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God and Social Justice

September 9th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments


The reader may or may not know that Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written in response to an open statement published by eight Alabama clergy condemning King’s direct action strategy and urging caution and patience. Few people remember that document but King’s response is beloved because it puts forward in his reasoned and eloquent way the duty of Christians to pursue social justice. Martin Luther King has become a secular hero, but he was in fact a Baptist minister first and framed his work in the context of that role. So the Letter from a Birmingham Jail can be considered in some ways a summary of a Christian theology of Social Justice.

Now, as you know, there are various positions on how and to what extent Christians should participate in a secular society. Some see it as a Christian duty to “get the country back to God,” imagining that at one point the United States was a godly Christian nation that has since apostatized and is now under God’s curse. That is an unhistorical fantasy but it is nonetheless widely believed and causes no end to friction between certain Christians and the wider society. There are other Christians who see participation in politics as sinful, believing that the world is too corrupted for the Christian conscience.

There are a number of Christian leaders who propose that the duty of the Christian in secular society is to lead a godly life within the context of the larger society and thereby demonstrate that Christianity is not radical or threatening, while leaving the flock to do little more than graze peacefully and undisturbed by inconvenient calls to do justice. This happens to be a very popular stance among the leaders of white middle class congregations whose membership are hardly distinguishable from their non-Christian neighbors.

There are others, and I count myself in this number, who argue almost exactly the opposite: that Christianity is radical and threatening, for the very reason that the Church is Christ’s body, and Christ is radical and threatening. Christ is not some peaceful little fairy bringing sleepy harmony to comfort the sinners and make them feel good about themselves. He is a warrior who brings a sword (Mt. 10:34) to disrupt the comfortable religion of first century Jews (and 21st century Christians), who overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple who perverted God’s call for righteousness and justice (Mt. 21:12-13), who railed against the religious leaders who had mistaken holiness to mean strict adherence to the law rather than the product of living out the law (Mt. 23), and who warned that those who neglect justice face eternal separation at the last judgment (Mt. 25:31-46).

The eight clergymen to whom King responded in his letter were the scribes and Pharisees of twentieth century Alabama, just as those who would divert the attention of Christians today from the glaring injustices before us are of the twenty-first. King also had a warning for the comfortable Christians of his time,

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

God calls each of us to work for racial reconciliation.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail Full Text

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