Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Church, the Poor, and Social Justice

A few months ago the Fox News commentator Glenn Beck stirred up controversy in religious circles. He told his viewers to flee their congregations and to find a safer ecclesiastical haven if they hear the words "social justice" from church leaders.

In a nutshell, Beck suggested that the Church is not in the business of social justice. Others, such as Jim Wallis, quickly responded that social justice is the definitive business of the Church. The national leadership of the Episcopal Church would simply say to "ditto" to Wallis.

Under normal circumstances, such programming offers little to the Church by way of aiding us with our mission. In this instance, however, Beck and those who piled on from both sides of this issue have given us the occasion to think more carefully about who we are and what we are about as the Church of Jesus Christ.

Stated briefly, this is the question. Should the Church be involved in social justice?


Let's start with the Church's mission. Then we'll turn to the idea of "social justice." Getting clear on some basic ideas will help us to move forward as a congregation and as individual disciples.

As an organization the Church exists to worship God through his Son Jesus Christ, to bring people to Christ, and to shape disciples who will serve Christ in the world.

What about social justice?

Jesus teaches his disciples to serve the poor. He said, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt. 25:40) Isn't this his clear command to the Church to be involved in social justice? The answer is yes and no.

The term "social justice" itself causes us some heartburn. Whatever its original usage, the phrase now connotes a social democratic approach to the problems of poverty.

When we hear the words "social justice" we often think of those who pursue changes in our social and economic structures. They see poverty as a result of social injustices and routinely seek to rectify these injustices through political action.

For example, they may advocate for an increased minimum wage, universal health care, or affirmative action.

My point here is not to highlight an agenda. Instead, I want you to see that some people view poverty as a result of destructive and dehumanizing social organization. It seems perfectly logical from that perspective to attack the problem of poverty through the means of social reform.

For better or worse, most people turn to political action today to bring about social reform. (Discussing an alternative to this strategy will have to wait for another article.)

Mind you, this approach has been right on the mark on many occasions. No better examples can be named than the abolition of slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws.

Here's the problem.

Because some in the Church use the term "social justice" as synonymous with ministering to the poor, we get into fruitless arguments about who really cares about the least, the lost, and the vulnerable of our society when we are really only wondering about the advisability and appropriateness of the Church as an organization involving itself in political processes.

Let's make some better distinctions. In addition to attacking poverty through social reform, we can aid those in need through ministries of relief and ministries of development.

Relief includes precisely the kind of thing that we do at St. Mark's every single week. We help people pay utility bills, make meals for the homeless, and financially support shelter for the homeless, to name just a few clear examples. In other words, we relieve the suffering of the poor by addressing immediate needs.

Development goes beyond relief by helping people to improve their material lives in a more permanent way. St. Mark's is also involved in this kind of ministry.

For example, we partner with Interfaith to improve the level of education for students at Woodlawn High School, working with parents, teachers, students and administrators. Or, to take another example, our longstanding partnership with Community Renewal and the Fuller Center aims to transform neighborhoods and to provide home ownership.

Our congregation as a whole—as an organization—responds to Jesus' call to assist the poor with ongoing ministries of relief and development. But what about social reform?

Here is the simple truth. Our lives in the public sphere inevitably involve us in a multicultural context. Christians join Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists in wrestling with the issues that confront us as a nation. We cannot assume that in the political sphere everyone will agree with our faith perspective.

This does not mean that we leave our faith aside when making political decisions, voting, or advocating for various economic policies. However, it does mean that we enter into these public conversations as individual Christians, or as groups that are identifiably Christian, but not as the Church as an organization.

The Church's role in public discourse is to form faithful disciples who will carry their faith with them into the public sphere.

We can say the same thing about the workplace. It is not the Church's role to tell you how to run your business. However, the Church plays an important role in preaching and teaching us what it means to be a disciple and how to apply those principles ourselves at work.

Christians aid the poor. Period. As an organization—the Church—we provide relief and development. As individual disciples we may engage in social reform in the political arena as our Christian conscience dictates, joining hands with Christians and non-Christians alike in pursuing social changes.

Let's stop wasting our time arguing about a troublesome phrase. Find a way that you can help someone less fortunate than yourself today. You already know the person's name. It's Jesus.

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