Wednesday, September 20, 2006

social justice or social gospel

I have been thinking through the church's responsibility to "the poor." As I reflect on various liberation theologies and some themes within the emergent church, I am working through some of my own thoughts on the matter.

I was in my small group the other day and was discussing what the U.S. should do for the poor, both locally and globally. One guy in my small group was really upset with corporate America and our lack of advocacy for the poor as Americans. Here was my response to him: "If we make an economically poor person into a middle-class person, we will simply be exchanging one poverty for another."

Here is where I was going with that thought. Our generation is bombarded with all kinds of messages. Two of those messages are as follows: 1) we need to help those who are materially poor in order that they can live the American dream, a.k.a. become middle-class or better 2) Middle-class America is rife with drug addictions, sexual abuse, depression and an overall melancholy and cynical attitude about life.

Holding these two truths in tandem we come to an interesting paradox. It seems that both the socio-economically poor and the socio-economically middle-class are struggling with poverty. It just that one kind of poverty is more obvious than the other.

So when we say we should “advocate for the poor” who are “the poor?” It seems to me that poverties of all kinds are all around us. And if we limit our definition of “poverty” to those who are lacking in material wealth and in educational and job opportunities, then aren’t we being “materialistic.” Meaning, aren’t we simply carrying with us a very shallow understanding of poverty.

My fear is that our desire for social justice will just become another failed social gospel. I am not convinced its enough to “be Jesus” to people without also introducing them to Him. To do so would be to fall into the first of Jesus' three temptations in the desert.

Jesus was tempted to turn stone into bread. He was tempted to become the great provider for the physical needs of Israel. And many expected as much from the long awaited Messiah. But Jesus refused this temptation, and so should we.

In the gospel of John, we do see Jesus feeding the multitudes. And yet, its as if those feedings were supposed to point to something deeper. In John 6 we see that it was not enough just to feed the people. Jesus wanted the people to understand that He was the Bread of Life. He was the manna from heaven. Their hunger, Jesus knew, was well beyond the physical. They had a deeper hunger which only Jesus could fill.

We should not be satisfied with ourselves if we as the church become masters at helping the economically poor become the miserable middle-class. Again, we are only exchanging one poverty for another. It is not enough to replace depression with materialism or desperation with greed. In our attempts at providing for physical needs, we must point people to something beyond mere physical bread. We must point them to the Bread which will truly give them Life.


At 3:47 PM, Blogger Jesse said...

Hey Mark, good thoughts! I heard a comment in a sermon by Louie Giglio which provoked some thought in me. He mentioned that it might not be enough to simply do good to others, or just be light and have that be all we do. Perhaps people aren't smart enough to connect the dots between our faith in Jesus and how we act? We need to do/be good, and yet with that should come at some point in time a more directed communication that who we are, and what we do is all because of Jesus.

A friend on mine, also named Mark, posted on the idea of what it means to be "poor". You can check it out here:

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Your friend Mark is thinking some of the same thoughts I have been having.

The one area where physical poverty seems to trump all other poverties is in the area of opportunity.

I have the opportunity to think, to dream, to challenge my own assumptions about God. My wealth affords me this opportunity. One can still do this in material poverty but it is more difficult.

The immediacy of eating and surviving trumps desires for spiritual reflection or metaphysical speculation. Those on the brink of starvation do not have the luxury to reflect on God or a deeper purpose to life. They are just trying to survive.

This kind of material poverty we don't see in the US. Only overseas or in South America can you experience this sort of "brink of starvation" physical poverty.

In this kind of poverty, Maslow's hierarchy of needs comes into play. Its hard to even consider God when such basic needs are not met.

Beyond this kind of poverty, I see many other poverties as very similar and equally destructive regardless of socio-economic status.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Jason said...


You said: "My fear is that our desire for social justice will just become another failed social gospel. I am not convinced its enough to “be Jesus” to people without also introducing them to Him."

I agree with this part of your post.

There are different kinds of "poverties," and if you're trying to guard against social justice, period, with the exclusion of bringing others into relationship with Christ, then I understand. However, from my vantage point, the message of this post feels imbalanced.

1)I think that many Christians who would advocate "being Christ" to the poor and marginalized are not attempting to turn starving and oppressed people into middle class Americans. The idea is to meet basic needs. You hit at this in your last comment. In being "the" truth, Jesus embodied truth. He showed us who God intended for us to be and how God desires for us to live in relationship to all. American Christians have fallen short, greatly, in embodying Christ in our relationship to the poor.

2) A wise woman here with me pointed out that when American Christians ( of the middle class or beyond variety) attempt to "be Christ" in the midst of "real" poverty there is a good chance that they will then be confronted with the "other kinds of poverties" that exist in their own lives. God may use the poor to transform the poor, and vice versa.

Do I mean to swing the pendulum of this post towards social justice void of the verbal message of the gospel. Absolutely not.

The real point here is that Christians often settle for only part of what the gospel means. Jesus preached a new way. (which was really the way things were intended to be-the old, original way) He preached the way of the Kingdom-his way.

Being on the outside of this inside conversation, I'm sure I've missed a lot of context here. I am certainly interested in hearing more details about the context of this small group conversation.

P.S Did you recieve the disc that I mailed you? I hope so.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Mark said...

I agree with you. I think your comment is a reaction against typical conservative American Christianity.

My post is a reaction against typical liberal protestantism in America, by which the emergent church is being greatly influenced.

I think we can agree that its a "both/and" not an "either/or."

At 6:58 AM, Blogger YadaYada said...

Mark, cool stuff. I'm with you on the inadequacy of transforming the loves of the poor into middle class. The only change is social status and the ability to buy name brand rather than generic. Is that actually a better life? Nah.

Honestly, though, I do get tired of the griping about social justice from Christians. It's as if there is a notion that talking about helping people is the same as actually doing it. Armchair servants accomplish as much a armchair quarterbacks.

If you're dissatisfied with corporate America, then start your own business and give people better wages and better benefits. Otherwise, go give somebody some bread, and maybe skip a meal to do it.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Kevin said...

Excellent blog. I scribbled something like this on a notepad somewhere. What are we saving the poor to? Let's not give them what we have. That isn't doing anyone any favors.


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