Over the last decade, Christian involvement in “social justice” has gained popularity and momentum in America. However, Christian engagement in social justice is not new to the landscape. Contributions by African American Christians to aid free slaves and the intellectual contributions of Walter Rauschenbusch are a couple examples of this.
Committing to just a cursory reading of the twentieth century, one will observe contributions of Christians to social justice efforts such as suffrage, civil rights and improved living conditions. Therefore, what we observe currently is a continuing participation of Christians addressing contemporary justice issues such as human trafficking, abortion, education reform and clean drinking water.
As a person who – because of the gospel – commits himself to influence various social issues, I confront various temptations, which crouch at the door of my heart (Gen. 4:7). These temptations are ready to diminish and silence the voice of advocacy. And in my seven short years of work among lower income people, I have found the periodic and overwhelming sense to view myself more highly than I should.
The Temptation to Become a Social Justice Machine
An industrial complex represents an organization that takes an input of material (A) through a systematic process to become an output of material (B). This assembly line process represents a sterile and impersonal series of events to produce as many outputs as possible to validate its effectiveness. What does this have to do with social justice?
It is tempting to produce and inflate numbers to demonstrate the effectiveness of your work. The right desire to impact a life can slowly devolve into viewing the person as a commodity and moving them through a sterile process – recovery, housing or children’s activities – to justify and validate effectiveness.
I get it. It’s hard to be in the long journey of being a visible representation of redemptive grace in a life or situation that appears bleak. We want to communicate to supporters and our social media crowd that we are advancing the kingdom. But the desire to demonstrate stewardship and effectiveness should not be done at the expense of another person’s humanity. We have to sympathize with a person whose humanity has been stripped away and this may mean you will only affect one life for the sake of the gospel.
The Temptation to Exaggerate a Poverty Situation
We all have the tendency to paint broad brush strokes over an experience, people or location to garner support. Poverty, in whatever context, does not represent the best of situations. In some areas, sustainable housing is absent, food supplies are severely limited or persons suffer from some type of treatable malady. In light of these situations, which can be addressed with the appropriate level of resources, we do a disservice to the men, women and children within these situations to portray them as destitute of hope. They have seeds of hope ready to blossom if the right situation presents itself.
I have experienced the temptation to create a video, post a meme, or exaggerate the “dangers, darkness or despair” of a situation that actually misrepresents beautiful and hope-filled people.
Simply speak the truth. Communicate on your blogs, websites and support letters the hope that already exists in the specific context. God was at work in the lives of people long before you arrived and you should accurately communicate what he is already doing.
The Temptation to Validate Our Existence
I want my organization to work towards non-existence. For me that means addressing specific needs among lower-income communities: education, homelessness and community relationships. We are not called to do everything, but we can all do something extraordinary for God’s kingdom.
When there are specific needs, we should go beyond the status quo and work towards implementing tangible solutions. Maintaining the status quo means only doing enough that requires the poor to return to and depend on your organization.
Let’s resist the temptation to validate our existence on the backs of those we serve. We should create solutions in which those who experience injustice become active participants in providing relief. We must do the hard work to not create dependency in order to perpetuate the need for our ministries.
I would encourage you, your church or nonprofit to critically ask some helpful questions:
Are we developing ways to disciple people towards self-sufficiency?
Have we asked those we serve how we can serve in a more humane manner?
Are we including those we serve in the process of planning, preparation, and execution?
The Triumph Over Temptations
The Gospels reveal a Savior who was the superior social justice advocate. It is without dispute that Jesus conducted works to alleviate health concerns (Matt. 8:1-17), shined the light on religious injustice (Mark 3:1-6), fed the hungry (John 6:1-14) and extended grace beyond ethnic barriers (Matt. 15:21-28). In all these acts of human relief, Jesus’ greatest social justice act absorbed the wrath of God for his enemies and provided the triumph over all our temptations and our great injustice against God.
Jesus continues in his advocacy role as he sympathizes with his people in the midst of their temptations (Heb. 4:14-16). The continuous sympathetic advocacy of Christ on our behalf provides us the daily triumph over our own temptations. And it becomes the fuel to propel us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Jesus Christ stands as humanity’s historical demonstration of true social activism because his work – in temporal and eternal justice – defined for humanity what it means to glorify God and love one’s neighbor.