How Do We Do Social Justice?
In the last installment I listed for you a number of those who line up on the left side of the theological and political aisle. These folks want us to believe that they have the answers to our nation’s as well as the world’s crises. Brian McLaren’s latest book has as its sub-title “Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.” He poses questions such as, “Have you heard debates about the causes of poverty? In your current understanding, what are the primary causes of poverty?” And “How do you think most Christians today respond to the issue of poverty?”
The questions are left intentionally broad and open-ended and the last one would require, it would seem, some significant data before them before they could make a valid assessment of what “most Christians” think about the issue of poverty. The questions are designed to make us think, but also to help promote the agenda of taxing the wealthy so that there is more social justice in our country and in the world. “Most Christians”—I’m using Bri’s hidden survey—don’t have a lot of time to contemplate global injustice, although our consciences feel a twinge of sorrow from time to time when we see the commercials of Third World countries on TV after a nice dinner of pheasant under glass and a $300.00 bottle of wine. Jim Wallis hammers on the need to redistribute wealth, along with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama (he’s actually Irish and his name used to be O’Bama, but he changed it because there aren’t that many black Irishmen), Ron Sider, John Yoder, and old Bri. Bri devotes a whole section in his book to the subject of poverty as does Wallis in God’s Politics.
One of the egregious flaws in all these works is that they are all concerned about social justice (or injustice) and yet they don’t ever give a solid biblical definition of what exactly social justice is; they simply leave it up to “most Christians” to pool their ignorance. Since so many today are becoming enamored of social causes, we would do well to be precise—as precise as possible—when we speak about such important and broadly sweeping matters like social justice. Not to do so is to go off half-cocked like so many did with the impending Y2K crisis or as many are doing now with the current hoopla about global warming.
One of my favorite economists, Thomas Sowell, wrote an article that appeared in my local newspaper (The Orange County Register, Local, “More cold water on global warming, p. 9) that began this way: “It has almost become something of a joke when some ‘global warming’ conference has to be canceled because of a snowstorm or bitterly cold weather.” Indeed. Sowell goes on in the article to remind us that the task of old-fashioned journalists is to inform the public, rather than pushing an agenda. With the necessary changes in place, I would echo Sowell’s words and remind people like Wallis, McLaren, Sider, and others that the theologian/ethicists job is to inform God’s people on what the Word of God says and not to push an agenda. As I mentioned last time—and it is worthy of repetition—McLaren, Wallis, Sider, Campolo, and others have a definite agenda irrespective of what “most Christians” might think.
But can’t it be argued that to some extent we all have an agenda? Of course that is the case. I am a theological, economical, and political conservative. I’m more than willing to state that up front. The names listed above will not and have not done that. They present their agenda and leave “most Christians” on their own to figure out what their theological and political proclivities are. Given the state of biblical discernment in the modern Church, “most Christians” are pretty easy prey.
Does God Favor the Poor?
It’s a growing consensus that God favors the poor, which means that he’s a little displeased or ticked off with the wealthy. Again, without question Scripture has a great deal to say about greed and the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulating wealth. But it doesn’t condemn all wealthy people; Abraham is a case in point. Growing conventional wisdom among “some Christians” is that God favors the poor, but is that so? I’m not asking if we are moved when we see scenes of Third World poverty, but if God actually favors the poor.
If we are seeking to form a Christian view of social justice we should turn to Scripture. When we do that, we discover a treasure trove of biblical truth that enables us to begin to formulate a God-pleasing way of doing social justice. Before we proceed, however, I should inform you that I am a covenantal theologian/pastor/teacher who believes that God has given us an entire Bible that comprises the books of both the Old and New Testaments. You can agree or disagree, but for better or worse, that is my settled conviction.
That being the case, I’ll begin with Old Testament texts and then move on to the New Testament. As I proceed I want to express my indebtedness to Dr. Cal Beisner for laying such a solid foundation in his book Prosperity and Poverty. In Jeremiah 21:12, God’s people are commanded to “execute justice” (ESV) and to deliver those who have been wronged by the oppressor. Just one chapter further, Jeremiah repeats this instruction: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.”
At this point, it is imperative that we ask the logical question: What is “justice”? This is an essential question to ask since not any definition of justice will do if we are seeking to do social justice according to biblical principles. Beisner is correct when he writes, “For all its importance, justice is a virtue often misunderstood. The word is an ideological football cast to and fro by foes accusing each other of injustice. Few are eager to define it clearly—particularly not in light of Scripture.” He gives us two of the chief images found in Scripture when it comes to justice: 1) conformity with a right standard and 2) rendering each his due.
