Social Justice and the Gospel

I wanted to write a few comments on the the issue of social justice. Just recently, Albert Mohler and Jim Wallis engaged in a debate on the issue of social justice. I don’t know when or if the debate will be available, but I have seen several of my friends who have become interested in this issue. I even know people who were once solid evangelicals who have turned liberal largely over this issue.

The issue is generally framed in this way. The left will generally say something like, “You have all of these poor people who just keep getting poorer, and all of these rich people who just keep getting richer. The rich need to pay their fair share, and thus, we should tax them so that we can give government handouts to help the poor.” You also have many people on the right saying that the poor don’t want to work for their money, are lazy, and don’t want to work. They want the government to get out of politics so that the rich will be better able to create jobs both through purchases as well as through making and hiring businesses.

I would like to, first of all, say that I am concerned that the question is being framed in the wrong light. I think it is true that there are many poor people who are on food stamps, and yet have a big screen television, fancy clothing, and the latest I-pod technology. However, I am also certain that there are people who are dirt poor, even though they have done everything they can to find work. I also am sure that there are rich people who are likewise immoral, and think only about themselves and their money.

In fact, I was reading in this text from Jeremiah, and it clearly condemns a lack of justice:

Jeremiah 2:34-35 Also, in your hands is found the blood of poor and innocent souls. I have not found them in burglary. For concerning all these things you have said, “I am innocent; truly his anger is turned from me.” Behold, I am entering into judgment with you because of your words, “I have not sinned.”

The problem is that this is only part of the picture. For example, the passage goes on to say:

Jeremiah 2:36-37 Moreover, why do you so easily change your way? Will you be shamed by Egypt just as the shame from Assyria? Also, from this place you will go out and your hands will be upon your head; for the Lord has rejected those in whom you trust. You will not prosper under them.

What I find interesting is that Jeremiah immediately goes and condemns trusting in the governments such as Assyria and Egypt. They will not deliver them from God’s impending wrath. One might say, “Okay, but clearly God’s wrath is against them for not providing social justice; doesn’t that count for something?”

The difficulty is that Jeremiah’s diagnosis of the problem is not that simple. What follows in chapter 3 is a discourse about the idolatries of Judah in the form of the imagery of adultery and harlotry. This is made clear in 3:9 when it is said that Judah committed adultery with stone and trees. Jeremiah even says that the kingdom of Israel was far better then the treacherous Judah [3:11]. It is an interesting picture. In dealing with the nature of the problem, Jeremiah discusses the idolatry of his people. Also, this is clearly implicit in the solution given as well:

Jeremiah 3:22-25 Return, O apostate sons, and I will heal your apostasies. “Behold, we are coming to you, for you are the Lord our God. Surely hills, wildness, and mountains are deceptive; surely the salvation of Israel is with the Lord our God! Shame has eaten the toil of our fathers from our youth: their flocks, their cattle, their sons, and their daughters. Let us lie down in our shame, and let our reproach cover us; for we have sinned against the Lord our God as well as our fathers until this day, and we have not obeyed the Lord our God.

Very clearly, Jeremiah states that the Lord is the salvation of Israel. It is returning to the Lord that is clearly at issue in Jeremiah, both in terms of solving the problem of social justice as well as idolatry. However, the solution doesn’t stop here; it continues to Jeremiah 4:

Jeremiah 4:1-4 If you return, O Israel, then return to me, utters the Lord, and if you turn aside your detestable things from my presence, and do not wander, and swear as the Lord lives in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness, then the nations will be blessed in him, and in him will they glory. For thus says the Lord to each man of Judah and Jerusalem, “Till for yourselves fallow ground, and do not sew thorn-bushes. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and remove the foreskin of your heart, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest my anger goes forth like fire and consumes, and there is nothing to extinguish it before the wickedness of your works.

It is also interesting that Jeremiah gives, as the solution to this problem returning to the Lord He also gives as a solution the circumcision of the heart, which the apostle Paul very clearly identifies as regeneration.

A couple of observations concerning what we have talked about so far. First, Jeremiah acknowledges that a lack of justice is clearly a problem. However, where Jeremiah goes with the solution is much different then where the left goes with it. Jeremiah notes that the problem is deeply rooted in the idolatry of the heart, the serving of other gods, and the trusting in foreign governments to keep them from wrath of God against their sin. Jeremiah gives to solutions to this problem. The first is that they return to God, and the second is that they circumcise the foreskin of their hearts, and are given a new heart.

