Social Justice, the Church, and the State

Glen Beck got many of us riled up by his attack on churches that talk about social justice and economic justice.  I've already taken him on, so I want to move on, because there are broader issues at hand.

This morning, scanning the various postings of the day that I follow, I noted a Religious Dispatches article about Ralph Reed's attempt to merge Christian Right activism with the Tea Party libertarianism.  Then, I can across Scot McKnight's push back against the suggestion that charity is simply a private affair and that the state should have no role in such affairs.  That is, we're seeing a merging of Christian Right social activism with economic libertarianism.

Scot's essay this morning essentially says -- what a minute, let's check this out scripturally. There are, he suggests, sufficient texts that would seem to support government sponsored care for the poor and marginalized, ranging from gleaning laws to jubilee laws.  

Scot writes: 

One more point before we get to a simple case for government-mandated charity: I'm not saying whatever the government wants, the government can have. Our government is getting too greedy, and it is getting its hands into too many pockets, and the government needs to be much more fiscally responsible, but the solution is not to equate libertarian radicalism with what the Bible says and pretend the Bible is teaching our political theory. Least of all, I'm not saying let's trust the government to take care of all the problems, but the government can protect the poor from the lack of generosity by many who fail to respond to the needs (Michael Kruse pointed out to me that this is "subsidiarity".)

I want to increase the church's role in alleviating poverty and working out justice, but libertarian radicalism is not the answer. I'm all for more locally-shaped charity. It appears to me the the solution is two-fold: let's be Biblical and let's practice justice in the best way possible, which in our fallen world combines individual compassion and governmental support.
Now, as you can see, Scot is no political liberal or socialist (Scot is to my right both politically and theologically), but he understands that libertarianism isn't the answer.  That means, there is a role for government to cover the needs of the poor and marginalized in society.  

I would suggest that one of the reasons why the Tea Party folks are making such an impact right now is that people are frustrated that government can't help them as much as they'd like.  It's almost as if the fact that Obama didn't end the recession the day after he was inaugurated then government must be a failure.  No government is perfect -- any more than a church is perfect. 

As Scot notes, the church has a role to play in the alleviation of poverty, and can increase its activity, but by itself cannot take care of the needs that are presented to us.  Consider Haiti or Chile or Katrina; facing such disasters involves the church, but the church alone can't handle everything by itself without letting lots of people fall through the cracks.  We can do a lot to supplement the government, but we don't replace the government.  

So, as Scot says to Jerry Falwell, Jr., maybe he should read the Bible's a bit more carefully!  Indeed, perhaps we should all pay closer attention to what Scripture is saying.  What say you?


John said…
It appears that many conservative American Christians find it easy to compartmentalize their faith, that is, what they do on Sunday, and what they do intentionally as Christians seems disconnected from what they champion as citizens. There is little dispute that Jesus and a host of Old Testament prophets describe God's justice exclusively in terms of giving aid and comfort to the poor and otherwise marginalized (including the foreigner, the sexual eunuch, the imprisoned, the blind, the widows, the orphans, and those who only worked for part of the day when others worked the whole day for the same wage). There can be no genuine dispute that pursuit of such justice is not voluntary but commanded, and perhaps may even be tied to entrance into the Kingdom (separating sheep from goats). And while it can be debated that Jesus saw a distinction between church and state (render unto Caesar) I think that the distinction that Jesus was really getting at was the distinction between living in the Empire under the rule of the human king (Caesar) who wielded power for the benefit of himself and the rich and powerful who supported his throne, and living in the Kingdom of God, under the rule of the divine King who wields power for the benefit of the rich and poor alike.

In our time and place there is no human king, there is only the government of the people, a people who can choose to operate their government according to principles consistent with God's Justice, or not.

Many conservative Christians want to interpret God's justice as optional, even for Christians, and are adamant in advocating that their government ought to ignore God's justice and behave as if Caesar still wielded power for the benefit of the "haves", leaving the "have not's" to fend for themselves.

At the risk of melodrama I have to ask how they can ignore Scriptural injunctions such as this from Amos: "8:4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5 saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." 7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds."

Do they think God will not notice, that God will not remember or that God just doesn't care anymore?

Anonymous said…
It's the MO John. They will keep repeating the lies. The only sensible answer is- they worship (their) power and (their) money and nothing else. They will continue to oppress their neighbors. They don't care how much they have, as long as it's a lot more than others. David Mc
Anonymous said…
lately I have been questioning the role of the church in the realm of social justice as well. It is said in the Bible to love your neighbor and be generous to the poor and the needy. And clearly Christians should work for social justice at a Church level. But I don't think we should try to impose the Christian's version of social justice at a national level thru the government. There are two reasons why I feel this way. First, themetically the Bible is not about creating a secular kingdom on earth founded on perfect social justice (aka the Law, as stated by Paul in Romans and elsewhere) In fact Jesus says in Matt 5:20 that to enter the Kingdom of heaven one's righteousness must surpass that of the Pharasees and the teachers of the law (people who supposedly abided by all 600+ Laws of the Old Testament) This implies, besides that our salvation is achieved thru God's grace alone, that even if we abided by ALL the Laws we would still remain sinful in the eyes of God. And in reality, I think every men of learning realizes anyway that men can never hope to create a perfectly equitable and just legal or social system here on earth... there will always be a margin of error which translates into inequality and injustice. And it's not from lack of trying, but rather because men, even the best of us, are inherently imperfect and selfish. And second, I think history has decisively proven that a Church-state is no better than any secular government. In fact, it can be far worse, because such a theocracy relies on the guise of religion to justify all its actions, including all its corruptions and evils. And I think this point is germane to this discussion because once Christians start advocating using the govt to impose our value systems such as social justice, once we obtain such power the logical progression is that we will be creating a de facto theocracy. So I think from a Christian point of view we should focus on social justice to the extent that we love our neighbors and hoarding secular wealth is ultimately meaningless. But I don't think as Christians we should try to create some sort of theocracy thru which to implement the teachings of the Bible to the secular world. It's not what the Bible is about, and the past has taught us that it won't work anyway.
John said…
However, as we legislate we should not leave our values at the door. Being Christians, we make legislative decisions informed by what our God has commanded of us - do justice, love kindness, etc.

