A Second Look at the Church and Social Justice: A Response to Tim Jennings

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A Second Look at the Church and Social Justice: A Response to Tim Jennings

I know Tim Jennings as a Christian psychiatrist who came and spoke at a church I pastored a couple of years ago and I enjoyed his presentations.

However, Jennings has recently written an article warning Christians to “Beware of the Social Justice Trap” I actually agree with many of the things he said and I encourage you to read it, but I would definitely emphasize things differently.

I believe that we are at a cultural tipping point. Many people view Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, and “out of touch.” And while that is not true for all Christians, it is true for many. I don’t think our response to that criticism should be to get defensive. Instead, I recommend that we acknowledge our shortcomings, and seek to engage the world more thoughtfully.

I am convinced that courageous empathy is evangelism for the 21st century. Recently I wrote a response to Candace Owens about George Floyd that went somewhat viral with almost 25,000 shares. As a result, I heard from dozens of people that they were surprised that a pastor would speak up and care about this sort of thing. I interacted with non-believers who listened to my sermons, read books I suggested and were genuinely thankful that representatives from the Christian community cared about justice in a socially vocal kind of way.

I think we shoot ourselves in the evangelistic foot if we cut ourselves off from speaking about issues that many good people outside the church care about. They care about justice, restoration, and positive change. Christians have been given a mandate to care about that as well. If we don’t want to call that Social Justice… let’s call it, “Taking the words of the Sermon on the Mount seriously.” Whatever we call it, let’s not miss out on this opportunity to connect.

Now, this doesn’t mean total identification with any political party. Shane Claiborne puts it like this: “Mixing faith with a political party is like mixing ice cream & manure. It doesn’t hurt the manure but it sure messes up the ice cream.[1] The question for the church is what is our mission and who are we trying to reach? The gospel is a message of justice. It’s a judgment on oppressive systems and people and liberation for the oppressed. This happens to be something many liberals, atheists, and agnostics connect with.

It would be a shame to miss an opportunity to connect with people because those people didn’t line up with our thinking politically.

Jennings makes a good point that change comes at the heart level. That is best done in person-to-person interactions. He also makes the point that the church should be the agency of change, not the state. I agree with the idealism of this, but what if the church has dropped the ball? Could true followers of Jesus speak up and unite with other true followers…even if some of them don’t consider themselves believers, and are not actively going to church?

Many people who say “Lord, Lord” are unrecognized by Christ on the day of judgment (Matthew 7:21-23). And many people who consider themselves “atheists” are actually better at following the principles of Jesus than some Christians. Read this biblical parable by Ty Gibson that demonstrates this very well.

Didn’t Jesus say “whatever you did unto the least of these you did it onto me? (Matthew 25:40) Jennings believes that Christians should actively be the ones doing this. But millions of “Christians” don’t. What non-believers often see are “Christians” supporting policies that are consistently detrimental to the poorest in society and they are left wondering, “Who is your God?”

Instead of listening to the heart of God in the words “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20) We too often ignore them. As Daniel Berrigan explains, “the poor show us who we are and the prophets tell us who we could be. So we hide the poor and kill the prophets.”[2]

“Social Justice is a Christian Tradition — Not a Liberal Agenda” is the title of an excellent article by Stephen Mattson, he says:

“Many Christians are wary of participating in social justice because of a deep-rooted fear of being labeled “liberal,” “progressive,” or “secular.” They don’t want to be associated with “secular” movements, and are uncomfortable delving into issues that go beyond their cultural comfort zones.

But the Bible tells us that Jesus cared deeply about the social causes around him.

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”

Even though Jesus loves everyone, even to the point of dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people — the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.”

Jennings quotes a passage that is often used to silence Seventh-day Adventists from being engaged with culture. It’s from the book Desire of Ages, 509:

“The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses – extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Savior attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart.”

The key phrase in the quote above is the word merely “the remedy did not lie in MERELY human and external measures.” [Emphasis added]

Mere human effort is not the final solution. But ignoring human engagement and speaking up for the oppressed, would be to misrepresent Christianity. There have always been prophetic voices that have challenged the church and state. Read the Old Testament prophets. Read John the Baptist who spoke with prophetic furor. Jesus’s role was different, he whispered with compassionate pleading. Tender to those honestly seeking, condemnatory to the hypocritical (read Matthew 23).

As I read about the early Adventist church I see a progressive movement that interacted with important social issues of the day. Ellen White (the author of the Desire of Ages) advocated civil disobedience. Regarding the law to return a slave to their master, she said, We are not to obey![3] She said those who held sympathies regarding slavery should be disfellowshiped from the church.[4] Many of the founders were actively engaged in social reform and were very vocal about issues of social justice.

We misunderstand Christ’s mission if we don’t see the “political” nature of it. His very presence challenged the empire of his day. It challenged the religious hierarchy of his day. It was the unification of religious and political powers that killed him.

The gospel message is transcendent. God’s kingdom is not of this world. In that way, I agree with Jennings that we need to be cautious of placing all of our hopes on state-sponsored solutions. Government fails. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and address broken systems just because it is referred to as “politics.”

Was it politics when Jesus boldly said to Pilate, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” right after this Pilate handed him over to be hung.

Was it politics when William Wilberforce worked from 1789-1833 to abolish slavery?

Was it politics when Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood up to Hitler in defense of the Jews. Was it politics when he utilized the “Confessing Church” to preach authentic Christianity in response to the state-run apostate churches? Was it the lack of political engagement that allowed an estimated 83% of Seventh-day Adventists to vote for Hitler at that time?[5]

Was it politics when Gandhi challenged the corruption of the British empire through principles of non-violence he learned by studying the Sermon on the Mount?

Was it politics when Martin Luther King dug deep from the biblical well to articulate Christ’s principles of love through nonviolent resistance? His church became a movement, King spoke truth to power and paid the price for it…most prophets do. The fact that he is celebrated by both Black and White alike should not cause us to miss the point… when King spoke up for biblical principles…it was called “politics” and it led to him having a 75% disapproval rating with White Americans while he was alive.[6]

Is it politics for the Seventh-day Adventist Church to stand for the religious liberty of all people? Is it politics to engage a world that is suffering or to stand up for the oppressed, or to speak truth to power?

I agree with much of what Tim Jennings writes. But again I think it would be a shame to miss our opportunity to connect with people outside the church because we think social justice is a trap. Social Justice resonates with the very heart of God. Social Justice is not a footnote to the gospel it is the Good News that is central to all that Christianity claims. It is the everlasting gospel of Revelation 14 that is for every tribe, tongue, language, and people. Good news because oppressive systems will be judged, and empires will be brought low. For the hour of God’s judgment has come!

______

Notes.

[1] Shane Claiborne. 2016, Feb 3. Tweet. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ShaneClaiborne/status/694946409213227009

[2] Carlos Rodriguez. 2019, October 17. Tweet quotation. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/CarlosHappyNPO/status/1184910189469802496

[3] Ellen White. Testimonies to the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 201-202; 1859-1860.

[4] Ibid. 358-360.

[5] Spectrum Magazine, Volume 8, Number 3, March 1977.

[6] James Cobb. Even Though He is Revered today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was widely disliked by the American public when he was killed. 2018, April 4. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-martin-luther-king-had-75-percent-disapproval-rating-year-he-died-180968664/

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About the author

Kevin McGill

Kevin writes from Troy, Idaho. He shepherds three churches and loves spending time with his family.