Was Jesus into Social Justice?

by on December 2nd, 2010

So this is one of those YouTube . . . what are the young people calling it these days . . . “mash-up” of some comments by Jim Wallis calling for the redistribution of wealth in the name of social justice. Normally I would be wary of homemade videos of audio that can be taken out of context. However, in this case I’ll risk it in order to get at what I think are important questions about social justice. However I will leave it absolutely open that this video may be doctored or whatever to misconstrue what Jim Wallis thinks.

I think what surprises me the most about the progressive Christian movement exemplified by Wallis’ Sojourners and the Center for Progressive Christianity is the undefended assumption that Jesus would approve of the redistribution of wealth in order to produce justice. As a philosopher, I’m always looking for assumptions behind every piece of furniture and in every dark corner. I am also wary of getting into discussions about what Jesus would or would not have approved of in the modern world as if I were Charlie Rose or Larry King interviewing Him in my mind. I suspect that the Lord would not fit neatly into any of our expectations beyond what is revealed in Scripture. When it comes politics and Jesus, I am reminded of Screwtape’s confession to Wormwood that all this speculation may serve an infernal purpose:

In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a “historical Jesus” on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new “historical Jesus” on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold. In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical. (2) The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to begot out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts,in every publisher’s autumn list.

I will be mindful not to engage in any more “guessing” than necessary so as not to fall into Screw-tape’s trap. However, if these statements from Jim Wallis are true, there are some assumptions that are indeed hiding behind the furniture at Sojourners.

I mentioned the first assumption: Jesus would approve of redistributing wealth to create fairness. That seems reasonable doesn’t it? Jesus was certainly into fairness wasn’t he? Jesus approved of taking care of the poor and even redistributing wealth right?

“THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME,
BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR.
HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES,
AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND,
TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,

. . . When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

So it clear that Jesus commanded us care for the poor . What is an undefended assumption is that Jesus would have also called for redistribution of wealth to prevent poverty. And that is exactly what Jim Wallis is calling for. As he says in this video, individual and communal charity falls short of the biblical idea of justice.

Does Jesus give any indication that government shouldn’t be used to create justice? Not really but there is a very good reason. To his audience the government wasn’t interested in justice and no body voted for the emperor. It is only through democracy that we have the capability to call for the government to bring about justice for the poor. In fact, we could infer Jesus statement that “The poor you will always have with you” as implying that a war on poverty is misguided. The poor will always exist. I am not suggesting that this is the best interpretation of Matthew 26:11. Jesus may have been employing on of his favorite rhetorical devices–hyperbole. However, it is one implication of this verse.

My main problem is not that Jim Wallis thinks justice should be secured by taxation or redistribution. Its the undefended assumption that Jesus would agree with him.

The second assumption I find hiding in social conscience of the Evangelical left is that government is a neutral tool for securing social goods. Corrupt governments are evil but benevolent governments made up of democratically elected officials can wage war against poverty, racism, homelessness, etc. The Evangelical left assumes that using government to bring about social change is in fact no different than the church seeking to do the same thing with preaching, teaching, and social action. I should point out that the evangelical right is subject to this same criticism. The only differences are the social goods that the government is to secure. For the left it is justice. For the right it is, as often as not, to secure community standards of moral virtue.

What is almost never discussed is whether or not the use of government to secure social change is simply a way to do more good than individuals, churches, and community volunteers can do themselves. Put it this way. What has been assumed (as I said by the Left and the Right) is that government action is merely a more efficient and widespread way to carry out the Biblical mandate whether justice or virtue.

Assumptions are often like armpits, everyone has some and without careful attention they begin to stink. When we speak of the politically correct Jesus, Don and I are questioning those assumptions about how government fits into the gospel of the kingdom without simply accepting that the Jesus who is Lord of all creation would “be into” whatever legislation well meaning, God-fearing Christians think he would. We owe it to our Savior to bring every single idea captive to him and test all things and hold fast to what is good. Don and I invite you to think out loud  with us by leaving your comments on our ideas in the comment section of this blog. Do you think either of these assumptions can be validated?
If you have never commented on our discussion I encourage you to chime in now. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would be “into that.”

5 responses to “Was Jesus into Social Justice? ”

  1. smijer says:

    I don’t find it terribly surprising or interesting that anyone, Christians of whatever theological or political inclination included, attempt to mold society to their own ideals by political means. Political means are not the only ones available for shaping a social order, but they are essential for doing a thorough job of it. Democratic political processes simply extend a smattering of hope for an impact on the social order to a larger group of people.

    It seems to me that the question could be divided into two parts:
    1) Is political participation consistent with Christianity as you conceive it?

