Is this even a fair question?
If I had $5 for every time I heard “justice” and “distraction” in the same sentence, I’d be well on my way to being funded as a full-time writer. And I’ve been wrestling hard with this question: is it fair to call justice a gospel distraction? Why do we set one against the other? Have we polarized them unnecessarily? And how much of our culture plays into answer to the question?
I’m not going to answer all those questions, but I do want to present how my heart has been processing the first question: is “distracted” a fair criticism of Christians pursuing social/racial justice?
Thou Shalt Choose One or the Other!
Seeing the church’s pursuit of justice as a distraction from the gospel implies that the two are separate pursuits in competition with each other. However, if justice is seen as a manifestation of a life redeemed by Jesus, then it’s not separate at all. It’s a continuation. It’s not the source of salvation but rather the fruit of it. I think evangelicals shy away from placing any emphasis on works out of the fear that it will mar our profession of grace. I think we need to be discipled to hold those in better tension: saved yet working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
Oh, Hello Binary, We Meet Again
We are living in an age where everything has become excessively polarized: Democrat vs. Republican, liberal church vs. conservative church, Black lives matter vs. blue lives matter, etc. What these binaries fail to realize is the fertile middle ground between them, and we do ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging that middle. The church doesn’t have to make a choice between concern for people’s bodies and concern for their souls. The Bible doesn’t present that distinction at all; God created us with body and spirit. If we aren’t threatened by extremes we will embrace what lies between.
Justice in Scripture, a Very Brief Survey
Over and over, the Bible presents a God of justice concerned not only with people’s worship of him but also with their treatment of each other. Author Esau McCaulley notes how, in the book of Isaiah, worship of God, personal morality, and social structures are all intertwined. Isaiah 58 is a succinct example of this, here’s an excerpt:
“They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers….
“…Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice…
…Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear…”
Israel’s religious fasting was painfully dissonant from their treatment of their servants and community. God didn’t look on those separately, he called Israel to embrace both worship of Him and just actions.
James 2:17 states, “faith without works is dead.” This is a problematic passage if we are viewing faith and works in opposition. But when works are a continuation of genuine faith, that problem is put to rest. Genuine faith produces fruit. Justice is a natural outflow of life redeemed by Jesus.
Many of the people Jesus healed and walked among weren’t just poor in a spiritual sense, they were also poor in a physical sense. One example is found in Luke 8, where a woman afflicted by years of bleeding had spent all she had on doctors. When she reached out and secretly touched the edge of Jesus’ cloak, her physical affliction was healed, and her act of faith esteemed.
In Acts 10, Peter must be compelled to eat unclean food with Gentiles, because his continual segregation from them was not advancing the kingdom of God.
I see ignoring justice as a greater gospel distraction than embracing it.
The more the church fights the spiritual legitimacy of engaging in this part of God’s heart the more we distance ourselves from his hurting creation. And if Jesus could step into an impoverished, broken world to lift up a people oppressed by sin and decay, then we can too. I will risk being called a Marxist or Leftist in order to keep moving forward in this work. His cross is worth the cost.
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