And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them“Matthew 11:4-5
I was thinking last night about the numerous people, especially females (actually, almost exclusively females) who are looking to go into careers in the field of social justice. I find this rather interesting since even 3 years ago in my year at Biola this theme was nothing compared to the dominance that I see now. Even among many younger women do I see this desire to somehow come to the aid of those in suffering or suffering at the hands of violent men, governments, and oppressive regimes. I find this to be a commendable and encouraging sign that instead of seeking to battle superiority with people like Paris Hilton in attention-grabbing, instead many of our next generation of women are devoting themselves to purposes that are beneficial towards others and rooted in self-sacrifice and compassion.
But there is something that I have seen in many social justice movements in Christian circles that is concerning. I do want to say at the outset that some people may find this a difficult application of Jesus’ teachings concerning the poor and oppressed (since, indeed, these were a primary target of his ministry). What concerns me that I have seen in several organizations is not so much in what they are doing, but often in what they aren’t doing. The following may be difficult to hear for many Christians, especially those coming from a more emerging perspective of the application of the Kingdom of God to the world and taking literally Christ’s command to be the Salt and Light of the world. What many of these Social Justice organizations aren’t doing is preaching the gospel. Before you react and condemn my assessment, hold such judgments to the end and let me explain. I am aware of such sayings as those of Christian Father’s like St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times — if necessary, use words”. This is true in some respect in the Christian life, but it cannot be the central theme of how we preach the gospel.
What is happening today in our Christian culture is the thought that the application of the gospel is to simply come to the monetary assistance of those in need. This is an aspect, but it is not even the central aspect, but a corollary of the gospel. I fear that there is a growing belief that the preaching of the gospel to those who are sufferers of social injustice is secondary to the remedying of these people’s situation. Or, to look at it another way, that the remedying of social injustice is the preaching of the gospel to those who are its sufferers. This is trouble with St. Francis of Assisi’s quote that is so often applied: it is only an aspect of the application of the gospel.
But some of you may be asking, “why should this be troubling? Isn’t this the taking of the Kingdom of God into the world? Isn’t this what Jesus meant by loving our neighbor, by being Salt and Light in the world?” I affirm and whole heartedly agree that this is part of what Christ has called us to do and be in the world. As Christians, we should be the ones on the front-lines in the battle against poverty, oppression, and the other maladies of this world. We should be the ones that the world looks to and finds faultless when it comes to the remedy of those in need. Does not even James say, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…”? (I do believe that the word “visit” doesn’t simply mean to show up and talk with them, but also to help them in any way that you possibly can monetarily as well as spiritually). But here is the centerpiece that is lacking. As believers, our first and foremost call is to take the gospel to the nations and make disciples of all nations. When Jesus declares that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, he did not say, “now Go and alleviate people’s earthly suffering”. This may be an implication in his command, but it is not its primary directive.
Let me explain myself a little. What is the most loving thing that we can do for someone in need? Let me pose to you the question of what the most loving thing that we can do for a starving family in Africa is? To preach the gospel to them. What is the most loving thing that we can do for those in Georgia who are being attacked by the malicious Russian army? Preach the gospel to them. What is the most loving thing that we can do to those who are being used as sex-slaves in Indonesia? Preach the gospel to them.
I can sense the aversion that may be arising with these assertions. But let me make myself understood correctly. If we alleviate these people’s temporal sufferings yet fail to deliver to them the gospel, we have done nothing to alleviate their suffering. If we seek to help those in need but neglect showing them the essence of God’s love which is Christ crucified, then we have failed to show them the pinnacle of God’s love for fallen humans. I know it is a bold statement to say that we have done nothing to alleviate another’s suffering if we neglect preaching the gospel, but I stand behind this statement with full conviction. Let me show why:
What is the greatest danger facing any human at this point in time? What is the greatest problem that any human encounter’s in this life? Is it being sold into sexual slavery and being raped? Is it starving because of a corrupt and ruthless government? Is it rescuing small children who’s parents have died because of being infected with the AIDS virus? These are all severe and terrible dangers that face a significant portion of the world on a daily basis, but let us understand that this is not the greatest danger that these people are facing.
The greatest danger that these people are facing, like the rest of the world, is that they are under the wrath of God. Their suffering itself is a manifestation of being under God’s wrath. But I tell you that the sufferings of this life are not to be compared with the sufferings of what happens beyond the grave. The rape, the starvation, the loneliness, the sorrow, the pain, the suffering that many in this world endure, will not hold a candle with but a drop of the suffering that any will endure in the grips of hell. The oppressed of this world are facing but a fraction of the misery of being under God’s wrath. Though it be severe and excruciating, though it cause them to desire death (as did Job in his suffering), if they were to get but one glimpse of the treachery of hell, they would see how little they know of suffering and what great mercy they are receiving at this very moment from God’s hand in sustaining them in this life. (And what does this say for those of us who live in luxury each day of our lives? for us who our greatest problem is whether we will be able to accumulate enough spare cash to buy our next favorite album? We who know nearly nothing of suffering)
This is the great thing that we must keep at the center of our Social Justice ministries. We cannot de-gospelize our ministries in order to accommodate to this world who would love to partner with us in our efforts to help the poor, yet seek nothing more than to dethrone the gospel in our ministry.
The reason I say all this is because the greatest demonstration that we have of God’s love is not in his provision of food, shelter or clothing. The greatest demonstration that we have of God’s love is in his sending his Son to die on a cross. “but God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us“; “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends“. The greatest demonstration of God’s love that we can show for those who are in demoralizing suffering is to tell them of the greatest demonstration of God’s love, Christ died for sinners, among whom they are also named.
I tell you that the most unloving thing we can do is to feed a poor woman with bread and neglect to feed her soul with the gospel. The most unloving thing we can do is fix the scratch that is on the skin while we know that their heart is soon to fail and they will die from it and we do nothing about it. What good is it to fill their belly and leave them in ignorance in their rebellion against God where they will one day meet the Creator and face his terrible judgment? They will look back from hell with curses towards those Christians who came and gave them bread but withheld from them the good news of Jesus Christ.
All of this is because there is a greater injustice that has occurred. As terrible as social injustice is, it is absolutely nothing compared to the Cosmic Injustice that has occurred. We must see that these people across the world and across the street that are recipients of social injustice are themselves in fact agents of the most treacherous and hideous injustice that has ever occurred. The cross tells us that something far greater has broken if it took the Son of God to die to repair. We cannot merely be agents of change in social justice, we must be agents of change in Cosmic Justice. It is an injustice when a Christian organization gives food to the poor yet neglects to preach the gospel. It is an injustice when we rescue people from their plights yet do not preach the gospel “because it’s divisive “.
The most loving thing then that we can do is to give the perishing the cross. There is nothing that satisfies a starving soul or heals the wounds more than the blood that flows from the Savior’s veins.
Let me say this: I do not support a Christianity that is separated from feeding the poor or rescuing sex-slaves, or adopting children in Africa who’s parent’s have died from AIDS. All-the-more, we should be those who seek to help those in these plights because we ourselves have received the greatest mercy ever demonstrated in all of eternity, namely, Christ’s forgiveness of our debts and his provision of righteousness in our behalf. It is from this foundation that we serve the nations. It is from this stand that we hold out our hands with bread, that we hold out our arms with embrace to the oppressed, that we rescue the children in need. I would never desire a Christianity that would simply preach the gospel and yet neglect to feed the poor and bring justice to the marginalized. For, according to James, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…”
Let us always remember of first importance what Christ has declared concerning himself:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst”John 6:35