While I agree that we should not seek to make the state a tool of the church, we should not oppose essentially just legislation just because it is consistent with God's call for social justice. If I follow your logic we should avoid passing any good laws because the logical progression of enacting a good and just law today is that it will eventually result in our government evolving into a theocracy tomorrow.

Anonymous said…
Is being forced to be charitable via a government mandated tithe the same as giving to the poor, as mandated by scripture, of your own free will? Will God look voluntary giving the same as forced giving? Charity begins at home not at city hall. All Christians have an obligation to give for the benefit of the less fortunate and if they don't that is between them and the Lord. It is not up to the State.
John said…

I can't shake the feeling that you are not really championing the rights of those non-Christian others who do not wish to help the poor, but in truth you are championing your own desire to avoid complying with Biblical claims to render social justice for people you disdain and refuse to accept as neighbor.

I can accept a rational argument posited on behalf of non-Christians who objected to their resources being used to help the poor. But interestingly enough, Christians who oppose the government pursuing a social justice agenda are not making that argument. Instead they are claiming they want to protect the rights of Christians (not themselves of course) to avoid complying with the Biblical mandate. Hogwash.

And in any event, I would think that a serious, Jesus following, Christian would not make such an argument with a great deal of passion.

That is because such a reasoned position would include the need to work out a rational balancing between the Biblically-driven mandate for each of us to use all of our resources (including our political resources), within reason, to help the "least of these" and the principal-driven call to protect each person from oppression by the state - in the form of state-mandated tithing.

Since salvation turns on aiding the "least of these," it seems to me that the balance should weigh out in favor of the poor. It is also possible that the balance would neutralize the competing positions. However, I cannot see where in the Bible there is any justification for concluding that in rendering a purely moral choice between alternatives, the political rights of an individual outweighs the claims of social justice.

Of course a self-proclaimed Christian could oppose state sponsored social justice on a purely political and/or civil rights basis, but to avoid earning the label of HYPOCRITE they would have to abandon their effort to get the rest of their moral agenda adopted by the government.

You can't have it both ways and claim any sense of integrity.

Anonymous said…

In your statement here,
>>Since salvation turns on aiding the "least of these," it seems to me that the balance should weigh out in favor of the poor.<<
you seem to suggest that salvation can be "purchased" by good works. The grace of God, and His Son, Jesus Christ's sacrifice is that which saves each of us as believers. Of course, as we transform through the Holy Spirit as it works within us, and as we study His Word, the works performed for the "least of these" are reflections of that spirit within us. We bring ourselves closer with our works, to the perfection of Jesus as a reflection of our love for Him, not as some sort of bargaining chip for salvation as you state.

>>However, I cannot see where in the Bible there is any justification for concluding that in rendering a purely moral choice between alternatives, the political rights of an individual outweighs the claims of social justice<<

No one, especially conservative Christians, is intimating that political rights trump social justice, nor is faith disconnected from life in general. Faith and the influence of the Holy Spirit is reflected in every action taken by INDIVIDUALS in life. In contrast, it seems to me that social justice advocates often "compartmentalize" their morality to what they allow the government to do "for" them, feeling they have "won" salvation by collective action. They can then go on with life, disregarding fetal murders, and many other of the Commandments- stealing (wealth redistribution), dishonoring God (profanity, hate speech of conservatives and other groups), dishonoring parents (health care rationing), coveting ( wealth envy) etc and be convinced they are already saved. Leave God's justice, to God.

You are ascribing scripture which speaks to individual action and judgment, to the collective. Each of us must study, learn, act on scripture lesson in our lives, find our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not violate commandment to push it on others. Paul was clear about Christ's emphasis on freedom, which you can see in the book of Galatians.
John said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said…

It is not clear if you are defending conservative Christians who reject governmental involvement in programs aimed at accomplishing social justice. Your post appears almost neutral on the point, choosing instead to challenge whether personal commitment to social has salvific consequences. You appear to suggest that while it doesn't contribute to salvation it may be evidence of whether one's claim to a saving faith is genuine. I can agree accept that.

I will disagree with your statement that conservative Christians are not claiming that political rights trump social justice obligations. The utterances of Glen Beck referred to in the main post perhaps being the most vivid example.

You also want to sidestep the issue of social justice and instead criticize certain positions. However, the way you have described the positions, I am uncertain as to which side you are criticizing -with the exception of those conservatives who utter hate speech at progressives and those who favor a woman's right to have an abortion. I'll need more clarity before I can respond.


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