A new wave of social activism has swept over us. Across this nation we hear many voices echoing the call for freedom and justice. A new crop of activists has arisen to combat oppression and fight against abusive social structures. These advocates share an increasing discomfort with the way things are. Many in this generation are simply not content to allow suffering to continue unaddressed.
This concern exhibits itself in many different ways. Some speak up on behalf of the homeless population. Other individuals seek to bring hidden abuse to the light. Many fight against the evils of sex slavery and forced prostitution. Yet others seek to address issues of economic disparity and financial discrimination.
While some may see these efforts as inadequate or misguided, there are many positives to acknowledge. I rejoice that many of my peers realize that something is deeply wrong with society, and I love the fact that so many in my generation are willing to sacrifice their time and expend significant effort to see these wrongs made right. Surely, not all of these campaigns are well thought out or responsibly carried out, but there is much to praise here.
Inside the church we have also seen a rise in interest in social activism. Numerous mission trips are carried out with the goal of alleviating suffering around the world. Christian college groups launch creative fundraisers such as “Seesaws Against Slavery” to help bring an end to the global sex trade. Since 2009 The Justice Conference has sought to inspire and connect “a generation of men and women around a shared concern for the vulnerable and oppressed.” Indeed, many Christians have stepped up to defend the hurting and broken around us.
Yet, as I reflect on the passion so many of my peers have for social justice I have some concerns. It is in this light that I offer the following two exhortations.
Allow Good Theology Inform Our Activism
For the Christian everything we do should be a reflection of what we believe about God. While our society encourages us to separate our religious convictions from our public behavior, a Christian does not have this option. We are called to evaluate all of our actions and even our thoughts by what we know to be true about God (Romans 12:2). This means that for a Christian, every action we take must be theologically informed. Thinking secularly about social activism will simply not do. We must not starve passion of truth.
But Christians should not think theologically about social activism merely because we are commanded to do so in the Bible. Thinking theologically adds an incredible richness to our actions. If we ignore our theology we are setting aside the most compelling motivation for God honoring social activism in existence.
Those who plumb the depths of Scriptures will find that God’s heart beats for the hurting. The Bible is replete with exhortations to care for the hurting and defend the defenseless. When we dishonor our fellow human beings we dishonor the God who created them (Proverbs 14:31). The truths of Scripture concerning social justice are more powerful than any humanist motivation for activism. Simply put, being for Jesus gives us the best reasons to be for social justice.
If the Bible is true and if Jesus is God, Christians have more compelling reasons to care for the hurting than anyone else does. This is not to question the heart of those who do not share faith in Christ. Many non-Christians care deeply about the hurting. But if Christianity is true, Christians should care more than anyone else. Caring for the broken is deeply imbedded in our spiritual identity. It goes beyond a passion – it flows from godly conviction.
Furthermore, our desire for social justice should flow out of our belief in a just God (2 Thessalonians 1:6). He is our measuring stick for right and wrong. He not only acts justly, he is just. While human moral opinion shifts over time, God’s character remains the same. Without Jesus, justice is merely a matter of personal opinion.
When popular sentiment and the passing passions of humanity fail to preserve what is good, we can put our confidence in a God who is truly just. No wrong escapes his sight, and no evil deed will be left unaddressed (Ecclesiastes 12:14). One day every person will stand before God and give an account of everything they have done (2 Corinthians 5:10). Every rapist, every abuser, every exploiter will stand before their Maker. Every wrong deed and every wrong thought will be judged by the only one who is able to judge perfectly. Because of him we pursue what is right, and in him alone will true justice be achieved.
Understanding this fact gives us hope that when we fail to achieve our ultimate goals for social justice here on this earth, no social evil will be allowed to stand eternally. Without Jesus there will never be justice – either in this life or the next, but with him all will be made right.
Theology must inform our activism. Social activism without a theological foundation is like a car without an engine, it might look good and feel right but it is ultimately incapable of taking us where we need to be. We must not divorce what is morally right from what is ultimately true. When we remove our theology we deprive our service of its greatest power.
Care for the Whole Person
Something else that proper theology allows us to do is care for the whole person. Christians recognize that people are both physical and spiritual in nature, and we have the unique ability to care for mankind in both of these ways.
God clearly cares about the physical wellbeing of people. In fact, much of Jesus’ earthly ministry focused on healing to physical bodies that were broken. Some of his other great miracles involved providing food for the hungry crowds. God has little patience with those who fail to meet the basic physical needs of those around them (James 2:14-17). Their faith is called “dead”. Pure and faultless religion, according to Scripture, is evidenced by caring for the needs of the widow and orphan communities (James 1:27). Many of these needs are clearly physical in nature.
But God’s concern for the individual does not stop with his care about the body. God’s ultimate concern is for the human soul. Physical suffering and death are horrible for sure, but they both pale in comparison to spiritual death (Matthew 10:28).
We must not ignore the spiritual needs around us as we try to eliminate physical suffering. We are faced with more than just malnourished bodies; we are dealing with eternal souls. Certainly, giving aid to someone should be more than a manipulative ploy to strong-arm them into the Christian faith. But if we withhold the life giving Gospel from those we serve, we willingly consent to their spiritual starvation. Anyone can give a bed or a meal, but not just anyone can give the Gospel. May we not hesitate to offer what we alone can provide. Let’s not be content with delaying the death of a body for a few years when we could see God save a soul for eternity.
Sadly, physical wealth and security can often mask spiritual poverty. Nowhere has this ever been clearer to me than during my time here in DC. When I walk down M Street or drive through Tyson’s Corner I see droves of people who are safer, healthier, and more comfortable than 99 percent of the world’s population, and yet they are spiritually impoverished. As we seek to alleviate suffering let’s not create a new group of individuals who sign on to a spiritually anorexic form of the American dream. It is quite possible for a homeless person or a Haitian orphan to be spiritually healthier than a prosperous American. As Jesus warns us in Luke 12:16-20, the security found in abundant food and material wealth can promote a dangerous feeling of disregard and an inappropriate sense of invincibility. While the man in this parable had prepared for his future physical needs he had failed to prepare adequately for his spiritual reckoning.
For a Christian, loving the whole person means intentionally caring for both body and soul. The believer in Christ is uniquely capable of addressing needs both physical and spiritual. As we passionately serve our fellow man lets commit ourselves to doing both of these things well.