June 26, 2007
Justice-ified by Faith
Preventing social justice from becoming just another program in the church.
Recently we discussed Scot McKnight's belief that the gospel typically preached by evangelicals is too individualistic, and how it actually makes the church an unnecessary part of following Christ. David Fitch, pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois and a professor at Northern Seminary, shares McKnight's perspective, and in this post he reflects on how an individualistic gospel makes our attempts at social justice a peripheral program of the church rather than an integrated part of our faith.
When we pastors think about leading God's justice in the church, our first inclination is to organize a ministry. It could be a soup kitchen or an outreach event to the poor "down in the city". Sometimes we will find ways to become active in policy making on the local or national governmental level. We are tempted to make justice into another program of the church.
If we are to avoid turning justice into merely a church program we must first resist the urge to make salvation "about me." Evangelicals (of which I am one) often describe salvation as a personal relationship with God. It is intensely individual. In Christ I am justified before God as an individual. And then, after being justified through faith in Christ, I pursue a personal daily relationship with God as well as personal holiness and then of course (if we get to it) social justice. It is an add-on. In this way we split personal salvation and social justice.
It is this split which allows us to essentially turn social justice into a program. Yet imagine what it would be like in our churches if there were no such division. If we were not invited to go forward as individuals to receive a packaged salvation from God that gets us out of hell, but instead came forward to become part of what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ - the reconciliation of all men and women with Himself, each other and all of creation (2 Cor 5:19), which BTW inextricably must still include my own personal reconciliation/relationship with God.
There are two theological culprits that make possible this separation of personal from social salvation. The first is a narrow "penal" view of the atonement. The forensic penal view of the atonement defines the work of the cross in terms of Christ paying a penalty for my sin whereby I no longer am held liable for the just penalty of death for my sin. I have no desire to get rid of the substitutionary view of the atonement but there are many rich understandings of how Christ's sacrifice satisfied God's wrath within the ancient history of the church that avoid the potential to commodify (make available as a transaction) what Christ did on the cross. I think we should mine these resources.
I also think we should adhere more closely to the Christus Victor (Gustaf Aulen) and Classical Views of the atonement where Jesus is seen as the Victor, the King, the one who has defeated sin, death, and evil and now reigns in anticipation of the Final Kingdom of God. For here we cannot possibly receive salvation and enter into a relationship with Jesus as victorious Lord without participating in the victory of God and the Reign of Christ over sin, death, and evil. Here personal and social are so entwined we cannot distinguish them.
The second theological culprit is the Pauline doctrine of "justification by faith." Because here justification is often presented in terms of the individual standing alone before God receiving pardon by faith. I think we should pay heed to some broader understandings of what the apostle Paul means when he describes "justification by faith." In this regard, I believe the "new perspective on Paul" can help us. I am not in total agreement with all this literature, but I believe that Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and NT Wright have all helped us see that Paul's doctrine of justification by faith was not about the individual's battle to be good through self-effort through the law. Rather Paul's' doctrine was an argument against the exclusion of the Gentiles from salvation apart from becoming a Jew.
For the Jews of Paul's day, the law was the covenantal badge for being a member of the people of God. Paul claims that marker is now changed in Christ. The badge is now justification by faith as entrance into a new righteousness won by God thru the person and work of Jesus Christ. And so for Paul justification is not about relieving the individual Jew's guilty conscience (ala Martin Luther) who is always striving to maintain the standard of God's law. It is about the establishment of a new righteousness of God among a new people through Christ. This righteousness (justice) is both a vertical reconciliation with God as well as a horizontal reconciliation of all humanity and creation.
Once we see justification in this light it cannot be separated from being part of the new justice/righteousness God is working in the world. As a non-individualist (American) reading of 2 Cor 5: 17ff proclaims, "For anyone united in Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has gone, a new order has already begun. (REV). We have entered into the marvelous world of God reconciling all things to himself (vs.18) that we might become the righteousness (justice) of God (vs. 21).
If we are to resist the urge to make justice into another church program, then we must overturn this split between the personal and the social. We must go from preaching "accept Christ as your personal savior" to "you are invited to enter a relationship with God through Christ that changes everything". We must go from being justified, to being justice-ified. Justice should no longer be something we do, but who we are.