Christianity and Social Activism

In this post I’d like to briefly offer up a framework for Christian Activists. Many of us grew up in churches directly involved in matters of social justice, but others have grown up in ones that rarely, if ever, stress any sort of action to benefit the world or get involved with anything directed toward the world except for evangelism or the occasional volunteer in a soup kitchen. Yet, as we all are aware, our world could be much better than it currently is (a realization shared among those irrespective of religious faith). While we are likely to disagree individually on specific programs and the relative importance of particular causes, I think Christians can, and should, share a healthy outlook on what their faith means for the transformation of the world.

I’m going to be up front about two ways I think Christians have historically failed at the cause of social justice. Most prominently, it has often been the case – perhaps even usually the case – that Christianity has been used to justify all sorts of terrible practices and policies. From genocides, Crusades, and slavery, to imperialism, monarchical governmental rule, and the Inquisition, it is sadly much too easy to discover Christianity put to the use of oppressive ends. For instance, Christians have used the idea of a singular, all powerful divine rule to justify the sorts of human models that found expression in the Roman empire, and later in the imperial rulers of the early modern age. Christians have used an appeal to religious law to reduce people of other faiths to semi-humans, forbid religious freedom, and justify gender subordination for the larger part of Christian history. Christians have, in large numbers, attempted to sustain the status quo at all costs due to the belief that social structures were established by God’s providence, and should therefore not be changed. Though these terrible things happened in the name of Christ (and we should emphasize that trying to force everyone to adhere to “biblical” principles or laws falls into that list), it was often the case that there were those in each generation who cried out against such practices – who also, yet for the opposite effect, found in Christianity a liberating spirit of human equality and freedom.

Secondly, I think it’s an error for Christians to think they are to remove themselves from the world. For some reason, we have often thought it our duty to form an enclave, totally leaving the world to its own destruction. Whether expressed as forming an alternative community, or merely one which attempts to rid ourselves of all worldly influence, I think it is too easy to forget that the Church exists for the sake of the world. God’s grace is active in the present, empowering Christians to transform the world around them for the better. We should join the Spirit’s working in the world around us, participating in God’s redemptive activity – one not limited to convincing people about after-death destinations!

For the above reasons, which of course deserve further elaboration, I think it’s absolutely imperative to living the Christian life that churches become actively engaged in transforming their communities. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to expend effort to promote social justice and equitable relations of mutual benefit as we minister God’s mercy and love to everyone around us. Just as in our own Christian sanctification, wherein we should be repenting of sin and aiming for our lives to adhere to God’s will, God wants the world to be aligned with God’s intentions for its loving transformation.

changeIn ever growing conformity to God – who is completely perfect! – our individual selves and our communities have the potential to exhibit Christ-like characteristics. The current set-up of society can always be improved because it is never perfect. No matter how close we think it may be to the best we can do, God’s grace always provides the potential for its betterment. The perfection of God’s kingdom means in this area that we can always make the world a better place, regardless of the fruits of our effort up to the present. Striving toward conformity to God, we will never make our own lives and world as good as they could be with God’s help. In other words, because the target we aim for is conformity with the perfection of God, we are never able to say that we have reached the goal – the finite, sinful character of our world precludes such a proclamation that we have already arrived.

This positive feature of a Christian framework for social activism also prevents us from being proud or boastful. Our efforts are never final, and we can therefore never say that even the Church itself is what it should be let alone the world of which we are a part. Moreover, realizing the often sin-stained nature of even our best efforts to love others should cause us pause when lifting up our own efforts in praise. Instead of arrogantly assuming that we can do no wrong, we need to be especially self-reflective of our own efforts. Christians have no singular means prescribed for their ends, so we can be flexible enough when it becomes obvious our strategies are not quite working. In attempting to make the world a better place, it may be the case that we don’t achieve anything worthwhile, or worse yet, that we do more harm than good. These possibilities, however, should not lead us to refrain from trying, for God’s grace is always available to fall back upon – and more significantly, God is able to make up the difference when we fail.

As Christians, our finite capacities to change the world are never final because we have hope, confidence really, that God can make the most out of our sincere efforts, or when they completely fail, that God can at least pour out more grace to empower further attempts. If our efforts are never final, neither are our failures. As such, our activism is done under God – who both empowers us to make the world a better place, and who is ultimately responsible for any positive change that occurs.

I’ve already hinted that Christians should be rather flexible with the means they use, and that the variety of causes one could take up are quite broad, partly due to the massive difference between how the world is now and how it could be. However, I do think there is at least one underlying goal that should reach into the contours of all of our efforts, strategies, and goals. In Christ, God directs love toward all people, for the world’s collective benefit. God is redeeming the world to Godself, and this underlies all of the more specific activities of redemption. God’s concern for all, therefore, should be mirrored in our own quest to make the world a better place for all. We should be especially cognizant of causes to take up that would result in universal benevolence, rather than only helping a few at the expense of others. Likewise, it is our Christian duty to remove the barriers others have set up to hold people down – the negative corollary of the positive duty just mentioned. We should be attempting to set up societal relations of mutual benefit, just as God’s own mission to the world involves its total transformation and benefit.

While the specifics of such a goal can be altered and diverse, it is likely an important reminder to keep in mind throughout all of our efforts. As Christians, the love we receive from God is most certainly not to be hoarded, but shared with all of those around us – love that has material consequences in addition to its spiritual effects. United with God in Christ, our love can never run out, but should abundantly overflow, just like God’s own grace, to all of those around us. For these reasons, we can hope that the world can be a better place for everyone, transformed by our own efforts undertaken along with God’s help and ever-present grace.

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