The Eclipse of Justice: Loving God and Our Neighbor
In modern day Christianity the integral relationship between sharing the good news of the gospel and pursuing biblical justice has been eclipsed. There are many people today, including many Christian pastors, who are calling for justice. But rather than allowing God to define what justice is, what it entails, and how we are supposed to pursue it, they redefine it to suit their own purposes. Then there are others who, like the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, are committed to living their life for God, yet unwilling to seek the flourishing of their neighbor. As a result, some are driving a wedge between sharing the gospel and social responsibility, thus opening themselves up to the charge of religious hypocrisy and injustice.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 22 that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself. Our relationship with God is primary, but it's inseparable from loving our neighbor. If that's the case, then the two greatest offenses in God’s eyes are idolatry—a failure to love God—and injustice—a failure to love our neighbor. Religious conservatives tend to latch on to idolatry as the key issue, and religious liberals tend to latch on to injustice, but the two are intricately related. You cannot love God rightly unless you love your neighbor, and you cannot love your neighbor rightly unless you love God. That is why John writes in 1 John 4:20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.” You cannot love God who you cannot see if you do no love your brother who is standing right in front of you.
Just like a solar eclipse in which the moon blocks the rays of the sun and casts a dark shadow, something has blocked us from being able to see, experience, and rightly pursue God's justice in our world today. In order to understand how this has happened, we must understand a few key moments in history, which we could describe in terms of the Great Legacy, the Great Betrayal, and the Great Reversal.
The Great Legacy
Christians have an amazing legacy when it comes to both proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and addressing social issues. Early Christians created the first social order that brought people together across differences of race, class and gender because they did not base their identity on any of those factors but rather on their common relationship with Jesus. That's why the New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado has said that the translocal and the transethnic identity of Christians created the first multiethnic society in the entire history of the world—a society that spanned the geography of the Mediterranean world. Given their belief that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore possesses an inherent right to be treated in accordance with their worth, the early Christians understood their responsibility not only to care but to advocate for the poor, weak, vulnerable, and oppressed. In stark contrast to Greco-Roman society, Christians became famous for their love for the poor. Christians are the ones who first created orphanages for abandoned children, hostels for strangers and travelers, houses for the poor, and hospitals for the sick and the dying.
The Great Betrayal
Despite this remarkable legacy, a shift began to occur at the beginning of the 20th century that led to an eclipse of biblical justice. It started with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. During this time, the Presbyterian Church issued a statement in which they declared five fundamental beliefs to be necessary and essential to Christian faith. The “Five Fundamentals” as they came to be called involved a belief in 1) the inspiration of Scripture; (2) the virgin birth of Christ; (3) Jesus' death as an atonement for sin, (4) the bodily resurrection of Jesus; and (5) the historical reality of Jesus' miracles. From that point forward, churches and seminaries across the country were split between the “Modernists” on the one side and the “Fundamentalists” on the other. The Modernists betrayed the historic gospel by touting what became known as the “social gospel”, which was in essence social activism without the gospel. Their most popular spokesperson was a man named Walter Rauschenbusch who insisted that the Christian’s goal is not “getting individuals into heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.” In effect, rather than allowing God to define what the kingdom of God is, or how it will be brought to bear on this world by Jesus, Rauschenbusch equated the kingdom of God with any social improvement that we can achieve through our own efforts. He stated quite emphatically: “It rests upon us to decide if a new era is to dawn in the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God.” (This is very different from the Biblical picture. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is wherever Jesus is king, and no one can see, let alone enter the kingdom, unless they experience a new birth through the power of the Holy Spirit.)
The Great Reversal
This neglect of the gospel by the Modernists led to a great betrayal, which in turn triggered a great reversal by the Fundamentalists. Christians who were committed to the historic Christian faith reacted to the social gospel by reversing course. Rather than pursuing a ministry of word and deed and committing themselves to proclaiming the gospel and doing justice, they doubled down on one to the exclusion of the other. These tragic missteps continue to plague the American church down to the present moment.
All Justice Is Social
In 1966, over 900 self-identified evangelicals from 71 different countries gathered at Wheaton College in order to hammer out a statement on how evangelism and social responsibility are related. Their document became known as the Wheaton Declaration. In part they state, “We reaffirm unreservedly the primacy of preaching the gospel to every creature, and we will demonstrate anew God’s concern for social justice and human welfare…We urge all evangelicals to stand openly and firmly for racial equality, human freedom, and all forms of social justice throughout the world.” Many traditional Christians have a knee jerk reaction to the term ‘social justice’ because they equate that term with Marxism. But words like ‘justice’ and ‘love’ are not self explanatory—they need to be defined. I am sure that there are some who use the term ‘social justice’ to refer to state control of the means of production and forced redistribution of wealth by the government, but that's not what the Bible says about justice. Let us be clear on that. And yet, from the Bible's point of view, all justice is social because it's about right relationships—first and foremost with God, and then secondarily with one another.
Where We Go From Here
It is critically important for us to understand this history or else we stand in danger of repeating it. Just as churches split at the turn of the last century over these debates, we fear that they may do so again if we are not careful. Therefore, churches today, including Central, must decide what kind of church they will be from this moment in history forward. Will we preserve what God has joined together or tear it asunder? Will we fall prey to a great betrayal or a great reversal or will we retrieve our great legacy? Will we proclaim the good news of the gospel while also doing justice? We have to try, knowing that Jesus can redeem even our worst mistakes.
Before we ever hear the anger in Jesus' voice towards religious hypocrisy or injustice, we need to see the tears in his eyes. At the end of Matthew 23, Jesus issues a lament over the city of Jerusalem because its inhabitants do not know the way of peace and human flourishing. He says, “‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
There will be a final day of reckoning when God will make all things right, and if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we could not stand up under the judgment. But Jesus provides a way out. On the cross, he has stretched out his arms so that he might gather us underneath the shelter of his wings. When the consuming fire of judgment rolls through, we can be assured that the flames will not touch us, if by faith, we have placed ourselves under the shelter that he provides. Through his work on the cross, he has done everything that is necessary in order to reconcile us in relationship to God so that we might be able to love God with all of our heart, mind and soul, and to love one another.
From “Jesus + Justice: The Eclipse of Justice”, adapted by Mary-Catherine McKee