As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
We can’t help but think it—“if it was going on now, I would have done the right thing.” If I was born in the 1800s, I would have helped people escape slavery. I’d keep the lamps lit and the fires burning in guest rooms. I’d put sword-surpassing pen to paper and push the lines of abolition forward.
Or if the call to gospel ministry came for me as it did for Amy Carmichael, I’d say yes unflinchingly. At least, I hope I would.
Amy’s story is the first missionary account I remember hearing. I sat on the rough carpet of a church basement and listened, entranced, as a Sunday school teacher told how Amy stained her skin with coffee to slip almost unnoticed into temples and through streets, rescuing little girls. I remember breathlessly repeating Amy’s story word-for-word to my parents while Sunday lunch got cold on our plates.
Yet in a secret part of my childish heart, I was afraid that God would call me to a strange and difficult place. And I would have to go.
My favorite Bible story as a child was that of Moses, the man plucked from the reeds and the grasp of evil and told to go speak.
My sister’s favorite story was Jonah, the man who tried to refuse that call and, for his pains, had his whole life swallowed in one enormous symbol of salvation.
As a child, it seemed almost inevitable that, eventually, I would have to say that wonderful, excruciating “yes” while my community, country, family, or my own common sense roared and howled “no.” I wanted to be heroic like that, to be so sure of my calling that fear, falsehood, or the tide of other wills could not shake me. That steadfastness, I thought, must be the core—the bones and roots—of faith. God takes the wild, sickly heart, grafts it into the healthy Root of Jesse, trellises it on the strong support of Scripture, and teaches it to grow upright. We love because God first loved us. We are capable of fidelity because God is faithful to prodigals.
It is that fidelity, I argue, in the hearts of those concerned with social justice.
Following the Call
Regrettably, “social justice” is a polarized and polarizing word, verbal territory claimed by the left-aligned or progressive “side.”
As a young-adult congregant, I observe the trend of young adults who were raised in conservative or moderate households migrating toward the left end of the political spectrum.
A recent conversation with a politically diverse group of friends surfaced an interesting truth: the driving force behind the migration of young Christians from their conservative-leaning churches and communities toward the left is a sense of unshakable moral obligation to participate in social justice.
Young adults, in college or at work, often suddenly encounter more information and more people than at any other time in their life. The brokenness of the world roils before them. Their hearts are shaped to be merciful, so they join the chorus of the hurting. Support for social policies that care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and defend the oppressed seems an obvious imperative that brooks little excuse or argument. Isn’t social justice just the real-world application of Matthew 25—care for the sick, the hungry, and the imprisoned?
As Shiao Chong explains in his op-ed reflecting on Synod 2017, the command or obligation to act in compassion is an aspect of righteousness as is meant by the Hebrew word often translated as “justice”—tzedakah. The biblical conception of justice or righteousness binds together lawfulness and compassion—care of the weak or “those who have less.” Compassion is to shape the righteous life with the same fidelity and rigor as lawful obedience or fairness, for the traits are bound together.
But a Christian concerned with social justice is often seen as a “bleeding heart,” for compassion is considered a soft thing compared to the “strong” virtues of fairness, obedience, or lawfulness. Lawfulness, however, is not in conflict with mercy. As Chong points out, biblical justice or righteousness is the union of these attributes. Christ’s sacrifice is the perfect example of righteous justice, being both perfect obedience and fulfillment of the law and the ultimate act of unearned, salvific, merciful charity. And it is this righteousness of both unerring obedience and ultimate generosity to which we are called as Christ imitators.
The conviction that one is following the commands of Christ does not, however, erase the pain of broken relationships and lost respect. Often the wise elders who taught young Christians compassion now dismiss or attack them as "social justice warriors." To dismiss or attack compassion, however, is to dismiss or attack half of righteous justice.
Two Halves of a Whole
I do not seek to ignore the vitriol and accusations of hard-heartedness (and worse) spewed at conservative Christians. Both sides seem to ignore half of Christ in their imitation, to the great detriment of the church.The corrosion of political polarization that works to crumble the Church has been the theme of much of my writing and prayer. Halving our Christian calling to righteousness in this way is an obvious attack on the efficacy of The Church.
The Christian virtues spring from the same source—our commitment to obedience and witness. Compassion is a function of righteousness that derives from the same faithfulness as lawfulness, fairness, or equity. Though those fighting for justice for the wronged or care for the suffering might oppose and reject the human establishment, they do so out of uncompromising adherence to the law and commands of God.
An unchanging, immovable, consistent desire to act in faithfulness prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to attempt the assassination of Hitler and to courageously call the church to discipleship. Indeed, the “cloud of witnesses” is populated by people who simply refused to check their spiritual commitments at the door. Stalwart consistency is a trait of orthodoxy.
The teachings of Thomas Aquinas were one of the great influences on the 18th-century Christian scholar who shaped the concept of “social justice.” Orderly and consistent faith was so important to Thomas Aquinas that he undertook the writing of his massive Summa Theologica—a systematic theology.
Aquinas says in the Summa, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.”
Both have labored. And, applying Aquinas’ logic, we must recognize that the core of the difference between the social policies of the progressive Christian and the conservative one is not a dichotomy between rigorous consistency and capitulation to emotional impulses. Both have labored. The difference lies, therefore, not in commitment but in mode of application—favoring one of the two aspects of righteous justice.
However, “social justice” cannot be the sole property of progressive or conservative Christians any more than any doctrinal truth or command of Christ can be rightfully subjugated in service of an earthly end or a human will. Neither aspect of righteousness can be shirked. We are called to the hard task of compassion and lawfulness
Redemption Rebuilds Us
I have recently heard the phrase “majoring on the majors” used as an escape route from conversations on world-shaping issues such as social justice. We cannot simply ignore the questions. There are no questions, even fraught political and social ones, to which the hard calling of righteousness is not applicable.
To believe in redemption is to believe that there is no part of the “new man” (Eph. 4:24) the cleansing water of resurrection does not reach. Our votes, our passions, our relationships, our day-to-day are all cleansed and reborn.
The radical faithfulness of heroic Christianity and its impossible combination of lawfulness and compassion is terrifying, and it will often appear radical and disruptive. Self-interest cannot dissuade its sacrificial compassion, and no earthly authority can override its fidelity to God’s truth and law. It does not tend to win friends, and it often results in loss and hardship.
Thankfully, redemption rebuilds us. It transforms our will and hopes such that obedience and the furtherment of Christ’s kingdom are worth anything we have to give up.
As a child, I would sit, wedged in a corner between a bookshelf and a desk, hiding from my parents and my chores to read just one more story from the biographies of martyrs and missionaries. One story remains uniquely vivid in my mind. Perpetua was a young noblewoman who met a brutal fate in a gladiatorial arena. Despite her father’s pleas to renounce the name “Christian” for the sake of her newborn son, she said she could not be called by another name, just as the water bucket on the table could not be called anything besides “water bucket.” She was Christ’s; nothing could make her otherwise.
The work of faithfulness in a broken world, regardless of whether it is called “social justice” or something else, cannot be made something other than faithful, and any Christian, regardless of auxiliary labels, can participate in it.