Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Cross and Social Mercy, Pt. 1 - Social Justice or Social Mercy?

I am not the only one troubled by the following two truths:

(1) 35,000 children die every day in this world from starvation and preventable diseases. The HIV virus threatens to be an actual pandemic in Africa. Two billion people in the world live on less than 2 dollars a day. And so on. You've all heard the statistics. Hopefully they trouble you too.

(2) While more and more evangelicals are awakening to these miserable realities, there is a large group especially in the Reformed community that reacts against this evangelical awakening. These folks have reasonable concerns, but in general I think they are wrong. I'll explore some of that in detail later.

It is with these two truths in mind that I am starting this series on how a right theology of the cross will lead Christians to passionately pursue what we commonly call "social justice" ministry.

But we shouldn't call it that. What we should call it is "social mercy" ministry. Here's why:

"Justice" is a term the Bible usually uses for the faithfulness that He exhibits and His people often fail to exhibit in keeping His laws. That's why it is often paired with words like "righteousness" (Gen. 18:19), it is what we do when we refuse to accept bribes (Ex. 23:2; Deut. 16:19; 1 Sam. 8:3), and it is what God enacts when He punishes sinners (Job 8:3) or maintains by punishing Christ in their place (Rom. 3:21-25).

It is harder to pin down a consistent biblical definition of "mercy", but let's borrow Grudem's definition of it as an attribute of God: "God's goodness toward those in misery and distress." Compare this with God's grace, which Grudem defines as "God's goodness toward those who deserve only punishment." It is frankly impossible to argue that the Bible maintains such precise definitions of these two terms. It doesn't. These are merely helpful ways of categorizing two truths about God that are indeed biblical. The language is just meant to organize our thinking.

In any case, we should always recognize that words (biblical or otherwise) have ranges of meaning rather than some fixed dictionary definition. That's why there are multiple dictionaries, multiple definitions for words, and why dictionaries are always being updated, expanded, and even contracted--words just don't have fixed, inflexible meanings. A perfect illustration is my paragraph about "justice" above: there are multiple uses of the word in just those few examples.

In any case, "social justice" is not necessarily a helpful term because it suggests that the poverty that it aims to eradicate is always caused by injustice, which is debatable at best. The better way to talk about it is "social mercy". So that's the term I'm going to use. It's not the biggest deal in the world, and most of us know what each other means as we use the term "social justice", but I figured I ought to explain why I'm using the term I am.

The next post in this series will begin to argue that the cross demands that the church practice social mercy. I'm looking forward to the interactions we'll have about this massively important topic.


Highanddry said...

I'd like to know how you can say that 'injustice' is not at the heart of the world's needs. To deny this fact would seem to abdicate the proper responsibility of the wealthy (computer owning) people and our complicity in the injustices of the world.

Andrew Faris said...

I knew that was going to happen: you jumped way, way ahead.

So are you arguing that all poverty is because of rich white people and their computers?


dac said...

I look forward to the rest of the posts -

Ian Clausen said...

If you accept the definition, as I do, that in the cross of Christ God's mercy and God's justice converge, leaving aside any sustained explication of what that means, then how might you Christianly maintain the neat bifurcation of mercy and justice in ethical deliberation?

That's the abstract question. Now for your response to Highanddry. I doubt anyone would reduce matters of injustice to possession of electronic equipment. Yet such examples are almost always meant to be instructive of larger social structures that either directly or indirectly promote injustice. In that sense, I have to disagree initially with your reaching for mercy instead of justice to describe Christian social action. Indeed, mercy is often (though not exclusively) understood to pertain to the spontaneous act of providing for one's immediate needs, whereas justice entails (among other things) judgement about what is to be done, which can be characterised as merciful or, simply, as necessary and due. So I may reconsider, for example, my use of the computer right now, and come to a decision on whether its possession and use promote certain forms of injustice (obviously, I do not, or not enough to concede the computer). That's participating in social justice, which is a broad concept entailing many facets. I'm not sure, then, why mercy should supplant that term in our social ethics. It seems to restrict our view to individual acts of justice without illuminating all that justice demands and entails.

More to be said, but that's my two cents for now.

Highanddry said...

My attempt at blog humour has come off as being unhelpfully glib for which I apologise.

My question is in regards to the suggestion that poverty's link to injustice is only debatable at best. Poverty (imho) is always at its root linked with inequity, power, resources and so on, and as such, necessarily stems from injustice.

Charlie said...

I like the phrase "social mercy" for the range of ministry ideas that it brings to mind. It's also quite true that the phrase "social justice" has a lot of historical baggage attached and has been co-opted by liberal churches who primarily see it in terms of giving marginalized people political power.

It's also questionable to me whether justice is an achievable goal in our broken world, though I think the Scriptures nevertheless call us to work for and live out justice to the extent that we have the power to do so.

Good start. I'll look forward to what you have to say.

HomeBuilding Team said...

Similar to Charlie...

We are called to live justly and mercifully for sure. But I don't necessarily think one of our goals is to eliminate injustice and suffering. I wonder how this idea connects with the recent book the blogs were talking about (by Hunter?)where "faithful presence" is the advocated way for Christians to interact with culture?

Steve Hayes said...

I am reminded of something once said, or said to have been said by Dietrich bonhoeffer: "When a madman is driving through the streats running people over, it is not enough to follow in an ambulance picking up his victims. I should do all in my power to stop him driving at all. This is not to say that all poverty is caused by injustice, but a great deal of it is.

greenyuppie said...

There can be no justice until we rid ourselves of the passive voice and needless syntactical manuevering. :)

But more seriously, I look forward to the next post... which since I'm reading backlog, may very well exist.