Doing Justice and the Gospel

Written by Mark Farnham

On October 4, 2018

cup cold water

The question of the role of social justice and the church is one of the hottest topics of the day among Christians. Recently I had 30 minutes to address the issue in chapel at Lancaster Bible College. In the next four blog posts I will unpack my chapel talk.

Preliminary Statements:

  1. No one can escape their bias regarding these issues, so it is impossible to be neutral. Neutrality implies that I can set aside my personal feelings or experiences. It is, however, possible to be objective. I acknowledge my personal bias and you should too. And anyone you hear, or read, or watch should also acknowledge their bias. Everyone’s desire when addressing a topic as important as this one ought to be objectivity. What I say here today represents my best attempt to address the massive and complex issue of justice like a pizza delivery—in 30 minutes or less. Therefore, the views I express are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the Bible and Theology faculty or Lancaster Bible College.
  2. What God reveals in the Scriptures ought to be for Christians authoritative and definitive for understanding any issue. If we do not have an unchanging and objective foundation for our thought, we can ultimately have no shared meanings or experiences, and what we call evil and unjust today could be considered good and normal next week.
  3. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, are not determined by what I or anyone else perceive to be the quantity of harm done by an action, but rather are determined by God, who has revealed his character and commands, primarily in the Bible. We should not judge ourselves according to how the world evaluates us, but how God evaluates us. The world will often hate Christians and slander us regardless of what we do.
  4. We need to define our terms:
    • Biblical justice is the faithful exercise of power in the community, doing the right thing in relation to other people. This ties justice to mercy and compassion (Rom. 13:8—owe no one anything except love). Justice means treating people equitably, acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of ethnic, economic, gender, or social status. Justice also means giving people what they are due, whether punishment, or protection, or care.
    • Righteousness denotes virtue, uprightness, moral rectitude—godly character. This message today is primarily about doing justice, rather than “social justice,” which is a nebulous term.
    • When referring to social justice, I will use the definition of Innosanto Nagara, an Indonesian intellectual, author of the children’s book, “A is for Activism,” and founder of the Design Action Collective in Oakland, CA. He writes that “Social Justice Work is work that we do in the interest of securing human rights, an equitable distribution of resources, a healthy planet, democracy, and a space for the human spirit to thrive (arts, culture, entertainment).” While we can sympathize with some of these commitments, they do not correspond to biblical concepts of justice and righteousness. The danger of the gospel of Christ being reduced to a social gospel is a real danger. It happens all the time.
    • More specifically, the U.N. defines social justice as “the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth.” Social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.
    • Michael Novak’s book, Social Justice Is Not What You Think It Is, notes that Social Justice typically refers to: state redistribution of wealth, equality of outcomes, and a collectivist notion of the common good, which becomes an excuse for total state control.
  5. The fundamental reason for injustice in our world is human depravity.
    • Systemic depravity where corrupt governments use power to enrich themselves or treat people unfairly based on any number of factors.
    • Institutional depravity where corruption, greed, discrimination, and exploitation are protected to advance the institution or cultivate a biased ideology.
    • Individual depravity is the source of the other forms of depravity, and is the primary reason for broken families, poverty, violence, ignorance, hatred, greed, etc.
    • The Christian understanding of depravity prevents us from believing what I call the “magic of socialism”—the belief that when individuals act on behalf of the government, they magically become honest and wise, so they can redistribute the wealth of others without greed and corruption.
  6. Many of the concerns expressed under the name of social justice can be shared by Christians who are seeking to love their neighbors as themselves, but too often the interpretation and solution for those concerns are antithetical to the Christian gospel. Therefore, as Christians we cannot naively join with those who oppose the tenets of our faith, if doing so requires our endorsement of unjust and immoral solutions. Proponents are often seeking to establish a social order with no reference to the one true God.
    • For example, “intersectionality” refers to the compounding of experiences that can render some people significantly more vulnerable in society than others. A good example are the Greek widows in Acts 6, who were not only vulnerable because they were widows, but in the early church were overlooked in the care of widows because culturally they were outsiders, compared to the Hebrew widows. The church’s response was to appoint six deacons like them (with Greek names) to make sure they were cared for. Empathy for their situation resulted in a remedy that appropriately corrected the vulnerability. But when the ideology of intersectionality turned toward Freud and the reduction of humanity to feelings, concepts like “dignitary harm” arose, and the concept was corrupted (Rosaria Butterfield, “Gay Rights, Hate Speech, and Hospitality” .
    • The #MeToo movement has rightly exposed sexual harassers and predators, and what has happened so far may just be the tip of the iceberg. My guess is that the vast majority of women have been the recipients of inappropriate statements, physical contact, and more. Yet, the broader culture seems to take no responsibility for the rejection of God’s standards of sexuality 50 years ago that set the stage for widespread exploitation of women. #MeToo can be misused to summarily convict anyone against whom an accusation is made.
    • The concept of “privilege” is indisputable if we take it to mean that in certain circumstances or locations, some people are free from fear, while others are at a disadvantage or in potential danger. The solution, however, is not to heap guilt and blame for society’s ills on people perceived to be privileged. Nor is it to silence anyone who is perceived to be privileged, because they have allegedly “had their turn” or can’t possible speak into a situation they have not experienced. The biblical answer is for people who have “privilege” in any given situation to use their advantage or strength in the service of others. Moses, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, and Paul all had privilege and used it when appropriate.
  7. It is easy to get focused on American issues, when global issues of justice are significantly greater. When we consider the global scene it significantly reshapes our ideas of where the greatest injustices lay.  Human trafficking, corrupt governments, lack of basic healthcare, education, clean water, and food is widespread.
  8. The fruit of the gospel is not the gospel. The implications of the gospel are not the gospel. “Preaching Christ crucified will transform society. Preaching transformed society will transform nothing” (Douglas Wilson, “American Vision and the Word that Justified”). Do you care deeply about justice? Which issues? Only the culturally acceptable issues such as racism, the environment and child labor, or also the unacceptable issues, too, like abortion and pornography? Do you care as much about the message of the gospel and the saving of souls as you do social issues? It is easier to march and demonstrate and protest than it is to tell someone they are lost and need Jesus. Mark 8:36—”For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

In Part 2 we will look at Leviticus 19 to see what it says about justice, and how it can challenge us about our part in doing justice.

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