From Social Action to Social Justice

“Your God has had plenty to say to the Church in the last few decades, but very little, if anything at all, to say to the nation as a whole,” commented an agnostic contact of mine from one of the national broadsheets. “He’s got a serious case of verbal diarrhoea when it comes to his chosen flock. He just can’t stop complimenting you. You’re eagles soaring in blue skies, fruitful trees planted by free-flowing rivers and mighty warriors anointed for battle.

But when it comes to the rest of society he's been struck dumb. He’s lost his nerve or lost his interest.”
Where has the public, social dimension of prophecy gone? Where are the political teeth that led the Old Testament prophets to declare to a nation, “If you don’t change you are going to end up with one ‘hell’ of a society”? The Church has privatised prophecy, leaving a ‘nice’ God saying ‘nice’ things to ‘nice’ people. It’s high time the Church regained its prophetic edge.

It ’s not that we aren’t committed. For most churches the long struggle to reconcile social action to the gospel has finally been resolved. Individual Christians and whole churches, the length and breadth of the country, are meeting the needs of the communities in which they live, demonstrating and communicating God’s love and compassion to the sick, the lonely, the poor, the unemployed and the disenfranchised. But the truth is, all this hard work, helpful as it is, just isn’t enough. The challenge now is to reconcile social justice with the gospel – or in other words, to reconnect the problems with their causes. Too often we have ended up merely treating the symptoms of social degradation instead of working to eliminate the causes, sticking on plasters to cover wounds, many of which could be prevented in the first place. We’re picking up the pieces of broken lives instead of preventing the fall. This can’t continue. It’s time for the Church to work for social justice; it’s time for the Church to get political!

But why does this proposition strike fear into the hearts of so many Christians? The Church is only just beginning to find its feet again after its disastrous response to the on surge of Modernity. The liberal agenda of politicising the Kingdom of God first advocated by Walter Rauschenbusch in the 19th century became a dominant force for much of the 20th. The Social Gospel, as it was known, stripped all the mystery and the miraculous from the Christian message in a misguided attempt to try and make it palatable to the masses. Meanwhile, fearful for the soul of the individual the Evangelical Church reacted violently against this ‘modernising’ by doggedly preaching a message of personal spiritual transformation and reconciliation with God. For them political and social involvement became at very best an unfortunate side issue, but for the most part a massive distraction from their real task. ‘Leave social care to the social services and let the Church get on with saving souls’ was their cry. However, this polarisation was not only unnecessary; it was deeply damaging and rendered both wings of the Church increasingly irrelevant as the 20th century wore on.

Today the deep chasm caused by this false dichotomy is slowly beginning to be bridged. On the one hand the shallow message and spiritual bankruptcy of the ‘Social Gospel’ has been largely recognised, but on the other so-to has the rigidity and narrowness of a ‘doctrinally pure’ but socially impotent evangelicalism. We are slowly coming to awareness that the Kingdom of God has political and personal, corporate and individual dimensions and that we do not have to live in an either/or situation. John Stott and Tony Campolo have both suggested that while it may be true that the Church is called to mirror the Samaritan and carry our injured neighbour (Luke 10:25-37), we have an equal responsibility to ensure that the underlying issues that lead to such injuries are also dealt with. To put it simply, authentically biblical faith calls us to address the system that causes the symptoms.

The Danger of Dualism

The Bible flatly contradicts any idea of a sacred/secular divide. As the Old Testament scholar Chris Wright tells us, politics is, ‘the ordering of social relationships and structures, locally, nationally and globally’. Politics is about power, who controls things and how they are controlled on both the macro level of nations, as well as the micro level of local communities and individual families. Politics affects lives and so is of direct concern to God and therefore his Church. As the Former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, observed, “If we are to say that religion cannot be concerned with politics, then we are really saying that there is a substantial part of human life in which God’s will does not run. If it is not God’s, then whose is it?”

