This is a sermon I preached today (May 3, 2015). It’s entitled “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)” as inspired by the Bright Eyes song of the same name.
On April 12, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland, 25 year-old Freddie Gray is taken into police custody during which he suffers multiple injuries including a severed spine at the neck. Gray succumbed to his injuries on April 19, 2015 while comatose. Because cell phone video captured parts of Gray’s arrest, demonstrations and protests were made to raise awareness of police brutality and misconduct. However, these demonstrations deteriorated into riots which led to a heavily militarized police response. On May 1, 2015 charges were made against six officers involved with Gray’s arrest and death.
Okay, so I’ve keeping up with current events. So what? What’s the point of looking at these snapshots on a Sunday morning? Because today I want to talk about social justice and the Church because it’s relevant, it’s important, and I think (based on my experience) we don’t talk about it in the context of the Scriptures near as much as we should. I want to explore this morning why we as individual Christians, as a local church, and as a Universal Church should care about social justice. And I want to do it by exploring two main themes: The first is by briefly exploring church history, and the second is by briefly exploring some key passages of Scripture.
In turning our attention to church history, I feel it’s important for us to establish a starting point for our timeline and provide some background for some of the examples we’ll be discussing.
For many centuries the Roman Catholic Church held vast sway over the religious and political goings on throughout Europe until in 1517 one over-zealous German monk named Martin Luther pounded a page of conclusions and challenges on a door and thus began what is known as the Protestant Reformation. This reformation of Christianity gave rise to Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and many of the other traditions that we know today, including the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were a group of Christians who were highly persecuted during the 16th century by both the Catholic Church as well as other Protestant movements. So bad was the persecution that certain Anabaptist groups began mass emigrations to North America. These groups we now know fondly as tourist attractions, namely the Amish and the Mennonites.
Why were the persecuted? The name Anabaptist means “one who baptizes again.” They were persecuted because they held very strongly to a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words (especially the Sermon on the Mount), and that an individual should not be baptized until they were able to confess their own faith. This means that they would not baptize their infants, and if someone came to them and confessed faith, they would “re-baptize” that individual even if that person had already been baptized as an infant. Going back to their interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, though, it’s important to point out that they do not believe in the taking of oaths (meaning they won’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance because their first allegiance is to God (cf. Acts 5:29)). They are also pacifists and conscientious objectors believing that Jesus was serious in what he meant on the whole “turn the other cheek” idea in Matthew 5:38-42.
Whether we know it or not, there is much that contemporary Evangelicalism takes from the Anabaptist traditions, and there is much that we can still learn from them about being less American-minded Christians and more bibliocentric, Christo-centric Christians. What I mean by that is that as American Christians we often confuse what’s actually in the Bible with cultural and/or political opinions and traditions, and that becomes a dangerous thing because it blinds us to the truths that are actually held in the Scriptures. I’m going to come back to this point in a little bit, but for now, let’s move on to the next example that I picked out from church history.
There was a film released in 2006 entitled, Amazing Grace, and it told the story of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a parliamentarian in Britain during the 1800’s, and worked hard for the abolition of the slave trade in England. While there were certainly those individuals that weren’t Christians who were pushing for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, it seems that based upon my research, it was the Church and Christians who lead a big part of the charge on this issue. Charles Spurgeon, a British preacher, had some of his abolitionist sermons burned in America. John Wesley, another theologian and preacher was quite vocal about abolishing the slave trade. In America, the Quakers were quite active in the abolitionist movement, particularly a group in Germantown, Philadelphia.
These abolitionists argued from Scripture of our oneness as a human race, pointing back to our mutual Creator citing Acts 17:26 which says, “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth…” They also argued that part of our created nature was our right to freedom, and that by enslaving others we infringed on the natural rights of other humans. On this point John Wesley wrote, “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air. And no human can deprive him of that right, which he derives from the law of nature.” I think that Wesley is right on this point, and I would echo this quote by saying that no person or government can completely revoke the rights of an individual; they may be able to infringe the extent to which rights are exercised, but it remains from the very beginning of one’s life, incumbent upon the individual to seize their rights for themselves and act as if they really and truly a part of the very nature of one’s humanity. This is part of the goal of advocating for social justice: that we empower others to rise up and courageously join in overcoming the issues that we are fighting against.
