I have some wonderful friends – don’t act surprised. Some strongly believe that people will not listen to your words, until they see your actions. The heart of social justice is providing a platform from which we can model Christ love. They appreciate St. Francis of Assisi’s comment – “Preach the gospel always and when necessary use words.” Many of these friends would put priority on justice.
I have other friends who strongly believe what matters most is salvation. What good is it to provide relief in the present, if one is bound to hell for eternity? Evangelism must precede any social action. “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Many of these friends would put priority on the gospel.
So which is right?
I would argue neither is fully right (so now I don’t have any friends). I think it is a false dichotomy. To understand the gospel is to understand what the good news means. I think the gospel is more than simply saying a prayer, collecting your fire insurance, and waiting for the escalator to the heavenly choir. I exaggerate. However, when we believe this world is destined to destruction and all that matters is our eternal position then we can disengage from this world. While we are not to be ‘of’ the world, we are to be ‘in’ the world and I don’t think Jesus wanted us to live in secluded holy cloisters. If the gospel was only the good news of Jesus substitutionary death on our behalf, then he need not be born, live as one of us, and spend three years teaching us what it means to be a Christ follower. Jesus said the gospel included acts of love: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news (gospel) to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Lk 4:18-19. So the gospel must include Jesus’ life as well as his death and resurrection.
I believe the gospel is the good news that God through Jesus is restoring all that sin has broken in this world. That begins with our broken relationship with God and then extends to our broken relationships with neighbors. The gospel restores relationships and rights what is wrong. This gospel restoration is the kingdom of which Jesus taught. A kingdom we are called to work toward although it will not be fully realized until our King returns to reign in justice.
My justice friends sometimes get so excited about helping others that they become the rescuers instead of realizing it is only God who can rescue and restore. Justice is part of God’s character. Justice – in Hebrew tzedek – is about restoring what is broken and righting what is wrong. The same word as righteousness, tzedek, is about righting relationships – first with God, then with neighbors. So justice requires action. It is love in action. But justice must not be separated from God’s work in the world. Justice means praying that God’s kingdom will come and His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. We must engage people and systems that are broken by sin.
I am told that the most prominent theme in the Bible is idolatry. Makes sense. After all an idol is anything that comes before God. Anything that would break my relationship with the Savior. Anything that prevents me from loving God. I am told that the second most prominent theme in the Bible is justice for the poor. Makes sense. After all if I am treating others unfairly, not being generous, and merely focused on myself, then I am not loving my neighbor as myself. The great commands are to love God and to love neighbor. They are the gospel and justice. They are sides of the same coin. How can I horde the love Christ has shown me and not want to share the gospel? How can I horde the time and resources Christ has given me and not want to share with those in need – to administer justice?
For me I had an “ah” moment when I learned that the word for being generous in Hebrew was the word for justice with an “ah” – tzedekah. Justice is the root of generosity. To be generous with the gospel requires that we be generous with justice. That is what Christ modeled and taught us. Let’s be true Christ followers. Let’s go and do likewise.