Social Justice: A Christian Practice Misunderstood and Misapplied

There is an awful lot being said these days about social justice and the gospel. For those who may be newer to this conversation, the conversation itself is anything but new. We have had to put the social justice argument in its place for decades now and it looks like its time to do so once again. The reason this continues to emerge as a problem from generation to generation is more complicated than a blog post is able to address. If I could sum it up in a word, however, that word would be training. Poor thinkers are leading our churches and they are not training the body. So let’s do some brief training around social justice and why some people continue to think it is the be-all-end-all for the Christian.

The Impact of Constantine

On the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine, a sun-worshipper, had a dream in which the first two letters of the name of Christ appeared on top of each other. He also so or heard the words, “By this sign you will conquer.” Constantine had this sign painted on the shield of the army, prayed to the God of the Christians for victory and won an amazing battle over his enemy Maxentius, who was killed that day. From that point forward, Constantine would champion and protect Christianity. At the Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine and Licinius met and agreed on a policy of freedom for all religions, Pagan and Christian. This gave Christianity full legal status in the empire for the first time.

The emperor Constantius, Constantine’s son, took steps to increase the influence of Christianity and suppress paganism. In fact, he forbad animal sacrifices in the pagan temples. After a brief interruption by Julius the Apostate, Theodosius I, also known as Theodosius the Great, passed the Edict of Thessalonica that made Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire. From that time to the present, Christianity, to one degree or another, has been involved in an illicit and unbiblical relationship with the state. The state has had more say that it should regarding ecclesiastical matters and the church has had tremendous power and influence and even control over the state. This unnatural cross-contamination between these two entities has led to disastrous results. Despite the fact that these results have been documented for centuries now, there seems to be no shortage of men from both entities, vying for influence, power, control, and popularity. Will anyone remember my name?

The Reformers, the Lutherans, and the Anabaptists.

It was within this Constaninian socio-political culture that the reformation took place. There were no pure lines drawn between the church and the state. This environment had served to corrupt the power structure of the church for centuries. The gospel had been all but lost. Church offices were bought and sold and rewarded for political purposes as a matter of routine. It was business as usual for someone to buy the office of bishop. Martin Luther’s visit to Rome would be the spark that would eventually shatter the status quo. However, even the reformers would have to grapple with this illicit relationship. And for the most part, they got it wrong. It proved to be too much reform to completely untangle the web of state and church that had been knotted together for so long now. The nationalist reformers, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, transferred the powers that had been held by the papacy, to the state. This secured protection to the Protestants. The Christianising reformers believed in the rightness of a Christian state. This is best expressed by the views of Bucer, Calvin, and the reformed churches. Those who saw a clear distinction between the church and the state were the radical reformers, most of whom were in fact, heretics, but not all. The point here is that even throughout the Reformation, it was incredibly complex to determine just where the state ended, and the church began and for the most part, this problem was not corrected by the reformers and remains to be a serious problem down to this day.

The Catholic Expansion

During the counter-reformation, there was an incredible expansion of Roman Catholicism, especially to the Americas. Initially, Spain and Portugal send military forces into South America and Mexico and conquered the natives of these lands. Immediately following the military, once a land was subdued, came the missionaries. The blurry line between the state and the church also blurred the line between the military campaigns and missionary endeavors. Some religious orders within the Church were accepting of the brutal military rule. People were forced to convert to Christianity by the thousands. It was conversion by the sword. The law of God was being imposed, and after all, how could that ever be a bad thing? However, in the middle of this oppression, certain orders were repulsed by the behavior of their military forces and the state. These missionaries took steps to liberate those being oppressed by these so-called Christian states. Hence, we see here the path being laid for the anticipation of what would become in just a few centuries the seedlings of liberation theology.

Liberation theology formally took root in the 1960s. It got its start really during Vatican II when a group of young Catholic and Protestant theologians in Latin America began to discuss the pitiful condition of the poor. The idea was that the Church had a responsibility to address the conditions of the poor. The issue was that these conditions were blamed on the social structure at the time. In fact, we can say the same thing today. Not much has changed. The bedrock principle of liberation theology is: the option for the poor. This option involves a free choice or commitment by individuals or groups both to resist exploitation of the poor and oppressed and to work proactively to change social structures to new ones that protect the dignity and rights of the poor.[1]

The “theology of liberation” (teología de la liberación) was born and christened in 1968. In that year Gustavo Gutiérrez, widely recognized as the leader of this movement, introduced the term in a major address to theologians and pastoral workers at Chimbote, Peru.[2] For Gutiérrez, Christian praxis had everything to do with transforming activities. And because the line between the church and state was blurred, this led to the kind of institutional thinking that relocated these transforming activities to the structural framework of society that led to these problems to begin with. If we are going to rescue the poor, we must address the real problem behind the problem. So, it is the long history of the illicit relationship between the church and the state that has contributed to rise of liberation theology. Today, we call it social justice because liberation theology has been dubbed a heretical idea and repudiated by the church long ago. Social justice is nothing more than liberation theology wearing a different coat. The disguise is clever, but for the thinking and discerning Christian, not clever enough.

