A healthy Christian spirituality includes both an internal life of integrity that is developed through a personal relationship with Christ and an external life of ministry that is expressed through self-giving service for the good of others.
The life of service includes both personal and communal acts of mercy and compassion, as well as social justice and peacemaking.
In the Gospels, Jesus makes care for the poor a priority. Jesus says, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you back and repay you. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; then you will be blessed (Luke 12:12–14).” This is not a liberal agenda item; it is a nonnegotiable characteristic of discipleship to Jesus. In the judgment parable of Matthew 25:31–46, treatment of the poor and disadvantaged (“the least of these”) becomes the criterion for the final judgment.
We care for the poor through acts of personal and communal charity and through acts of social justice. Both are essential. The following story highlights the difference.
Once there was a town built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the river.
One person was dead so they buried that one. One was alive, but very sick, so they put that person in the hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child, who they placed with a family that cared for the child and took the child to school.
From that day forward, a number of bodies came floating down the river and every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them—taking the sick to the hospital, placing children with families, and burying those who were dead.
This went on for years. Each week brought its quota of bodies, and the townsfolk not only came to expect a number of bodies each week, but developed more elaborate systems for picking them out of the river and tending to them. Some even gave up their jobs so they could devote themselves to this work full-time. The townspeople began to even feel a certain healthy pride in their generosity and care for them.
However, during all those years and despite all their generosity, nobody thought to go up the river, beyond the bend that hid from sight what was above them, and find out why all those bodies kept floating down the river.
Herein is the difference between private charity and social justice, between doing acts of mercy and confronting systems of systemic injustice. Private charity responds to the needs of the homeless and the poor, but social justice tries to get at the reasons why there are homeless and poor people in the first place and offer constructive solutions.
While charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about trying to change the system so that nobody has excess bread while some have none. Charity is about helping the victims of war, while social justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war.
Social justice tackles such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, heath care, violence, immigration, and the environment and takes on huge, blind economic, political, social, and religious systems that dis-privilege some even as they unduly privilege others—systems in which we are all complicit.
It is easy to understand why many present day Christians have relinquished this responsibility and redefined the gospel so that it is not about social justice at all. Social justice is challenging, difficult, risky work.
And yet the church has a history of engaging in social justice. In our country Christians played a large part in the acquisition of voting rights for women, in the overthrow of slavery, in the abolishment of segregation laws and the passing of civil rights legislation, and in the establishment of rights for and improving the conditions of the most vulnerable in our courts, prisons, schools, and everywhere else. There is a movement today among the more progressive mainline and evangelical Christians to once again make social justice an integral and nonnegotiable part of what it means to live the gospel.
The challenge we face is the same challenge Jesus faced in preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom to the captives, giving sight to the blind (helping people become aware of their responsibility), and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18). The “powers that be” will seek to stifle our efforts. Will we settle for the status quo or will we live the gospel of Jesus?