Can We Preach Social Justice?
Last year was no doubt one for the history books. In our country, among the vast number of events and topics that were at the forefront of society last year, the conversation of racial injustice quickly became one of the leading topics of discussion. Because of this rise in the awareness of the position of racial injustice here in the United States, pastors were forced to engage their parishioners with the topic of social justice. Some pastors chose to embrace the idea of informing their church on social justice, and some have tried to act as if it is something that does not need to be talked about. For the pastors that embraced the idea of informing their churches, some have chosen to say that the church should be at the forefront of the work of current social justice, some have said that the current social justice movement is pagan and should be avoided at all costs, and others found themselves somewhere in between. In light of this, and because we at Northwest University are preparing current and future ministers for work in the church, it’s important to ask the question, “Can one actually preach social justice?”
First, we should define the term. A basic definition from dictionary.com describes social justice as the “fair treatment of all people in a society, including respect for the rights of minorities and equitable distribution of resources among members of a community.” William H. Young, a former assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy, defines social justice in his article Academic Social Science and Social Justice as the “state redistribution of advantages and resources to disadvantaged groups to satisfy their rights to social and economic equality.”
Many with a Christian worldview might deem the first definition as biblical, and some would go as far as to say that the “distribution of resources among members of a community” is seen as a practice within the early New Testament (Acts 4:32). When it comes to Young’s definition, the Christian community would likely embrace the idea of seeing and even providing for disadvantaged groups as it pertains to their rights to social and economic equality. Where it gets rocky is the idea of “equitable distribution” and “state redistribution.” These two ideas are what make social justice what it is in our culture today. The fight for social justice in American culture currently is indeed a fight for the rights of minority and marginalized groups with a high priority on giving them resources to satisfy their rights to social and economic equality, but the focus is on governmental change in order to aid the mission of the ideology.
Social justice is a very political term, even if not all of its practices are political. It is used to promote the political agenda of seeing the equality of all people. Today’s social justice advocates are more concerned about the wealth distribution equally affecting everyone regardless of class, and they want the government to enforce such a system. This is why many moderate and conservative Christians have chosen to approach the topic and practice of social justice with caution or to not interact with it at all. For the pastor, running away from the subject is not a part of the job; actually, pastors are called to engage the culture and speak to the people about how the biblical text affects these cultural topics. One of the best ways to do this is through the preaching of God’s Word.
In the New Testament, Paul told his protégé, Timothy, to “preach the Word,” an imperative that includes both the proclamation and explanation of Scripture. For Timothy, it was life-changing because of what the statement of preaching the Word taught him about himself and what he was called to do. The phrase “preach the Word” was political, believe it or not. The person who originated this phrase was a messenger sent by a king to share what he, the king, wanted to say to the people. The famous preacher H.B. Charles, in his book On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching, said that, “If the king had a message to get out, he couldn’t just call a press conference and have all the news media publish or broadcast his remarks. He would dispatch [this person] to deliver his message to his people.” The people would listen to the messenger that was speaking on behalf of the king and know that what this person was saying was authoritative.
This is the pastor’s duty today in the pulpit. He or she is called to be the messenger speaking on behalf of God to bring forth His Word, and in the exposition of that, there are things that the Bible clearly says that impacts cultural topics: social justice is one of them. Pastors are the leading voice in showing how the Word relates to the call of taking care of our marginalized and disadvantaged communities. We all might define who the marginalized or disadvantaged are differently, but we cannot deny that some are marginalized and/or disadvantaged. So, with that, can we preach the idea of social justice?
While the preacher should take caution to not let political terms like social justice become the sole center of ministry, he or she should not run from some of the aspects it teaches. While taking into consideration the social justice movement, the preacher should stick to preaching the Word, being reminded that with preaching the Word, he or she will come across ideas that the Bible teaches that affirm some of the aspects of social justice. One’s duty is to stay true to the text and be the speaker on behalf of the King. In a culture like ours where there is civil unrest, the pastor might be led to engage texts that deal with such issues, and in that sense, the pastor is called to preach the Word where one's responsibility to "social justice" might be preached.
Charles, H.B. On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014.
Young, William H. “Academic Social Science and Social Justice.” National Association of Scholars. National Association of Scholars, August 28, 28AD. https://www.nas.org/blogs/article/academic_social_science_and_social_justice.