The Gospel and Social Justice
In many circles the words “social justice” carry with them a negative connotation. “Social Justice Warrior” is a term used around the internet to attack people, typically on the hyper edges of social justice, for standing up for injustices perceived or otherwise. As with all things related to the culture, the church must be careful that we do not compromise our Christianity for the trade-off of blending in. This is especially in regards to social justice which is not only something positive, it’s something the gospel requires of us.
The Gospel Cares about Race Reconciliation
The letter to the Ephesians begins with Paul expressing his thankfulness for the blessings of God in the lives of Christians, both Jew (1:3-12) and Gentile (1:13-15). Often regarded as a more spiritually focused book due to its references to “the heavenly places” (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12) and its focus on our spiritual entanglements in the final chapter (6:10-18) Ephesians seeks to elevate the spiritual lives of its readers. That being said, the book does not ignore physical issues. In fact, the spirituality Ephesians seeks to elevate is only possible to achieve when we make sure our standing with others physically is properly established.
In the opening chapter of Ephesians Paul refers to two different groups (note: the words “we” and “us” in 1:3-12 and the change to “you” in 1:13). Paul uses “we” and “us” to refer to Christians of a Jewish background and “you” to refer to the non-Jew Christians with them. Paul doesn’t make this distinction in order to separate these groups, but to highlight the power of the gospel to bridge the cultural differences and bring people of all backgrounds into the same family (2:13-22).
The gospel cares about racial reconciliation. Notice how this care is shown. Paul makes no attempts to hide the fact that there are things in this world that divide us. The Jews held their superiority as God’s chosen people over the heads of all other nations (2:11-12). Other writings of Paul show us that opinions on circumcision (Gal. 5:1-6) and even diet (1 Cor. 8:1-13) played a factor in how the Jews treated the Gentiles. Even the Apostles were not immune from practicing this racism and favoritism (Gal. 2:11-14).
Whenever we see racial divides in the New Testament the response is always to call it out. This method, though difficult, is really the only way to make sure racist thoughts and feelings do not continue to fester in the hearts of men. Unfortunately, this is not always the method we choose to take. Instead of acknowledging racial divides today, it’s easier to explain them away or sweep those claims under the rug.
The Bible demands that we be vocal about racial injustices and divides. Racism is, as Paul writes, “conduct not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). It is only through speaking up about the division in the world that we can begin to speak of true unity found only in Jesus (Eph. 2:13-22).
The Gospel Cares about the Disenfranchised
At the beginning of James’ discourse on practicing what we preach he reminds his readers, many of whom aren’t religious but believe themselves to be, what it really means to be religious:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit widows and orphans in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
Immediately following this verse is a shaming of their partiality towards rich people over those who are poor, culminating in the quoting of the second greatest command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8).
The gospel cares about those who are marginalized. Jesus spent his time with the fringes of society and the outcast of the culture. If Jesus carried business cards they might say “I eat with sinners” along the bottom. Jesus ate with tax collectors (Luke 19:7), rescued adulteresses (John 8:3-11), fed the hungry (Mt. 15:32), healed the sick (Mt. 8:14, 14:34-36), and touched the untouchable (Mt. 8:1-3).
His example and teachings lay the foundation for the gospel. If we are going to be followers of Christ then we must actually follow Him. We must follow Him to the nursing homes, to the slums, to the drug addicted, to the children without families, to those cast out from their homeland, to those rightfully and wrongfully imprisoned, to the gravely ill, to the worst of society, to the thorns in our side, to strangers, and to our enemies. Jesus cares about the disenfranchised, so much so that to ignore them is to ignore Jesus Himself (Mt. 25:31-46).
Social justice and the gospel go hand-in-hand. This is not to say that the gospel’s purpose is one of benevolence. The gospel’s purpose is to bring others separated by their sin to the God who loves them, but in our rush to achieve this spiritual bond, let us not forget that the best ways to bring people to a spiritual understanding of God is to show how it physically impacts the world. Issues of race reconciliation and helping the disenfranchised are not hindrances to the gospel, they are the gospel.