something which consumed him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Unless we integrate our lives, and unite our theological convictions with justice in action, then we will be merely “almost Christian.”
Which is to say, not Christian at all.
Isn’t it time for churches, congregations, and Jesus-followers to rediscover the call to do justice?