Eventually, liberation theology began to widen its focus. For instance, it began to include women’s rights issues, sexism, and racism. God was viewed as preferring the marginalized and oppressed in particular. It began with the poor, expanded to women, and then to race. The objective was not the power of the gospel to free from spiritual oppression and bondage, from sin and death. It was simply to free from oppression. If you were one of the marginalized, you were one of God’s favorites. God took a special interest in you. The Bible is about removing those social structures that led to any kind of oppression whatsoever.

Enter the Rev. James Cones. Cones is the founder of Black Liberation Theology. Again, we see the idea that there is a specific group of people who are marginalized, who are oppressed. Cones says that blacks live in a white-dominated society. This structure lends to the oppression of blacks by whites. Today, there are many, even in the church, who are attempting to convince white people that they cannot help but be racist simply because they are white. They are not conscious of it because it is so deeply rooted in them by their upbringing, their culture, everything in their environment. And many people, even Christians, are repenting for being white. They are apologizing to black people for their subconscious racist ways. Others are using this psychological poppycock to garner power. Dwight McKissic believes that the SBC should deliberately appoint black pastors to leadership positions as a gesture of true repentance. Such power grabbing is appalling and repulsive, but as one can see, typical of a church that has been thoroughly corrupted with the disease of Constantinianism. Others are instructing churches to even out their pastoral and elder staffs with the appropriate mixture of black, white, and I suppose other “races.” The problem with black liberation theology is its overwhelming emphasis on the black man and its relentless refusal to move beyond past wrongs. Leaders within this camp and those sympathetic to it are continually drawing up past wrongs in an effort to seemingly motivate black Christians to not give up the fight. What fight? We are one in Christ. Where are the divisions between black and white Christians? Are white Christians oppressing Black Christians or marginalizing them in some way? It is a serious indictment to be accused of racism. But it is incredibly irresponsible to be accused of unconscious racism. And it is intolerable and inexcusable to be accused of racism without a working definition and a good illustration or two of what constitutes racism. There must be a better way. The good news is that there is.

As we look back in time, we see that the church became infected with the disease of Constantinianism in the 4th century. Since that time, the church has been identity-challenged for lack of a better term. The church has institutionalized much of the New Testament. Rather than reaching out to the local mom, as a local body of believers, to encourage her not to kill her baby in the womb, the church thinks it has an ethical duty and gospel imperative to put an end to all abortions everywhere. It institutionalizes the value of human life. By doing so, it dehumanizes this value. Rather than loving an individual, it focuses on policy. Rather than protecting the institution of marriage by insisting that members in the Christian community not obtain illicit divorces, the church focuses on making sure government policy reflects the church’s view that same-sex marriage should be illegal. While just as many people in the church obtain a divorce without biblical ground as those outside the church, the church claims that its ground for opposing gay marriage, is God’s view of marriage. If the church really adopted God’s view of marriage, illicit divorce would result in excommunication, but that is almost never the case. The hypocrisy is painfully obvious and incredibly embarrassing. Rather than training our local communities at the local level that the Bible never classifies human beings in terms of race or skin color and rather than training local communities on what it means to be one race from one man created in the image of God to love God and our fellow man, the church buys into the notion of institutional racism and adopts the goal of ending racism at the institutional level a gospel issue. God calls us to love people, not social structures. Ungodly social structures should have unpleasant consequences. All ethnic groups, people groups, and nations are under the wrath of God if they are not in Christ. If you want to end racism, end it in the people in your community. Point them to Christ. Nothing destroys racism like the gospel. So, focus on the gospel, not racism. If I am a sniper and my objective is to take out Hitler, I don’t focus my attention on Hitler being taken out. I focus on my sharpshooting skills. If you want the enemies of abortion, divorce, racism, adultery, and other sin taken out, focus on the gospel. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

Because the church has a long history of this sort of thinking, the non-believer does not experience evangelism as it was intended in the New Testament. Instead, he experiences the church, just like any other institution with a set of values and an agenda to push, pushing its agenda on him. And that is exactly what we want to avoid. However, if we share the gospel without political skin in the game, it has a better chance of coming across as politically disinterested and therefore, it has a better chance of communicating genuine concern and care and better still, it preserves the integrity of the gospel. In this scenario, rather than sounding like a recruiter for a political party or institution, you sound like a Christian with the cause of Christ and the gospel at the center of your conversation. It sounds like you care about the spiritual well-being of the person instead of some political or social cause. This cannot be emphasized enough.

The gospel of Jesus Christ carves out a community of people from their respective culture for the purpose of imaging God. The New Testament provides specific mandates and instructions for what that imaging looks like. The two great commands are expressed in the ten. Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. If you love God, you will love what God loves and hate what God hates. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will treat them exactly like you want to be treated. This puts an end to the murders of abortion, divorce, racism, and every other type of oppression and injustice in your world.

As a Christian, you should resist the Constantinianism that surrounds you. You should reject the values of the culture. You should refuse to think like the world. Reject racism. Love the diversity, the differences you see. Learn to appreciate them. They are a gift from God. Love the gospel and resist those who want to turn it into a political issue. Be more concerned with God’s opinion of your image than the culture. Do not be criticized for doing evil, but if you are going to be criticized, be criticized for holding to the truth.

[1] Thomas L. S.J. Schubeck, “Liberation Theology,” The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003), 259.

[2] Ibid., 259.

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