    I suppose that answer could differ depending on how you conceive Christianity. As you pointed out, there is very little that can be known historically about Jesus with any certainty – probably nothing that would be incompatible with political participation – but nothing that would require it either. As you suggest, for much doctrine to emerge, one must adopt the “Jesus of Scripture”. Even then, the answer to your question is going to depend very heavily on contingent doctrines: what is the nature of scripture? What is the proper hermeneutic for understanding it?

    I think that most people will read scripture in a way that allows political activity for the purpose of conforming the social order to a morally just system.

    2) What social order is morally just?

    That’s where there is some room for diversity of opinion.

    What is surprising to me is that there is not more diversity of opinion. Jim Wallis and his cohorts are a distinct minority.

    That puzzles me, but what puzzles me most is that the overwhelming majority of American Christians are committed to a type of economic libertarianism with its historical roots in Randianism. I see the historical marriage that began in the late 1970′s between Goldwater economic libertarianism and Atwater/Reagan social conservatism, and how this coalition rose to political prominence. I just find it difficult to see how this coalition resulted in the dogmatization of economic libertarianism to the extent that it has.

    I listen to a fair amount of religious talk radio, and subscribe to e-mail alerts from various prominent religious “family” organizations. I never cease to be amazed at the intensity these religious organizations promote economic libertarianism and the religious language they use while doing so.

    I see millions of conservative Christians with a great deal of animus toward the idea of “re-distribution” of wealth by government agency, but without a care in the world about how our social structure “distributes” wealth to begin with. It seems as though no one cares how wealth is distributed as long as political agency plays no active and visible role in it.

    I suppose it is more complicated when it comes to passive agency, such as tax incentives. My town is courting a large dot com who is locating a major distribution center. One allowance they have already offered is a promise of no property taxes for ten years. Since I will still be paying property taxes to pay for public services they will use, there is a defacto transference of wealth from me to them (assuming the deal goes through). But, because this is done in the form of “not taking the dot com’s money” this type of redistribution is seen as an economic good by the same people who see it as a harm if the government actively taxes on a progressive schedule.

    I can understand the libertarian suspicion of the welfare state and of government agency in the distribution of wealth. Increasingly, I sympathize with it.

    And I can see how – in a post hoc way – it can be clumsily tied to certain scriptural narratives. Surely the Bible generally recognizes a concept of property and property protections within the Israelite social order. By reframing these as absolute property rights, and assuming the rightness of modern property distribution mechanisms, minus any political role, one can come close to inserting economic libertarianism in scripture. But it is clumsy. And as soon as one places property rights in the context of the over-all social order and questions the justice of that order’s distributive mechanisms in the least, the analogy to Hebrew property law falls apart.

    So, while I can understand and sometimes sympathize with economic libertarianism as a philosophy, I cannot understand how it has become dogma.

    Essentially, Wallis is engaged in the same project as movement conservatism in finding his notions of a just society in the Bible. He simply has lacked success altogether. You would think that if the flaws of such a program were so obvious, then the program wouldn’t be so universally accepted on the other side. And, if the program truly had merit, then more variants than economic libertarianism would flourish.

  2. Kevin Vile says:

    Part of the difficulty is definition of terms. So when you ask was Jesus into Social Justice, Social Justice has to be adequately defined. It seems there is a hidden assumption in the popular definition (well at least my notion of the popular definition) that Social Justice ought to be a communal thing (that is enforced by some community – community being anything from a government to an organization) and it involves seeing that everyone has equality in terms of wealth (among other things). The question is then did Jesus think that everyone ought to have an equal share of wealth and this ought to be communally enforced? Based on that, I’m not sure if Jesus was into it. Two things come to my mind.

    First is the problem of biblical evidence. The quoted verse where Jesus says to sell everything and give it to the poor was in reference to an individual who asked him a question. The bible seems to be silent on Jesus’ view of Social Justice as a communal thing. The Old Testament does present the “Day of Jubilee” as a release of debts as a communal activity, but that is not necessarily the same thing as our idea of Social Justice.

    Second is the problem of power. There is inherent danger in communal enforcement of anything (the old adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to fit), but communal anarchy doesn’t seem acceptable either. So it seems that one has to pick and choose (based on some reason or another) what the community ought to enforce. I don’t think that Social Justice (as defined above) is one of those things.

