Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Church and Social Justice

The Washington Post On Faith section is currently featuring a discussion about Glenn Beck's recent statement that Christians should flee churches where social justice is featured. Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler comes to Beck's defense:
My concern is very different. As an evangelical Christian, my concern is the primacy of the Gospel of Christ -- the Gospel that reveals the power of God in the salvation of sinners through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church's main message must be that Gospel. The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for governmental or social action. The apostles launched no social reform movement. Instead, they preached the Gospel of Christ and planted Gospel churches. Our task is to follow Christ's command and the example of the apostles.
The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for government or social action. Interesting response. Yes it is true that the New Testament writers don't have much to say about a government plan for social justice. Their government was the pagan Roman Empire and and in the eyes of the empire Christians were a new and suspicious religious movement. Government leaders did not recognize Christianity as legitimate; there was occasional government sanctioned persecution of Christians. The message of the NT writers was either lay low and don't make trouble or pray for the day when Jesus will return and punish the great whore Babylon. It is entirely unsurprising to find the NT silent on any plan for government social action.

What about the Old Testament, though. What about the prophets who railed against religious and political leaders for their injustice? They certainly had a vision for government social action on behalf of the poor and widows. Why isn't that pertinent to the discussion of whether Christians who now find themselves with a political voice and access to political power shouldn't use their voice and power to establish justice through government action? I am always confused about how some evangelical Christians pick and choose their moments to look to the Hebrew Bible for support.

And then there is Mohler's next sentence: The apostles launched no social reform movement. Read this passage from Acts:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
This sounds a lot like a social reform movement to me. It sounds a lot like a socialist reform movement to me. It sounds like the kind of reform movement you would launch when there is no government sponsored social safety net and you are on your own. It also sounds like a template you might then transfer to the government when, lo and behold, you one day find yourself running it.

I think it is fair to say that early Christians felt a divine imperative to implement social justice reforms within their movement. I think if Rodney Stark is correct they not only did a good job of taking care of their own but they extended that care and hospitality to pagans and this helped win converts to the movement.

But I do not think it is fair to say that because the NT is silent on government-run social welfare programs that Christians should oppose them. There is a Christian social justice imperative rooted in the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced in the NT. There is an explicit reference to ends but not means. We ought to be open, then, to whatever is the most effective method of carrying out that imperative. The unparalleled success of Social Security of lifting the burden of poverty from seniors is but one example of social justice done well by the government, and done in a much more comprehensive way than any patchwork of church charities could ever do. Thanks to liberals, including liberal Christians. Thanks to liberals, including liberal Christians the same will soon be true of health care.

Al Mohler is wrong. Walter Rauschenbusch was right.

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