One other argument that was depended upon by the abolitionists was arguing that the living out the Christian faith was seeking to produce benevolence for those “less fortunate” by considering another person’s point of view and experiences. This meant working to free African slaves in the physical and legal sense as well as working to share the gospel with them to provide them with freedom and joy in the spiritual sense. If you want a very clear example of this kind of logic, go read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It’s one of my favorite books, and it focuses very heavily on the idea of caring for others by bestowing benevolence upon them wherever you go and who ever you encounter.
Reading history can be deceiving, though, because what we read in a few short paragraphs actually encapsulates long days of hard work, months of heartache, and years of seemingly fruitless endeavors. The petitions, sermons, pamphlets, and conversations took a long time to have any real effect. These abolitionists were fighting against a popular mindset and lucrative institution that had stood as a staple social norm for at least a couple hundred years, but their determination and trust in what they were doing as morally right and thus necessary proved worthwhile as eventually both the slave trade and slavery were abolished in England and the United States.
Civil Rights Leaders in America
Our next and last stop is 1960’s America, during the height of the civil rights movement. This piece of history lays relatively fresh in our minds. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is possibly one of the most famous speeches given, and Luther as a person is heavily touted as one of, if not the, most influential leader of the civil rights movement. I bring up this example because while the civil rights movement may not belong to most of our racial history, it belongs to our shared American history, and it almost certainly, and I think more importantly, belongs to our Church history.
What stands out about Luther and the other clergy that lead the civil rights movement is that as a religious revival it sought to take lead from both the Anabaptists and the abolitionists I just talked about. Taking a page from the Anabaptists, the African American activists utilized non-violent, peaceful means of protesting a corrupt system that took no issue with using dramatic violence against them. Add on to that a tenacity that was exemplified by the abolitionists, and they did, in time make what most consider significant progress in the area of civil rights, but unlike slavery, there are still many glaring issues that have yet to be overcome. Regardless, the use of non-violent means and their tenacious spirit is what enabled the civil rights movement to be so powerfully effective. It showed that power does not come from a strong arm, but from a strong will and spirit. Even water errodes the hardest rock given enough time.
In switching gears from the theme of history to the theme of Scripture, it’s important to understand how interconnected the Bible is within itself, with historical culture, and with contemporary culture.
There’s something that Christians have in common with atheists and critics of the Bible: We hate the Old Testament Laws as much as they do. I mean, think about it. The Bible takes us from Creation to lies and murder, from there to a flood that killed literally everyone except one guy and his family. After that it’s family drama from Abraham to Jacob, and then we are introduced to Moses who experiences some pretty cool things like plagues, a compass of fire and smoke, a trek across the Red Sea, and then camping at the foot of a mountain surrounded by clouds and thunder. But then God starts talking to Moses, and it’s law after law after law. We start with solid intentions, and then we take that first deep sigh. Then our eyes glaze over, and then the battle is lost and we move on to another portion of more interesting Scripture. But we do ourselves a great disservice by doing so, because we miss so much of the Biblical narrative and why things unfold the way they do. We also miss some of the Bible’s strongest arguments for why we as Christians should be sensitive towards issues of social justice.
Part of our problem with the Old Testament Laws is that we forget their cultural context. We forget that they were intended for Israelites living in the Middle East in the BC, and that they are written with the kind of language that would make sense to someone living in that time and context. That causes us to miss the fact that these laws were given by God with the intent of establishing a society that was completely centered around and focused on Him. He was to be their King and Ruler, and they were to live as a special nation of people set apart as representatives of God. In light of that, the laws that God gives to Israel stand as a foundation for God’s ideal earthly nation in that time and place in history. Consider these following verses:
- “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless” (Ex. 22:22-24).
- “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate” (Ex. 22:25-27).
- “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lev. 19:9-10).
- “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:33-34).
What do these laws show us about the character of God? They show us that He is very much concerned with being honored and worshiped, but they also show us that He is very much concerned with being just and merciful and benevolent; that He understands that in human society there will be those that have and those that have not, and that part of our civic responsibility as members of the Kingdom of God is to care for those who may not be able to provide for themselves or their loved ones.
