Filings: What can we glean from social justice?

My wife accepted an invitation from a friend of ours and has attended a couple of Social Justice Bible Studies. The invite came out of a conversation she and this friend, a Christian, had about his Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker and his belief that conservative Christians who criticize the federal welfare program aren’t concerned about the poor. To our friend’s way of thinking, this behavior is breaking faith with a fundamental premise of Christianity (and don’t we consider ourselves fundamentalists?).

There are certainly a lot of places where you can begin in taking on that argument, but my wife decided to start by going to the Bible study to hear what they were talking about, in part because she was really curious about what the group meant by “social justice.”

The group’s focus, as I’ve said, is on helping the poor and what we need to do as a nation to rectify this injustice. After my wife’s last visit I was curious as to what scriptures the group was using to support their position that this is the government’s responsibility and not that of the church or of Christians as individuals. The leader that time had cited either Leviticus 19:10 (“And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather [every] grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I [am] the LORD your God.”) or Deuteronomy 24:21 (“When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean [it] afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.”)

Well that’s pretty clear direction, but where the leader was missing it, in my opinion, was making the leap that the if people weren’t following that instruction then it became the government’s responsibility — ostensibly from a desire to do good — to pass a law requiring it. Oh, the peril of good intentions (and unintended consequences)!

It’s my take that when you’re trying to determine the nature or intent of God you should look for where the relationship is. Whether with the first Adam or the second, and through all the prophets in between and the apostles that came after, God has shown he is interested in establishing relationships, both between himself and people, and people to people. Now, in the case of the social justice bunch, it may seem like a natural step for God-fearing people to reflect this desire by delegating to their government the authority to act for this good. To me, though, that is also the first step leading to replacing a relationship between God and man with a relationship between man and the other big G – government.

Let’s play out the example of the gleaners. Man, or the church, through hardness of heart, is not leaving the gleanings for the poor. In an effort to be righteous (and concern that others aren’t being righteous enough), people get together and direct the government to pass a law requiring that gleanings be left. Then, if the poor aren’t doing a good enough job of picking up the gleanings (or if the more motivated ones are out-hustling the infirm or indolent) someone gets the bright idea that maybe they should put some of the poor to work collecting the gleanings and bringing the second harvest in where it can be distributed more equitably. If the people hired to do this were among the more ambitious ones mentioned earlier, they soon see that they get the same share no matter how much effort they put in to picking up the food.

Now, before the law was passed a poor man might pray and ask God to help him find the means to feed his family. Coming upon a field just harvested, he might thank God for bringing him to that place and giving him the strength and ability to collect the food his family needed. Maybe even a landowner passes by at that time and sees the man is diligent and offers him a job. After a time of living under the government’s rule, however, that man (or his now grown children) starts to see the law, not God, as his source and the excess harvest as something he’s entitled to; not because he’s a child of God, but simply because he’s poor. Furthermore, bitterness might start to set in and he starts to wonder why the owner of the field gets to have first pick, and why, instead of just leaving what falls during the harvest and what collects in the corners of the field, he can’t start also leaving every third row unharvested for the poor as well. Of course then the government has to hire more people to collect the additional food. The poor man’s belly might be full, but what is in his heart and his spirit? What was the result of all those good intentions?

And what benefit does the landowner get by doing it God’s way in the first place rather than being hard-hearted and subjected to government fiat? Well, certainly less interference in his life on a business level, but he also gains favor with God by following his commands and escapes judgment as well. As I’ve written before, when I stand before God and he asks if I helped the poor I’m not going to get very far saying, “Well, I paid my taxes!” Perhaps the most insidious harm from the welfare state isn’t the trap it creates for those who live from it, but that it disconnects everyone else from realizing their responsibility to get directly involved.

It’s a lesson that bears repeating even for those who are receptive, and I know that I don’t always get high marks on this test. Yet my family has at times taken people into our home, helped other people move into homes, and bought groceries or medical care for those who needed these things. Where possible we’ve also tried to disciple others so they could learn they can trust God and also avoid behaviors that might put them back in the same place. When the time comes when these people have no longer needed direct help from us or our church, we’ve been genuinely happy for their success and progress. If, however, it was my job as a government employee to distribute these things then I’d have to worry that if I was too successful I’d be out of a job myself!

Finally, I give the social justice group credit for wanting to do God’s work. I wonder, however, if they are as quick in desiring that the government enforce by law other scriptural commands such as those dealing with adultery and homosexuality. Perhaps my wife will raise this question at a future meeting. She finds the meetings pretty interesting and the conversation polite even though there are significant differences of interpretation and doctrine between her and a couple of the group leaders. She feels she is getting something out of it by hearing other perspectives, and hopes that the others are also benefiting. She plans to keep going back as long as they’ll have her.

It is, after all, all about relationships.

Update:

Similar thoughts are in this post from Stones Cry Out.

2 thoughts on “Filings: What can we glean from social justice?

  1. Just a few quick thoughts on this.

    1. Clearly the church is to care for the poor. Jesus spoke often of caring for the poor.

    2. The evangelical world and the rest of the church has done a poor job of caring for the poor. Catholics are better but…

    3. It is our failure that has allowed the government to come forward and take the reigns with the power and authority of government to “attempt” to make it happen.

    The only way to rectify this situation is for the church to be the church and then there will be no need for silly wasteful government programs.

  2. My feeling exactly. It’s not an easy, overnight solution of course and will take a big change in cultural mindset – both in and outside the church. At the same time, evidence is everywhere that a tradition of personal philanthropy is still strong in the U.S. when you look at responses to disasters and even more garden-variety fundraisers. The key to helping and changing lives, though, is relationship, not just money.

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