It’s become fashionable to be socially just. The evening news covers protests about the horrifically evil kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls. We call each other to embody the gospel by breaking down walls of social division, and setting captives free, by working for environmental justice and empowering the poor and displaced. Clean water. End poverty now. Buy a shoe, give a show. There are buttons, campaigns, fundraisers, banquets. Come on. All the cool people are in.
It’s high time that the realities of suffering, racism, oppression, and ongoing injustice rose to the top of our collective consciousness. For much of her history, we who call ourselves “the church” have been guilty of either intentionally crossing to the other side of the road, so as to disengage from these pesky dark realities, or worse, we’ve spiritualized away the suffering by promising a greater afterlife in some bastardized version of karmic justice. Our passivity has misrepresented the essence of the gospel, and allowed ongoing exploitation of peoples and resources, resulting in mountains of suffering and loss for hundreds of generations. That these issues are now at the forefront of our collective consciousness in both our culture and many of our churches is a very good thing indeed.
And yet there are at least two lurking dangers in this justice revival:
1. Superficial Solutions inoculate. “I recycle and ride my bike to work on sunny days. I bought those cool shoes to help some poor kids. And last night I went to party where the tips at the bar went to a water project somewhere.” This kind of thinking becomes the equivalent of thinking we’re equipped to climb Mt. Rainier because we bought an ice axe. An ice axe is good, but it’s certainly not all you’ll need to get to the top. The sacrifices, discipline, change in priorities, and even change in world view that will be needed if we’re to be in any way a substantial part of the world’s solutions are for more profound than attending a few cool events and riding our bike to work. Take our call to justice seriously, and we’ll find ourselves, over time, becoming involved not only in deep personal lifestyle changes, but actively working to address systemic issues that are embedded in our world. Paul the apostle called them “principalities and powers” because they’re animated by forces darker than single individuals.
Our fashionable protests, focused projects, and occasional forays into environmental stewardship or some other cause might do more harm than good if they create a resistance in us to the notion that we might be called to more. Jesus called people to this principle when he told the pharisees that they “tithed even their spices” but did so as substitute for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Of course, Jesus tells that crowd that they should have “done the latter without neglecting the former”, which is just another way of saying that an ice axe is vital, but you’ll need more than that to get to the top.
2. Spiritual Realities fade. What’s not to love about redemptive involvement in the pressing problems of our time? The most important answer is simply that there are two great commandments and that they’re wed together like an ecosystem, each feeding off the other. Take one of them out of the equation and the other inevitably suffers. We made for love, plain and simple – made to love god and love our neighbor as our self. We’re in a season where love of neighbor is the rising star, and sometimes the light of one outshines the other. A little look back into history though, and we’re reminded of a time when it surely looked like people were loving God, at least if candles, hymns, preaching, and bible study were any indication. But of course they actually weren’t any indication. They were their own form of inoculation against more robust and truer faith, because in spite of it all, slavery was sanctioned, or racism, or colonialism. Praying and Bible reading convinced people they’d hit gold, but it was fools gold when it wasn’t coupled with the hard work of crossing social divides to love the neighbor. Bible reading mattered, and matters for some today too. It’s just that real transformation will drive us into real relationships in our broken world.
Today’s justice based t-shirts, shoes, water bottles, blogs, missions, non-profits are at risk of becoming the same form of 19th century pietism in reverse. Convinced we’re in the stream of God’s activity, we lost sight of our own need for transformation, healing, and freedom, so lost have we become in the consuming of justice symbols. Real longing for justice will do more than paint a sign or wear a bracelet. It will drive us to prayer, and brokenness, and mourning. And those things will drive us to intimacy with God.
Do you want whole faith instead of the 2%? Then you need to recognize the dangers on both sides of the ledge and go deep in your pursuit of intimacy with God, and justice in the world. That’s a journey worth taking, and it has a name: abundant life.