Which is More Important: Social Justice or Faith?

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes. It doesn’t.

Historically, many African Americans disdained Paul’s Epistles in the Christian Bible because slave owners often selectively presented his writings to their illiterate slaves, quoting him out of context: crassly using religion to control their slaves.  Yet, most Theologians, including African American Theologians, would agree that Paul was committed-to a gospel of radical equality. Even so, some fault Paul for diluting his message in favor of expediency: for his retreating from his ideal of radical equality in the face of the dominant culture’s values. It is true that Paul allowed short term concerns to take precedence over the primary goals of his ministry and preaching. What some have overlooked is why he did so.

Some say that Paul lacked courage in his convictions; that the liberating ethics inherent in his theology are often set aside in favor of practical considerations. Yet, Paul clearly did not back down in the face of threats, even physical attack. If anything, he was more likely to confront such challenges head on. We have numerous examples of this, such as in Lyca where Paul went back into the city after being stoned (Acts 14:19-20); in Phillipi, where Paul and Silas revealed their Roman Citizenship only after being beaten and jailed (Acts 16:11-40); in Ephesus, where Paul had to be restrained by his followers from going into a murderously hostile crowd (Acts 19:30); in Jerusalem, where he addresses and re-incites a mob that had tried to kill him only a few moments before (Acts 21:31-22:29) and finally his imprisonment and eventual execution.

Paul was 100% devoted to his mission, which was to spread the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection by every conceivable means, driven to redeem as many people as possible before the Day of Judgment came. He had a sense of urgency: derived from his Apocalyptic Theology, which stated that the day of Christ’s return was imminent.

Paul was very clear that Christians must “hold firmly to the message I preached to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (I Corinthians 15:2-4). Earlier in the same epistle he says “I … become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:20-22). Finally, he said in Galatians that the Gospel proclaimed to him was a direct revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:11), and that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).

Clearly we see that, to Paul, the Gospel was more important than any earthly consideration. He was certain that securing a place in the Kingdom to come was far more important than any worldly goal. He was as flexible and approachable as he needed to be, even to the point of death, if it meant enabling a few more to be saved for Christ.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Paul, despite preaching a Gospel of radical equality of all humanity before Christ, had no problem with making accommodations so that a community of believers could survive within the oppressive and highly stratified culture surrounding them. What mattered to him was whether their faith was strong and pure.

Slavery was an inescapable fact of life in Paul’s time: it was a violation of his message that all are equal before the Lord. Yet, it was an issue of this world, not the next. Paul was not focused on trying to make the world better for its own sake, since he felt Christ’s return would soon reshape the world anyway; and since Christ’s return was soon, Paul was intent on reaching as many people for the Gospel as possible beforehand.

Being a slave is evil and wrong, and Paul certainly encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if they could (I Corinthians 7:21); but whether one is a slave (or not) is irrelevant to a person’s worth in the eyes of God. Paul would not have made any aspect of the issue of social justice central to his ministry since he would have seen any achievement in that area as, at best, a victory with only limited value in the face of Christ’s imminent return. Making it central to his ministry would have been a distraction from what he saw as his primary mission, which was to recruit as many into the Kingdom of God as possible in the short time left.

Where does this leave us in today’s world? Certainly, now that experience has taught us that Christ is unlikely to return any time soon, social justice issues should no longer be set aside in favor of winning over souls to Christ.

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes.   It doesn’t.

We no longer feel the urgency to “spread the Gospel” that Paul felt. It is also certainly true in this day and age that “spreading the Gospel” does not mean what it meant to Paul. Yet, Paul and I share a conviction, one he shares with us in his Epistle to the Romans, which is that none of us can achieve salvation through our own efforts, but only through Faith in God.

God’s infinite nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Therefore, and as I’ve said before, I find that I cannot condemn or dismiss the value of other faiths: they each have value in helping us to better understand God. Yet, even so, what matters first and foremost is that we have faith in God. I am convinced, based on what Paul and both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and traditions teach us, is that how we chose to express and act on our Faith is between us and God. These great Faiths, and others, teach us how to live as creatures of God, but the starting point always is, and always will be, our Faith in God.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Reflections on “The Prioress’s Tale”

Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

1280px-Cliffords_Tower_York_UK
Clifford’s Tower in York, England

I recently saw “The Prioress’s Tale,” an Operetta written by Delvyn Case as a retelling of Chaucer’s famous story.  The story as presented by Case describes a cultural clash between the Jewish and Christian residents of a medieval community.  While watching this tale unfold, I was struck by several thoughts…

First, I remembered an episode from my journeys as a student in England in 1983: One day, on a whim, I visited a tower built on a high mound just outside the walls of the city of York.  Now known as Clifford’s Tower, it stands on the site of a massacre that occurred in March 1190, when most of the Jews in York took refuge there, seeking to escape the riots that had erupted against many “outsider” groups as “Crusade Fever” swept through Western Europe.

I read a description at the site of what was found after the riots had ended: the tower’s courtyard was littered with corpses.  Surrounded and without hope of escape, the families had lain down together in the courtyard.  The fathers then killed their own children and wives before setting fire to the fortress and committing suicide beside the bodies of their loved ones; a very Masada-like scene.  Those who survived were later massacred by the mob that surrounded the burning tower.

I reflected that many of my ancestors came from Northern England.  Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that some of my own forebears were in that mob.  Yet, my family does not preserve any stories of that time or those events.  (Similarly, whites in the south are often unaware of the brutality their ancestors inflicted upon African American slaves.)  History likes to remember and celebrate the times when we were brave or victorious; but tends to forget the times when we were cruel, avaricious, or oppressive.

Second, I was struck by how everyone in the Operetta was seeking to do the best they could, despite the fear, loss and pain they were experiencing.  They realized their actions were wrong only after the fact, when it was too late to repair the damage.

We have all been in situations where our own actions, undertaken with what we thought were the best of motives, have resulted in harm to others.  So, we must avoid being cocky about being more “enlightened” than those who came before us.  I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30-32: “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors!”

Finally, in the mid 1990’s, I was a member of a church whose membership was mostly African American.  One Sunday, I was the target of a shocking act of racial prejudice.  After listening to me recount this a few days later, a friend of mine from the church said “…what that teenage girl did was wrong, but you need to understand, you’re white: if you experience discrimination, you can always walk out the door and never have to deal with it again.”  She paused and then added: “I can never leave my skin.”

The two lead characters in this production were in exactly the same positions as “that teenage girl” and me: she lashed out in fear and anger because of what I represented to her, not because of what I’d done.  I learned from this that I may never fully understand what it means to be the target of discrimination.  I can empathize, I can work to promote understanding, but I am limited in what I can achieve because I am not a member (at least, not yet) of a group that experiences such things every day.

Does this mean I should ignore that discrimination and prejudice exist?  No. Should I wallow in guilt and remorse because of my own past actions, or those of my ancestors?  No.  Should I try and remold myself so that I will never offend or oppress another person in such ways?  No!

I’ve come to believe, as a speaker said after the performance, that we need to respect and celebrate our differences.  Our differences make the world a place of vibrant colors.  Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

Text is copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).