There’s a lot of talk these days about social justice. Caring about and correcting injustice has suddenly become fashionable and trendy in popular culture. Many in the Church have jumped on board the social justice bandwagon. Who, after all, is more concerned about societal justice than Jesus?
There’s nothing wrong with following a cultural trend that moves society in the right direction, of course. Who can seriously argue against the need to eradicate racism, abolish sex-trafficking, and advocate for fair wages and safe working conditions for the underprivileged? Still, I as argued in previous posts, Christians must avoid being misled by false or inadequate definitions of justice. They also need to discern what are the means and ways used to rectify such wrongs, unmasking and repudiating any use of ungodly and unhelpful methods masquerading as “social justice.”
But what about Jesus? Was He a “social justice warrior,” or has the contemporary movement simply used His name and made Him into a caricature of the biblical portrait? One of the primary passages cited to prove that Jesus was all about social justice is Luke 4:16-21. Used by Jesus to formally inaugurate His earthly ministry, the passage mentions proclaiming “good news to the poor,” providing “liberty for the captives,” “sight for the blind,” and freedom “for those who are oppressed.”
Another popular passage is Matthew 25:31-46, which comes at the end of His earthly ministry. Here Jesus lists the activities and criteria He will use to judge between the righteous and the wicked. He puts it this way to the righteous: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
On the face of it, this looks like a program of social justice at its finest, and it would hardly be appropriate to question the value and importance of Christians caring for people in the situations Jesus mentions. Christians certainly should be actively caring for the poor, needy, and disenfranchised! This is inherent to God’s kingdom work on earth and should not be relegated to some sort of second or third-class concern.
Having said that, however, when Jesus begins His earthly ministry of social care and service, one looks in vain for any significant political activism, commentary, or critique. This is not due to a dearth of potential material, of course. The moral atrocities, slave system, oppressive racism, and socially sectarian Roman policies of Jesus’ time are well-documented. In addition, Jesus’ followers fully expected and hoped for Jesus to be, as Messianic King, an expressly political figure (see, for example, Acts 1:6). Despite many clear opportunities, Jesus unveils no formal political activist program to rectify the systemic evils of His time and place. In fact, it is remarkable how utterly apolitical Jesus’ ministry of social justice actually is.
I highlight this to make a critically important point: Jesus did and does care about those who are oppressed, disadvantaged, and damaged by a sinful system and society. But the solutions He offers, while endowed with supernatural power, are not especially political or external in nature. Instead, they are mainly invitational, educational, and especially spiritual and moral. And while many are manifest in clearly material ways, those solutions point beyond the material toward our need to first and foremost be reconciled to God.
In contrast, many contemporary Christians advocating for social justice tend to couch it almost entirely in political and systemic terms. In their minds, social justice means the political reformation of societal systems and norms so that marginalized people can be empowered, heard, and taken seriously. The unjust social systems are assumed to be the primary (if not sole) reason these people are marginalized. What is often ignored or discounted is the individual problem of sin. In this sense, marginalization is real, but the reasons for it are not merely political and systemic, grounded primarily in the sins of others. There are intensely personal moral and spiritual problems here as well, and the means to providing genuine solutions must also account for our individual need to repent and be reconciled to God as well as to others.
I say this to demonstrate that when talking about Jesus’ brand of social justice and the gospel, the kinds of priorities and programs promoted by those passionate about social justice today often miss the primary problem of personal depravity. If you disagree, consider the book of Acts. Granted, in Acts 2:42-47, they “had all things in common.” The picture presented sounds very socialistic and just, but it was an entirely voluntary kind of sharing and not governmentally mandated or coerced. In addition, the rest of book says virtually nothing about these types of arrangements among Christians. It’s not that they had or didn’t have them. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. That’s beside the point. What’s important to notice is that they prioritized sharing the gospel, planting churches, and making disciples. They pursued virtually no formal program for rectifying the overtly racist and unjust social systems of their time.
Instead, they directly ministered to the spiritually poor and blind as well to those who were materially afflicted in various ways. As Matthew 15:14 and Revelation 3:17 make clear, the problems highlighted by Jesus in Luke 4 were not simply material, they were also deeply spiritual. They had material manifestations, of course, but every physical solution He provides points beyond itself to the spiritual significance of His miracles.
In this way, the need for physical healing ultimately points beyond itself to the need for spiritual help and healing. As Jesus points out in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Beyond a normal doctor, we need the Great Physician to spiritually heal us. Our need for physical sustenance points beyond itself to our spiritual need for heavenly bread. Thus, Jesus is our real physician as well as our “true bread” (John 6:32). While we need healing from physical blindness, our deeper need is for spiritual light and guidance. Thus, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
In light of this, the ministry accounts of Jesus’ early followers show that they were largely disinterested in much of what many today consider “social justice.” Instead, they primarily focused on proclaiming the simple message of the gospel concerning our need to trust in the crucified and gloriously risen Christ for the forgiveness of sin and helping those who believed to grow together in their new-found faith. But again, this does not mean that Jesus and His followers were unconcerned about people’s physical problems and needs. After all, when there was a famine in Jerusalem, many churches took up a collection to help the poor and needy there (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), and Paul speaks about his eagerness to “remember the poor” in Galatians 2:10. Not only this, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 25:31-46 that Christians are supposed to feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, welcome strangers, cloth the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
We cannot and must not ignore our Christian obligations to care for people in need. There is no dichotomy between sharing the good news that Jesus Christ came and died to save sinners and meeting the social and physical needs of people made in God’s image. But the ministry of the early church reveals that their primary mission was concerned about helping people be reconciled to God. They met physical and social and educational and economic needs, but not through political action committees or any educational, economic, and social initiatives enforced by local, state, and federal governments.
Instead, while proclaiming this divine message of healing and hope, they also fed the hungry, gave drinks to the thirsty, healed the sick, visited the imprisoned, clothed the naked, parented orphans, educated the illiterate, prayed for their leaders, loved their enemies, and cared for one another. And they did all of this at great personal and communal cost, placing no demands or expectations upon the governments of their time to rectify these widespread and on-going social injustices. They understood that before Christ’s second coming, the “kingdom of God” was not, first and foremost, a political and material kingdom, but a spiritually powerful kingdom that in Jesus’ own words was “not of this world” (John 18:36). As a result of this kind of ministry, they radically change the course of history and “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
I close with an acknowledgment and a warning. First, I acknowledge that in democratic societies, Christians still have genuine opportunities to influence and encourage good governance, and they should take full advantage of that. I also agree that political, educational, economic, and social institutions have an important place in helping to bring about a more just society for everyone, so long as they are willing to hear wise counsel and enact genuinely just policies.
My warning, however, is this: When something (like social justice) becomes vogue in the broader culture, the church should be wary of uncritically jumping on board the populist bandwagon. Given many of the openly hostile and anti-biblical assumptions of contemporary culture, it is no accident that some brands of “social justice” openly embrace things like abortion (touted as “women’s healthcare and reproductive rights”) and the LGBT+ lobby (touted as “justice for the marginalized and oppressed”). In this vein, you can no longer be anti-abortion, question the wisdom of sex-change operations, or consider sexual intimacy outside the context of heterosexual marriage immoral and still be “standing on the right side of history” or an advocate for genuine justice.
I am reminded of the dire reprimand in Isaiah 5:20-21: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”
Only when Jesus returns as the conquering King will social injustice and sin be completely eradicated and everything rectified. It is to that eschatological political vision that Christians must continuously look while seeking to bring the healing and hope of Jesus into the midst of a crooked and perverse generation where we are to “shine like stars” in the face of so much moral injustice and spiritual darkness.