The reason I believe this is relevant to the whole issue of social justice is because I believe that we are looking for the solution in all of the wrong places. As I said, there are problems of poor people not wanting to work, and rich people not helping those in need. However, these problems cannot be changed simply by high taxes on the rich. For one thing, just because someone isn’t using their money in a way you think is right does not give you the right to take it from them. I might have a hundred thousand rubies that are exactly the same, and yet, refuse to give it to someone who doesn’t have a ruby. Now, you can say that I wouldn’t miss one ruby because I already have a hundred thousand, but would it be right for you to take a ruby and give it to that person simply because I think I am being stingy with my rubies? No, it would be called “theft.” The first problem with taxing the rich to take their money simply because they are rich is that it violates the eighth commandment, “Thou shall not steal” [Exodus 20:15]. Whether we like what someone does with their money or not, we cannot steal it from them out of envy, and use it in the way we think it should be used.

For another thing, Jeremiah points us to a solution that is at the root of all forms of greed, whether it be the poor who don’t want to work, or the rich who don’t want to help those in need, and that is that it is a problem of the idolatry of the uncircumcised heart. The problem with having the government tax people is that this will not solve the problem, because the problem is an issue of the heart of man, something which no government taxes can change. You see, once the rich people get into office, the whole plan will be turned on its head. In a system like this, it is always who has the might has the right.

However, worse than and related to that, I think that going to government taxes is trading one idolatry for another idolatry. It is trading the idolatry of money for the idolatry of the state. That is why God declares to his people in Jeremiah 4:1 that if they are to return, they are to return to him. The problem is that the kind of social justice that is put forward by the left posits a return, but it is a return to another idol-the idol of the government and the state. We have already seen that there are many problems with this line of reasoning in that who has the right all depends on who has the might. However, it is worse than that. First of all, I have, indeed, seen poor people who live on food stamps, and yet have all of the finest televisions, computers, I-pods, clothes and jewelry money can buy. How can the government avoid allowing this to happen in its quest to rid the world of poverty? This is simply another kind of greed. Also, given the Biblical teaching of the fall and the sinfulness of humanity, what assurance do we have that the government will not abuse this power, and make it a sin to be rich? What will happen if someone works hard in order to build up money for his family only to have it taken away simply because he has more money than the poor person living next door who is simply living of the government?

I think that what is really going on here is that we have three different idols: the idols of personal peace, affluence, and the state. Many times it is a mixture of several. For example, people will be more than happy to trust in the government to steal from rich people all so they can continue to have their things, and be left alone in their self-centeredness. Also, yes, it can come from the fact that the rich only care about their personal peace and safety, and don’t care about the person sitting next to them. Also, simply seeing the problem of poverty, and trusting in the government to solve that problem all so you don’t have to deal with the hurt and the pain that comes from that situation. It is much easier to give the government the ability to play God and create “social justice.”

Francis Schaeffer did a series of television programs called How Shall We Then Live?, and it seems like these programs are incredibly prophetic. I would invite you to listen to these programs when you get a chance, as they relate directly to this topic:

One of the things that Schaeffer says in these videos is that poverty and inflation are actually pressures that are pressing against the idols of personal peace and affluence. The problem is, as we have seen, when you run to the government to deal with these problems, the government simply is not big enough to deal with these problems. For example, one can consider that, even if one were to tax the rich, many of them could still get out of it by tax evasion. Then, in order to avoid that, more authoritarianism and control would have to be applied by the government with stricter and stricter regulations. Very quickly, in order to preserve our personal peace and affluence, we find ourselves in a manipulative, authoritarian government, who is manipulative and authoritarian simply because it cannot deal with the issue of wickedness of the human heart. At that point, our idols of personal peace and affluence will crush under the weight of these problems. Humanism simply does not last long with these kinds of pressures piling upon it.

The only real solution to these problems is to return to the Christian base and foundation as found in the Bible. The Christian message offers, not a message of authoritarianism, but a message of transformation of the heart such that people will desire to obey what God has said. In the Christian life form, there is then a basis upon which to judge, not only the greedy rich person, not only the “poor” person with affluence simply given to them by the government, but also to judge the government when it steals, and when it abuses its God given authority. Thus, Christianity with its gospel which transforms the heart can withstand these pressures, while the idols of government, personal peace, and affluence cannot and will not.

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