Our nation is growing in disjuncture. People are confused, angry and ideologically divided in ways that I've never known before. News broadcasters who once took professional pride for unbiased reporting are becoming openly one-sided and opinionated. Claims of "fair and balanced" by anyone seem to ring hollow. Every night I find myself jumping from network to network on the television, hoping to gain some sense of truth for myself. As a Christian pastor, my life has been dedicated to the proclamation of truth. I value the Bible as the standard of that truth, but I also care about what is true in the world around me.
Recently popular conservative commentator Glenn Beck, in an effort to quench what he feels is American socialism, publicly exhorted Christians to leave churches that participate in ministries of social justice. This message was especially hard for those of us who have dedicated our lives to the ministry of Jesus, who directly commissioned us to care for the poor and downtrodden. How such acts of compassion can lead to socialism alludes me.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, "For I, the Lord, love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing" (Isaiah 61:8). He also said:
[F]ree those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [...] Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. (Isaiah 58:6-7, 9-10)
Quoting Isaiah 61:1-3 in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus claimed this Messianic prophecy as his own job description. Caring for the poor is at the forefront of God's heart and his nature. He gave his life to break the power of bondage over humanity. He is a God of compassion and mercy, righteousness and justice. Anyone who leaves a Christian church because they are doing the ministry of Jesus has totally missed the point.
Christian social justice is not socialism. Christian social justice is rooted in compassion. It happens when people get a divine glimpse of who God really is. Mother Teresa got it. So did William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Glenn Beck clearly doesn't.
The difference between Christian social justice and socialism is a matter of not just goodwill but free will. Socialism demands equality at the expense of people who don't want to participate. Socialism mandates by law and through oppressive taxation its will on an entire social structure. No one has a choice in the matter; no one can exercise free will.
Authentic Christianity is based on free will. God in his infinite wisdom knows that love requires a choice. No one can be forced to love. Love only works when it is open-handed. The Bible tells us that we love God because he first loved us, but it has always been our human right to accept or reject his love. If we do accept that love, we soon learn to love what he loves, choosing to become his hands and feet in this broken world. Caring for the least of humanity comes with a package. We don't do it because we have to but because we choose to. We engage our lives in goodwill because we have been given free will.
Long before welfare and social security, the church was the welfare system. We did and still do this not by mandating financial participation from our members but through freewill offerings. It is for this reason that churches are given nonprofit status. People who experience God's love naturally want to help out. Our church, for example, provides food for approximately 88 families in need each week through our benevolence center. We feed the homeless a hot meal at a local park each Sunday. Through our medical clinic, we offer free medical services for those who are uninsured. We have over 100 volunteers sharing in the labor of a three-acre organic community garden, which gave away nearly 15 tons of fresh produce to the poor last year alone. When Hurricane Katrina brought disaster to the unsuspecting residents of New Orleans, we sent teams every week for over six months to help out with relief. The teams worked hard to help the local people with the overwhelming task of cleanup while sharing the tears and heartache of loss through compassion and mercy. And when Haiti experienced the tragedy of a debilitating earthquake, we sent teams of medical workers to help in the field hospital caring for the suffering and injured.
For us this isn't a job but a joy. We train willing people to combat human trafficking and to become medical workers in the developing world. We care for the environment, knowing what deforestation, soil degradation, and water pollution do to the poor. We work to help addicts recover, and we visit prison inmates not because we are forced to but because Jesus told us that as we did these things, we did them unto him.
We have grown to deeply love people because we have experienced his deep love for us. Christians must not be intimidated by or shy away from the call to justice. Instead, we must embrace this important aspect of the ministry of Jesus. We must follow his lead in reaching out to a hurting world.