  3. Ben says:

    I like Kevin’s point that there is something muddy about the wording “social justice”. It provokes atleast 2 nuances that I see. Each are about macro-rightness (especially involving the putting of wrongs to rights) with different legal nuances here or there. When the justice system commits the wrongs, the legal nuance is placed on a culprit, and of courese, there is the legal nuance on the MEANS of wrong-righting; where the legal nuance is place upone the means (social “justice” (translate: macro-rightness) is routed thru the STATE). These nuances seem to get blurred together. That makes seeing one in the text and then assuming the rest an easier mistake.

    Refusing today’s distinction between Rightness and Justice doesn’t help either. Seeing “tolerance” in the Bbile doesn’t mean it wants you consider all faiths equally valid! Seeing “gay” in the Bible doesn’t make the Bible pro-homosexuality. And, seeing Justice in the Bible doesn’t mean we must focus on reforming our macro-level via the sword. (More like “the Sword”.) Our focus is more intimate, a love modeled by the great Samirtan. (the Pharisee could ha been on a trip to save people in Tibet.) Our goal for the city is shalom. A goal a lot more thorough than statistcal “progress”.

  4. Ben says:

    btw, It loooks like my grammar needs sleep. Lo siento.

  5. robert says:

    “Was Jesus a communist”? Or “was the early church run under a communist system”?

    I want to first address Jesus here. Jesus loves the world and the people in it. So much so that He came to die for those who would kill Him. On several occasions He feed the poor that were following Him. Please notice something here…He feed those that followed Him and listened to His Word. He didn’t just randomly go feed poor people who weren’t seeking Him, or were just hungry. Also, He healed those who were seeking Him. In MAT 5, people love to quote the “B-Attitudes” to promote the idea that poor people are “blessed”. Jesus never said that! Matter of fact, I don’t think we can call poor people blessed, can we? Is it a blessing to be poor? What Jesus said is “blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness”. I think that’s where a lot of “religion” gets it wrong. We go to the streets, feed the poor, or pay someone’s elect bill who has no thirst or hunger for God; and often times we have simply gotten in God’s way of humbling that person to the point that he realizes his need for God. Now, everyone is important to God, but there are times and seasons that the Holy Spirit draws someone to God, and if it is the wrong time or season, then you can buy someone a house, a car, and a steak dinner and it won’t matter. They must be drawn by the Spirit (John 6:44). Besides, Jesus came about 1900 yrs before Marx did. I believe that Marx actually tried to model a system of government based on Jeus’ ideas and teachings, but wanted to leave Jesus out of it. It won’t work that way, and that has been proven time and time again. Comminism (or any government for that matter) can never work properly because when you leave God and morality out. Men are want to be selfish….which is contrary to the idea of communism (and Christianity). One teaching of Communism is that communism is completely anti-religious. Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, extreme Communists, both spoke out against religion altogether in rise of Communism. If Communism preaches against religion altogether, why would Jesus be a Communist? Doesn’t make sense for anyone to say that or think that if they any Biblical knowledge at all.

    Now, the 1st century church. In the text you mentioned (Acts 4:32), it says that they shared all their possessions. That’s something Christians should still do to this day! It doesn’t say that they shared all their money! Verse 34 says that there was no one needy among them. Now, I won’t go into a prosperity teaching here, but if no one was needy it was probably because they were paying their tithes and obeying God, wouldn’t you say? And if we would do that today, we might find there to be no one needy among us! But once again, we know that there were needy people at that time. This text is speaking just about believers, who will never be in want or lack if they stay obedient to God.

    Also, they gave to the church (not the gov); and they gave willing (as every man determined in his heart). I might add that they gave more than 10%……hard to get even the most religious Christians to give that! But, I want to give you some example, Joshua. There was a woman named Lydia that did much to finance the 1st century church. Look her up and tell me if you think she may have been a capitalist. Also, Paul makes it plain that he worked while among the people. If anyone had a right to be taken care of, it was Paul! I believe he worked so people couldn’t talk bad about him (like they do about preachers these days). There are those who believe that preachers should be the poorest people in church and if they have anything, they must not be sincere. It is that attitude that holds the whole church body back.

    So, who is the church supposed to take care of? Widows and orphans. 1 Tim 5:3-16 sets guidlines for who we are supposed to help. Mainly, we should notice that people are to go everywhere else first: the church should be a last resort, according to Paul. If someone is in need, his family is supposed to take care of him. (1 Tim 5:8). Also, Peter and John told the beggar at the gate in Acts 3:8 “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” and he was healed. They gave the man the thing he needed most…the ability to work! One last thing….in John 12:8 Jesus said that we will always have the poor among us. That doesn’t sound like a communistic approach to me! Bottom line is this: God made a perfect world for man to enjoy. Man gave in to temptatioon and sin entered the world. And all sickness, pain, and death is a result of that sin that has entered into our world.

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