With this brief definition Beisner has already unmasked the likes of Wallis, McLaren, Campolo, and their ilk precisely because he has defined his terms. The RL (Religious Left—it’s the counterpart to the Religious Right, even though neither of these organizations has a fixed address) proceeds on the hope that their readers will not ask for a precise definition so that they can proceed in their intellectual pursuits. Their readers have, as often as not, imbibed of the Kool-Aid and know better than to ask for a definition, since they would show themselves to be among the uninitiated. Pretending to know the definition, they happily sip their white wine and eat their brie.
As real Christians, what is the standard to which we are to adhere? For Bible-thumpers the answer is clear: Scripture; for intellectuals like Bri, Wallis, and Campolo the answer is to get a refill on the Chardonnay.
In Psalm 106:3, we are told that those are blessed who “observe,” “keep,” or “maintain” justice (judgment). Therefore, in Scripture justice and truth are inseparably related. This truth is driven home in Leviticus 19:35-36: “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The word translated “judgment” is the same word in Psalm 106:3 where it was translated “justice.” God’s children are to be honest in business dealings having just balances, weights, and measurements. The reason appended is that God saved them, therefore they are to be just and true in their practices.
Beisner correctly concludes, “But the standards of measurement God mentioned in connection with justice do not indicate that justice stops at truthfulness in economic transactions or even at economic relationships as a whole. They indicate that all behavior should be governed by the same unbending standards. This is the chief sense in which justice and equality are related: the same standards apply equally to all people and relationships.”
Within historical Christianity, then, the biblical notion of justice means that each person is rendered his due according to God’s established righteous standards. Hold on to this truth for it will serve us well in developing a concept of social justice as Christians. It will also serve you well in unmasking the unbiblical nature of a great deal of Wallis’, McLaren’s, Campolo’s, and Sider’s writings, especially when it comes to the point about God being on the side of the poor. The reason these men tend in this direction is simply because they have an ideological agenda. It is also the reason why there is such scant use of Scripture or, when Scripture is ostensibly used, it is twisted, tortured, and distorted to meet their ideological purposes. This is also typical of what Rick Warren does in his books. He has something he wants to say so he fishes around trying to find some biblical text that is remotely close to what he wants to talk about (if he cannot find what he wants in a translation, there is always a handy text from The Message to aid him), giving the semblance of being biblical.
What will guide us well in our understanding of the issue at hand? Once again, we return to Scripture to aid us. I’ll begin with two Old Testament texts and from there move on to the New Testament. One of the clearest to begin with is found in Leviticus 19:15: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” The clear message here is impartiality to either the poor or the great. Beisner states, “God is not ‘on the side of the poor,” despite protests to the contrary.” Another key text that explains the same idea is Deuteronomy 1:17: “You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.” Again, the main theme is impartiality. In the New Testament, Romans 2:11 (“For God shows no partiality.”) and Colossians 3:25 (“For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”) reinforce what the Old Testament taught on the concept of impartiality.
This is why books like McLaren’s, Campolo’s, Sider’s, and Wallis’ are so insidious in nature. They give you the impression that they are mainline, mainstream Christians who are “neutral” on the subject of politics, economics, and theology, but in point of fact they are not. As I mentioned, we all have presuppositions regarding these subjects. It is preferable and the better part of honesty simply to lay your cards on the table from the outset and say, “This is who I am and this is what I’m about.” That way, everyone is well served. But the emergents and others like them are not willing to tell either the young or older evangelicals what they really believe because if they did, a number in their current following would walk away.
What is Needed?
In my estimation, what is most needed at this point in the history of the Church is not a “purpose-driven” life, but rather one that is cross-centered and cross-driven. We do not need less Scripture, but more; we don’t need less exegesis, but more; and we don’t need less familiarity with the confessions of the Church after Nicaea, but more. Young and old alike are in desperate need of being more conversant with the Word of God and less with the world and its ways. We all need more discernment so that we can easily detect when a modern writer is attempting to lead us into Marxism or the worn-out Social Gospel. We need less Rob Bell videos and more solid biblical preaching and teaching.
 Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).
 Ibid., 17.
 E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001).
 The NASB & the NIV translate “administer justice.”
 Beisner, PaP, 43.
 Hebrew: rm;v’; LXX: fula,ssw.
 Hebrew: jP’_v.mi; LXX: kri,sij.
 Beisner, PaP, 44.
 Ibid. Referring to Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 19842), pp. 75ff.
Labels: Social Justice