A Just Society

On Not Confusing the Fruits of the Gospel with the Gospel Itself

In the past couple of weeks as we have watched the cruel treatment and death of George Floyd on tape, the peaceful protests calling for change and accountability in the police force, and the subsequent violent riots tearing through dozens of major cities in the United States, I have been struggling in knowing how to respond, how to feel, what to think. My feed on Facebook has become a tirade of hashtags and angry posts denouncing white supremacy and police brutality, with so much passion and so little critical reasoning that I had to log off for mental health reasons. People are putting up black squares in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement and major business corporations and politicians across the country are joining in on the chorus against racial oppression and systemic racism.

As I’ve been seeking to wade through these strange waters of ours times, I have been interested to learn more about the place of social justice in the everyday life of the Christian. Clearly many churches do not incorporate social justice issues into their parish life and conversation. But historically, wherever Christianity has truly taken root, social change has tended to follow. Schools and hospitals are built. Politicians are elected to represent the least of God’s children. Parks are funded and neighborhoods are allowed to include families of all races and religions. These initiatives are usually based on a desire to see every person appreciated and honored as an equal citizen made in the image of God. But also a number of Christians and theologians, who could be considered as belonging to the theological “left,” are calling for social justice in droves almost to the point where it seems like the gospel of Christ has little to do besides effecting “liberation” among the poor and oppressed. If the topic of conversation doesn’t include the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, then we are “part of the problem” and should “check our privilege,” and, especially if we are white, put up our hands in surrender and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t get it! Teach me!”

In looking for a way to escape both indifference and unnecessary guilt, I found a pertinent insight from one of the literary giants of the Christian faith: C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote a relevant passage for our day and time in his classic book The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, an elderly devil in Satan’s service, is writing words of wisdom to his demon nephew Wormwood on the art of tempting and deceiving human beings. One “trick” Screwtape is trying to teach Wormwood is getting people to believe in Christianity for reasons other than its truth. Screwtape writes,

“Certainly we do not to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that–as a means to anything–even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy [God] demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience.”[1]

Lewis has a brilliant way of uncovering our problem. Does God value a just society? Of course. God demands justice for the poor, the foreigner, the oppressed (Deut. 10:16-19). Christians are commended repeatedly to practice xenophilia, hospitality for the “other,” as we seek to faithfully live out the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 5:46-47; Matt. 6:2; Luke 14:12-14; Acts 2:9-11; Rom. 10:9-16; Heb. 13:1-3; James 1:27; 1 Peter 4:9). But is a just society itself the gospel? Christian love and redeemed personalities may produce these righteous outcomes in  culture and neighborhoods, but we would be amiss if we mistook the fruit of the gospel for the gospel itself. As the late Dallas Willard writes in his seminal spiritual classic The Divine Conspiracy,

“To be committed to the oppressed, to liberation, or just to ‘community’ became for many the whole of what is essential to Christian commitment…For the theological left, simply this became the message of Christ.”[2]

Willard is pointing out that civil rights and social justice had become the real religion of the left, just as praying a prayer in order to be forgiven and “go to heaven” had become the “sin management” gospel of the theological right. But unfortunately, removing God and our reconciliation with Him and with each other as the goal of our existence (John 17:3; 2nd Cor. 5:18-20; Eph. 2:14; Rev. 22:1-5) usually does nothing more than replace existing social oppressions with new ones. History can teach us as much. And yes, rioting and burning down the businesses of innocent Americans counts as social oppression in my estimation.

While striving to do what we can to establish a just society in which everyone is treated fairly, we can also take ultimate comfort in reading the book of Philippians. The Apostle Paul, eventually martyred for his faith, wrote this letter from a stuffy prison cell. He was not in an air-conditioned office or at his vacation home in Hawaii, but he exudes a kind of joy which no social or political oppression could extinguish:

“I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13, NASB).

That is the kind of joy that can change the world.

[1] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins, New York.

[2] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. HarperCollins, New York, 1997. p. 51.

graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois with a Bachelor's Degree in English Writing and is currently pursuing a Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He was born and raised in rural Oklahoma and currently lives in Walla Walla, Washington. 

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