What Christian Progressives Get Wrong About Justice

I have many progressive Christian friends.  They frequently decry Christian evangelicals who align politically on the right.  Politics and power are driving forces instead of faith, they claim.  I am a conservative Christian evangelical and frequently agree with the criticism, but too often progressives are equally guilty.

The Challenge for Christian Progressives

Christian Progressives are often as motivated by politics and power as Christian Conservatives.  While the ‘right’ wants to maintain power, the ‘left’ wants to tear it down.  They would replace one power system for another.  Ultimately it is a shell game over who has power.

Progressives criticize conservatives for putting politics first, but most progressives I know do the same.   The pressing of gay rights and reproductive rights flow naturally into the Christian progressive movement.  There is no more attempt to square these issues with God’s word than the criticism of conservatives on poverty and immigration.

Hypocrisy appears to be a two way street.

My Progressive friends love two of my favorite passages – the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 and the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25.  I find it interesting how conservatives can miss the call to justice and progressives can miss the call to salvation and holiness.  This is why we can’t look at the Bible through the lens of politics.  We must allow the Holy Spirit to be our guide and not personal preferences, politics or power.

The Biblical view of neighbor

“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Lev. 19:18

Jesus in the Good Samaritan and elsewhere intentionally drew from Leviticus 19 which begins with God instructing Moses,

“Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: Be holy because I am holy.”  Lev. 19:2.

What follows is a recitation of what it looks like to be holy – honoring parents (v 3), no idols (v 4), not reaping to the edge of fields but leaving grain for the poor (v 9), don’t lie, steal, deceive (v 11) or defraud (v 13).  Do not take advantage of those who are disabled (v 14).  Don’t pervert justice in court (v 15).  Don’t slander or do harm to your neighbor (v 16).  Do not hate your brother in your heart (v 17). Respect the elderly (v 32). Do not mistreat immigrants (v 33).  Do not use dishonest scales (v 35).

My progressive friends certainly appreciate the litany.  But they miss the direct connection to personal holiness.  Holiness, like justice, is tied first to God and then to neighbor.

Holiness and Justice

You may know that Holiness (qadash) means to be consecrated and set apart.  For ancient Israel this meant living by a separate standard from the world.  That standard was rooted in living justly as a reflection of the character of God.  But Israel continually fell short of the standard.  Israel needed a Savior.  They awaited a Messiah.  Jesus came not to abolish this law but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17).  Jesus demonstrated holiness through loving acts of justice and mercy.  This confused the Jews in Jesus day.  They looked for a conquering King.

The lawyer probably heard the talk that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.  But the lawyer understood justice to be tied to power.  He believed justice was tied to government and the Messiah would topple the government and re-establish the throne of David.

Justice and Power

Jesus was not the Messiah people wanted, but He was the Messiah people needed.  Jesus set aside all power and showed justice was rooted in love, mercy and service toward others.  Justice was not found in power and government, but in love and holiness.

My progressive friends rarely talk of personal holiness.  Individual sin is pushed aside.  To point to individual failure is a colonialist holdover.  Systems are sinful and must be changed.  In the Good Samaritan story they’d effectively prefer if the Priest and Levite stepped over the injured man on their way to a more important march against injustice in Jericho.

But that’s not the story of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus takes a despised, fairly well off, business man and uses him as the example.  The Samaritan was in Israel with goods, money and a donkey.  He wasn’t poor and he wouldn’t be traveling for fun.  That’s not the portrayal I hear from progressives who frequently treat business as the enemy.   While I appreciate Dr. King’s reference to the structure of the Jericho Road, there is no way to miss Jesus focus on the one neighbor in need.  Salvation is personal.  Jesus was addressing the lawyer’s question on how to obtain eternal life by showing sacrificial love for one person.  The Samaritan didn’t care about power roles or politics.  He saw a need and served.

Justice Implications for Today

Today justice is a powerful fad.  We march right past the injured man on the Jericho road.  Changing systems is more important than saving people.   But what will it profit a man to have a perfect system, yet lose his or her soul?

Jesus didn’t take on Rome.  He didn’t challenge Herod or Pilate.  Jesus loved neighbors.  One at a time he gave sight to the blind, healed the lame, fed the hungry and released the oppressed.  Justice for Jesus is sacrificial love for ‘one’ of the least of these (Mt. 25:40).

At the same time Jesus always invited people to come to him for his burden is easy and his yolk is light (Mt. 11:28-30).  He is the only way of salvation (Jn. 14:6).  All paths do not lead to heaven.  Both the gospel AND justice matter to Jesus.  In fact they are inseparable.

Justice for One is Justice for All

As the people of God, we are called to be holy.  We consecrate ourselves for loving service toward others.  We work for change recognizing true change is only found in salvation.  Rather than follow Christ great commission (Mt. 28:16-20), we set up our own great missions.  We hold ourselves up as leaders, as victims or opponents of injustice, racism, classism, etc.  Our voice must be heard and others silenced.  But the reverse is true.

The greatest victim of injustice was Jesus.  He felt no need to defend his honor, enforce his voice, or push an agenda.  Jesus stood silent.  He willingly set aside all issues of power.  His death restores us in relationship with him so we can be restored in relationship with others.  Jesus died for one – YOU – even as he died for all.

Why Gospel Justice focuses on the injured neighbor

Gospel Justice Initiative believes the Bible matters.  The Bible cries out for Justice but that justice is rooted in holiness.  The Hebrew word is translated both righteousness and justice because it is both.  We need to be right with God so we can be right with neighbors.  Every one of us is a sinner in need of a Savior – and that Savior is not you.

Many of my progressive friends make the mistake of believing they are the authors of justice.  They will bring the Kingdom of God.  But we are only agents of justice.  God alone will bring the Kingdom.  We are invited to join him in seeing His kingdom come and His will be done.  But it is about Him, not us.

Legal ministry provides great opportunity to serve one person on the Jericho Road of life.  As we each serve one, together we serve all.  Systems matter, but people must always be the priority.  Holiness comes from setting aside our will, our wants, and our agenda as we humbly serve ‘one’ of our neighbors in need.  I don’t know if the lawyer in Luke understood that.  I don’t know if some of our Christian friends today understand that.

But you have the chance to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly as you ‘Go and Do Likewise’.