Social Issues, Theology

When social justice is controversial


I never thought I’d see a day where, of all things, social justice becomes an issue of controversy among Christians. In an official statement published by a group of conservative evangelicals, heralded by pastor John MacArthur, social justice is “a distraction from the gospel”:

“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.”

Of all the issues to argue about, you would think this one — as it pertains to taking care of widows, orphans, the sick, impoverished, and marginalized — would be a no-brainer.

But I knew there had to be more to this issue than a few lines of click-baity titles on Google, so I did some digging. And I understand the opposing position a bit more now (much as I disagree with it).

Some Christians, like the ones who wrote the aforementioned “statement,” believe that social justice is being used to support positions they see as unbiblical (like abortion and gay rights, for example). Other Christians (of a more progressive variety) see social justice as the new litmus test for faith: if you’re not out there protesting, carrying signs, or canvassing, then you’re not a True Christian because you’re not loving others like Jesus did. Conservative Christians retort that such believers are trying to earn salvation through good works rather than faith alone.

Here’s where it gets complicated for me:

My family’s Jewish faith is all about social justice. Tikkun olam — “mending the world” — is what being a good Jew is all about. Being religious doesn’t particularly matter; keeping kosher doesn’t really matter. But if you’re committed to making the world a better place, you’re Jewish-ing right.

Because Judaism doesn’t have a lot to say about the afterlife (at least, nothing consistent anyway), this world is the priority. So I guess you could say that learning to place my hope in something I cannot see has been a challenge. Because in Christianity, our future is with Christ. Christians know, deep down, that this world can’t ever be set right. That doesn’t mean we should stop doing the gritty but necessary work of justice, but when it comes down to it, the real hope of reconciliation is in the next life. Not this one.

I’ve had lots of talks with God over the years to try and accept that justice, for me, will most likely not happen here on earth. The thought of my rapist walking free drove me to alcoholism. And he’s just one of billions of people (I hope that number is an exaggeration) throughout history who committed evil without ever being held accountable.

I’m still just as passionate about social justice in my Anglican life as I was in my Jewish one. I firmly believe that it’s a critical part of living out the gospel. But my perspective in doing so has shifted.

The ultimate source of my peace is not dependent on what happens here, in my city, state, or country. Rather, it is dependent on a risen Lord who defeated death and turned suffering on its head. And that knowledge is what keeps me from sinking into irreparable despair when another innocent black man is murdered, when a mysterious pandemic spreads across the planet, or when evil-doers are allowed to walk free.

I am grieved, of course. At the same time, I know this is not the end.

I’ll never stop caring about justice. But ultimately, my hope for redemption lies elsewhere.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash


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5 thoughts on “When social justice is controversial”

  1. Balance, the Via Media–one of the reasons I love the Episcopal Church, while recognizing it isn’t perfect.

  2. I’ve been going to progressive churches that are big on social justice, which is a good thing, but I feel like I’m missing out on spirituality, Bible study, and, well, God. And I’m also getting that feeling that not protesting, or not protesting enough, or not sticking to the approved script, means you’re not a True Christian. It’s feeling alienated by a strict orthodoxy all over again- a better orthodoxy, compared to some of the conservative ones- but still one that makes me feel like I’m supposed to stop thinking for myself.

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