Social safety nets have long been a staple for the poor and underprivileged in this country. Falling on hard times in America used to mean rescue and recovery thanks to welfare from the government, assistance from local churches, and distributions from non-profit organizations. However, with shrinkage in local, state, and federal government dollars, and leaner contributions to non-profit groups, the spotlight now shines on the church.
With so many in need, is the church capable of mounting an offensive in the battle for social justice? Is there a divine imperative for the church to do so?
Among members of some conservative faith communities the answer to either question is a resounding no. There appears to be a growing belief that the church should remain aloof from the issues of social justice in this world. Since this world is not our home, we live with the kingdom in mind. However, in truth, some of us have become so heavenly minded we are no earthly good. So we no longer feel any obligation to be our “brothers’ keeper.” Additionally, an increasing number of the faithful no longer believe the church is a viable solution to social injustice, a belief that stands contrary to the words of Jesus.
In Matthew 26:11, Jesus offers a snapshot of His thoughts on the issues of social justice: “For you have the poor with you always. . .” What we have in His word is evidence of heaven’s awareness of those who are confronted by the daily inability to meet even the most basic needs of life. But, not just in His day; in ours as well.
You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.
Interestingly, the disciples would not have found anything new in what Jesus had to say. He merely offered a restatement of Deuteronomy 15. While the admonitions of the entire chapter are eye opening, we find the words of verse eleven most telling: “For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore, I command you, saying, you shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.”
Jesus virtually cries out for the need of social justice throughout the history of mankind. So, if the poor shall be with us always, what should the church’s response be to the needs of the poor, disenfranchised, hungry, homeless, naked, unemployed, abused, mistreated, or otherwise disadvantaged among us?
Americans are increasingly losing faith in the ability of the church to act in the struggle for social justice. This conclusion is drawn from the results of a July 2016 Pew Research Center study. Fifty-eight percent of respondents told Pew they believe religious institutions contribute some (38%) or a great deal (19%) to solving social ills. At just under 60% the numbers indicate that overall the percentage has declined dramatically in recent years, down from 75% in 2001.
Jeremiah 22:3 counsels, “Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”
Additional marching orders are included in Psalm 82:3, 4, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; free them from the hand of the wicked.”
The words of Acts 2:44, 45 would be shocking, and seem down right socialistic to many conservatives in the church: “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. . .”
In the struggle for social justice, the question may rightly be raised: What will the church do to alleviate poverty and hardship? As usual, the perfect response is found in the words of Jesus. We read in Matthew 25:34-36, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”
The call to discipleship is the call to engage in the struggle for social justice. For those who answer the call there shall be a commendation of “well done.” Their reward, the result of faith, recognizing that to be about the Father’s business is to be their brother’s, and sister’s keeper.