I mentioned earlier that the Anabaptists put heavy emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, and with little surprise, too, because it is one of the clearest sections of the of the Bible where we see that the Old Testament and the New Testament are not distinct, separate parts of the biblical narrative, showing us a new PR campaign by God, but rather we see that Jesus is bridging the gap between the story thus far and a wholly new and different ending than anyone could have imagined. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-20
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What we shouldn’t take away from this passage is that we need to start behaving like Jews and following the Torah. If you think that’s the case, go read the books of Romans and Galatians; the apostle Paul will set you straight. So, if that’s not what Jesus is getting at, then what? In the following verses in Matthew 5, Jesus takes examples from the Laws saying, “You have heard that it was said abc, but I say to you xyz.” Jesus takes the laws and says that it’s not enough for us to obey in word and deed only, but that the whole intent of the laws lies in our hearts and spirits. What matters more to God isn’t that you’re obeying every jot and tittle of the law, but that your heart and soul is laid prostrate before Him, and you are seeking benevolence for others not because you feel obligated to, but because you want to. And let’s not mix words, we are obligated to seek the best for our fellow men, but with the Holy Spirit, our new nature should seek it naturally and willingly. The New Testament is rife with this concept, too. Anywhere the Scripture talks about loving one another this is what is implied.
So, if this is true, how should it change the way we live? It should inspire us to do research and keep our ears to the ground. That research should inspire an opinion in us, and that opinion should push us toward action. Look for issues that capture your interest and passion. What’s something that you hear about in the news and really gets you worked up? I don’t have to tell you that there’s plenty of injustice in the world. For me, I get really worked up over police brutality and the militarization of the police. For you it could be taking care of the homeless, gender equality, racial equality, economic equality, modern slavery abroad, abortion, and on and on the list goes. But, whatever it is, let me make this abundantly clear to you: You need to have the right heart and mind for it, and you need to check yourself with the authority of the Scripture. Whatever means you undertake to seek benevolence for your fellow man, you need to make sure that you’re preaching a clear gospel of grace and truth that matches with the examples given in the Bible. The issues that we face as a society are less about racial differences or economic differences than they are about the fallen human condition. A condition for which there is only one solution: salvation by faith in Christ and an intentional life lived out seeking to love and serve others.
We as a Universal Church need to be mindful of social justice because we cannot depend on the worldly governments to take adequate care of the issues we face as individuals and as a society. In fact, there are a great many social injustices that are propagated directly by governments and indirectly by governments because through their attempts to fix issues they either create more problems or make pre-existing problems worse. To that point, a local church in a town or neighborhood has the potential to be infinitely more in touch with the needs of the people in their community than the state or federal governments. Our investment into issues of social justice is not only a clear directive in the Scriptures, but it stands as a means of preaching the gospel to our neighbors.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned specific ways of fixing issues. That’s because each issue may require a different strategy. An individual or a group may come up with a new or different strategy. It really depends. I will say that I think non-violent means of civil disobedience is a valid option in certain circumstances, but I don’t think that rioting and looting does anyone any good. At the same time, I don’t think that we should necessarily be surprised that a group of people will eventually react harshly or violently in the face of continued oppression.
With the Scriptures to guide us and centuries of Church history behind us as example, we need to care about and engage social justice issues. It’s so much more than issues of racism or feminism. It’s real, and it’s relevant, and it’s important, and it’s a part of how we build the Church and spread the gospel. The scandal of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion was that he held every opportunity and power in the palm of his hand to deal with Judas, to deal with the Jewish religious leaders, to deal with the Romans, to ultimately save himself from the agony and humiliation of the cross, but he didn’t. Why? Because of the scandal of the gospel that Jesus preached. The scandal of the gospel is that it is about redemption and restoration rather than revolution. It is about the process of taking what is and changing it into what should be. We need to wake up and take a stand against injustices even if (and especially if) they are rooted in social norms and traditions. We need to stand up and engage these issues with a tenacious, passionate love despite the seemingly fruitless endeavors, because we trust that opposing these things we are doing something that is morally right and necessary for the betterment of our current society and the legacy we leave for posterity.