The Struggle for Social Justice Is a Struggle With Ourselves

Darrell B. Harrison.
Darrell B. Harrison. | (Photo: Courtesy of Darrell B. Harrison)

There is great emphasis being placed today by Christian social justice activists on remediating the adverse effects of historical and contemporary injustices, particularly as it relates to its generational impact on people of color in America.

I will speak more to that in a moment.

But let me say, parenthetically, that by "injustice" I'm referring specifically to sins, that is, demonstrable violations of God's objective and equitable standard of righteousness — as revealed in His Word  — committed by human beings, either institutionally or individually, against other human beings who, regardless of ethnicity, sex, or socio-economic station, are equal image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26).

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I thought it necessary to insert that caveat, as I find context is often missing in the continuing discourse regarding the pursuit of social justice and racial reconciliation.

Words have meaning.

And words like "injustice" and "reconciliation" are used so casually today, that it is often difficult to navigate the myriad arguments being posited by those who are so dogmatic that such pursuits are mandated by the Gospel.

Scripture is unarguably clear that we who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, that is, who, by the sovereign will and unmerited grace of God (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 2:8-9), have confessed faith in Him as Savior (Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:9) and, consequently, are living lives of deliberate and conspicuous obedience to Him as Lord (Lk. 6:46; Rom. 12:2; Jas. 3:13; 1 Jn. 2:28-29) are to strive to meet the tangible needs of the poor and oppressed for the glory of God (Prov. 14:31; Jas. 1:27), regardless if that condition is the result of methodical or immethodical means.

Perhaps it is our failure to live up to this calling that prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lament:

"It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time." – A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

Though I sympathize with the sentiments expressed by Dr. King, I find his words problematic as they seem to infer that social change is to be realized only by choosing either to not "wait on time" or to "wait on time" (as if they were the only alternatives toward achieving the ends he envisioned.)

But with all due respect to Dr. King, and to those who share his perspective on these matters, the reason the change he sought after for so long took  — and continues to take — time is, ironically, a matter not of chronology but theology. But even that is secondary to the fundamental question of why we pursue social change to begin with.

Though not normally couched in theological terms, the truth is the very concept of "social change" is fundamentally rooted in a God-infused desire within us that we relate to each other, and the world around us, in ways that are consistent with the nature and character of the One in whose image we are uniquely created.

As religion professor James Davison Hunter comments:

"The passion to engage the world, to shape it and finally change it for the better, would seem to be an enduring mark of Christians on the world in which they live. To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God's restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private. This is the mandate of creation." – To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

I do not consider myself a social justice warrior. That's not a knock against those who identify as such, I simply do not see myself as fitting into that category (such as it is).

Nevertheless, I am not naive that a fundamental tenet of the Gospel is that Christians address, in practical terms (Jas. 2:15-16), the legitimate needs of those — believers and unbelievers alike — who have been taken advantage of by systems and structures designed to marginalize their worth and significance as unique creations of God (Prov. 31:8-9; Eccl. 5:8).

But it may surprise you to learn that meeting the material needs of the poor and oppressed  — the measure by which many SJWs define a society that is "just" and "equitable" — is not all the Gospel is designed to do. In fact, it is not even what the Gospel is principally intended to do.

As theologian David VanDrunen writes:

"Because the common kingdom (the world) will remain the common kingdom until Christ returns, and because the objective normative standards for cultural activities will ordinarily be common to believers and unbelievers until the end of the present world, Christians should strive for modesty and honesty in cultural affairs. Christians should be modest in their expectations about what they can accomplish with regard to the cultural institutions of this present world. We can contribute in many small ways to making the common kingdom a better place, and occasionally we can be instrumental in forging large, systemic improvements to our cultural environment. But the fact that the common kingdom will remain the common kingdom should instill a profound modesty and humility in us. Whatever contributions we make, small or great, are contributions to a cultural arena that is temporary and fleeting." – Living in God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture

The Gospel of Matthew records that a wrongly-imprisoned John the Baptist sent some of his disciples to inquire of Jesus, "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" To which Jesus answered, "Go and report to John what you hear and see; the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them."

It is interesting that Jesus was so specific in reminding John that the poor had the Gospel preached to them, as opposed to enumerating the many ways in which He undoubtedly could have made their social station in life more equitable. The SJW-Jesus would have responded to John not that "the poor have the Gospel preached to them" but that "the poor have food to eat, clothes to wear, homes to live in, violence-free communities, a guaranteed minimum wage, and a color-blind judicial system."

On the matter of social justice, many SJWs are quick to focus on how Jesus met the material needs of the poor yet give little, if any, credence to the fact that the spiritual needs of the poor were of much greater concern and importance to Him (Mk. 8:36; Jas. 2:5). But to whatever extent social justice is a Gospel mandate, it should never be misunderstood to be the ultimate or sole purpose of the Gospel (which, in fact, is what many Christian SJWs have done.)

You see, the works Jesus performed were never for the sake of the works themselves, nor the benefits derived thereof, but to point people to Himself as the Savior of sinners not the Savior of society (1 Tim. 1:15).

We've got it backwards, my brothers and sisters.

Collective societal reformation happens only as a result of individual spiritual transformation, not the other way around. The Scriptures warn us that we should never expect perfect justice in a world comprised of those who, because of sin, are inherently unjust.

"If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land." – Eccl. 5:8-9

What we, as Christians, must understand is what makes the pursuit of social justice a Gospel mandate is it is first and foremost a mandate to change hearts not just minds. As theologian John Calvin states so well, those who dispense justice are doing God's work not merely man's:

"For to what high standards of probity, wisdom, mercy, sobriety and innocence must they hold themselves, when they realize that they have been ordained ministers of divine justice? How impudent would they be if they allowed the slightest iniquity access to their judgment seat, which they know to be the throne of the living God? How bold they would be if they pronounced unjust sentence with their lips, perceiving that they are meant to be the instruments of God's truth? With what conscience would they sign some wicked decree with the hand which, they know, ought to write down God's own verdicts? In short, if they remember that they are deputies of God, they must make every effort and take every care in all they do to represent to men an image of God's providence, protection, goodness, mildness and justice." – Institutes of the Christian Religion, Robert White translation, pp. 759-760

There is a lot of kingdom-building being undertaken today under the guise of social justice as a "Gospel mandate."

By "kingdom-building," I am speaking in the sense that a more just, equitable, and fair society and world is what many SJWs would argue is what the gospel is fundamentally intended to accomplish.

But with that, I would respectfully disagree.

Yes, Christ is building a kingdom, but that kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36).

Societal equity is not the mandate of the Gospel.

Racial reconciliation is not the mandate of the Gospel.

Gender equality is not the mandate of the Gospel.

Equal opportunity is not the mandate of the Gospel.

Ultimately, the mandate of the Gospel is to make Jesus Christ known to those who do not know Him (Matt. 28:19).

And in coming to know Him, we love Him; and in loving Him, we obey Him; and by obeying Him, we become more like Him; and in becoming more like Him, we more consistently reflect to a world thirsting for righteousness the image of the One in whose image we are all created.

That is what true justice looks like.

Performing the works of the Gospel is of no lasting societal benefit apart from preaching the word of the Gospel.

Jesus understood this.

And, as His followers, so should we.

Originally posted at

Darrell B. Harrison is a Fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, a veteran of the U.S. Army, and the first African-American to be ordained a deacon in the nearly 200-year history of First Baptist Church of Covington (Georgia), where he attended from July 2009 to July 2015.

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