Social justice is a mandate that God gives to His people, grounded in the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it can certainly become a dangerous and trendy work as well. Fashionable buzzwords often circulate throughout the culture of Christianity and become a part of the “Christianese” that flows effortlessly from the lips of many well-intentioned saints of God. Not only do we experience buzzwords, but buzz movements; great movements within the church that seem to polarize as passing fads or inauthentic revivals. Certainly the social justice movement that has resurfaced over recent years, even in the camps of conservative Christians, would be no exception.
The Word of God is saturated with social justice mandates, but it is the carrying out of these mandates that, at its very core, maintains the absolute proclamation of God’s Word. His greatness is found in submission and obedience to all that He is.
From a grassroots and ground-floor perspective, the rubber meets the road in the above statement. Meeting the tangible needs of the poor and needy is essential, yet without losing the truth declared by Jesus in Mark 8:36, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”
Society is filled with generous offers of a meal and a cup of cold water in the name of the Lord. This type of care and compassion often springs from well-intentioned acts of compassionate citizens. After all, Jesus addressed both of these situations specifically. However, the aim of all practical assistance offered to the less-fortunate must center around gospel-driven relationships with hope at the core. It is not placing a tract in a man’s hand and simply saying, “Pray this prayer.” Rather, it is developing a relationship that says that we really do care; that we want to know a person’s name, hear their story and show them the love of Christ right where they’re at.
I can personally attest to the fact that this type of ministry gets incredibly messy. By the grace of God, my wife and I have an opportunity to reach out to the homeless population of Sumter, South Carolina each and every day. Many days I sit at my desk, with my face in my hands, asking God how many times my heart can break. I sit and pray about the hope that appears to be deferred that is making my heart sick. I ask Him why the elementary school-aged children are running drugs in the neighborhood. I throw my hands in the air after finding another one of my friends lying in an alcohol-induced stupor in the middle of a Walmart parking lot, passed out in his own waste. I try not to panic when our church’s local missions post becomes a scene straight out of CSI Miami when a young army veteran has his throat slashed and stumbles in the front door to have his life saved by two formerly homeless ladies who serve with us.
In those moments, we must look beyond the buzzwords, hip phrases and trendy movements and declare that in the power and might of God’s Holy Spirit, we will come back and do it all over again the next day. Herein lies the danger of both sides of this movement. Trendy social justice movements usually fade away, unable to dig in for the long haul. Yet those called by God to be in the trenches day in and day out, witnessing tragedy, crime, sin, violence, addictions, poverty, prostitution and hopelessness, are in grave danger of burnout and discouragement. The tendency will often be to default to a “catch and release” ministry strategy where more harm is done than good. People who desperately need love and Chist-centered relationships are further wounded and become more despondent because their hope has been deferred and their hearts made sick.
There is a word that experts use when discussing the topics of generational poverty and chronic homelessness: disaffiliation. Disaffiliation means that the core component behind generational poverty and chronic homelessness is very simple; it is a lack of genuine, authentic, nurturing, healthy and loving relationships in a person’s life. Think about it! If a person has always known poverty and all of their closest associations are impoverished, it is with tremendous arrogant audacity that anyone would assume that all that person needs to do is get a job, get a life, fend for themselves and just get it together. If all they have ever known is the way of life that they are presently stuck in, it takes much more than a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” approach to affect true and lasting change.
If a person has experienced years and years of homelessness, addiction and criminal behavior, the only thing that is ever going to completely turn that around is a slow, gradual, Christ-centered approach to deep relational activity and discipleship. The church of Jesus Christ can look to government agencies to deal with such epidemics in society, but until the Lord gets control of His people’s hearts to show that it is His church that is called to deal with these issues, the proverbial dog continues to chase its tail.
When the children have no food, families are living in cars, drug dealers are taking over the streets and people are being shot at and slashed up, the body of Christ not only has a call to offer practical resources to help, but THE resource in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It takes a lot less theory and a lot more heart. It requires the replacing of indifference and apathy toward the poor with the absolute love and compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The body of Christ in America needs to get off the sidelines and realize that true social justice is nothing more than establishing and cultivating genuine and nurturing relationships, centered in the gospel and all for God’s glory. Truly ministering Christ’s love to others can be just that simple, and Jesus never intended for it to be a spectator sport.
Phil Fidler is the senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Sumter, South Carolina (http://www.calvarysumter.com/). The ministry has a heavy emphasis on outreach to the poor and needy.