The modern Evangelical Church may have finally got back to its roots and heeded the call of James’ Epistle to demonstrate our faith by our actions, but we have still tended to want to keep our hands clean and so do our own thing in parallel to the rest of society. As a result, though we have set up youth clubs, church schools, hostels for the homeless and drop in centres for the lonely we have left large swathes of social welfare provision, which are administered through the hands of secular institutions, untouched by the ideologies that make the Bible such a radical transformer of social life. We have taken social action but avoided the political decision-making that has generated the need for so much of it in the first place. And by our absence we perpetuate the status quo and have left an ethical and spiritual vacuum, which has impoverished both Church and society.

The real problem our society faces isn’t so much secularisation as sacralisation on the part of the Church – the removal of Christian influence and truth from mainstream debate. Prophets like Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah consistently spoke out, in both private audience and public forum, against what they saw as the moral and strategic errors of the King’s political programme. To ignore this, to create a divide between the secular and the sacred, is a dangerous move.

Back in the 16th Century, when Luther was leading his Reformation, he believed strongly in a secular and sacred divide and so developed a theory of two kingdoms. God’s concern was for the first kingdom, the Church, where he reigned with a justice of grace and love. The rest of society was the second kingdom, ruled by the secular authorities with a hard, impersonal and retributive justice. This view was criticised by Calvinists who were strongly committed to seeking the justice of God in every area of life.

In Germany in the 1930s these views came to a head. The theologian, Karl Barth, accused the Lutheran Church of exempting Hitler and the Nazis from prophetic critique because they still maintained that they had no mandate to speak of the justice of God in the wider society. Hitler himself revelled in this autonomy declaring to the leaders of the Church, “I will protect the German people. You take care of the Church. You pastors should worry about getting people into heaven and leave the world to me.” The resulting social injustice will haunt humanity for the rest of its days.

Unless we grasp that it is God’s intention to bring the whole of creation back to himself then we will always have a tendency to view the gospel as simply having some social spin offs, or by-product implications for the community and this will inevitably mean that we end up simply dabbling in community affairs. We may talk a good talk from our own corner but the fight takes place in the centre of the ring, and that is where the Church increasingly needs to be.

More than Words

In our desire to be people of The Word, we have become all words. And in doing so the Church has been silenced by the cynical philosophy of the postmodern world, which says that words don’t count for anything. To counter this cynicism we need more than words. We need to earth our Christian faith. In short we need a renewed commitment to a radical theology of incarnation and social engagement. The beginning of John’s Gospel famously declares that the Word became flesh. The love, justice and mercy that God demonstrates throughout the Old Testament takes on flesh and blood reality. And the challenge of Jesus to his followers before his ascension was that his work of incarnation was to be taken on by the Church. The sending of the Holy Spirit not only continued the presence of Christ in the Church but also empowered that same Church to be the presence of God in the world.
Incarnation is for an ‘alien’ world. It is about vulnerability and genuine engagement. It is about surrendering power and control. It is about leaving the place of safety, stepping out of the comfort zone where we are known and understood, and heading for the remote, risk-filled, but needy outpost (Philippians 2:1ff). The Incarnation demands therefore, that we engage beyond our comfort zone - beyond the limits of our control. Though we should continue to set up our own youth clubs, job clubs, play schemes and IT training centres, our commitment to the doctrine of the Incarnation means that we should never be satisfied with that. We have a responsibility to get involved, not only with what the Church is doing but also with what others are doing. Incarnation requires that we ‘play away from home’. We cannot keep ourselves to ourselves. Incarnation necessitates that we serve as school governors, local councillors and work as part of secular community groups at every level. Our understanding of social justice is too significant to be kept to our own activities and ourselves.

But incarnation is also about learning. A Christian account of social justice shouldn’t seek to undermine the capability of secular institutions to deal with offences and distribute goods fairly. What they do they mostly do well. We need to be humble enough to learn from them about how to research, fund, manage and sustain welfare initiatives. What Christians can bring is a deeper understanding of personhood and community, which can bestow identity to the marginalised, transform the consciousness of individuals, families and whole neighbourhoods and bring lasting significance to their lives.

The reality is,that entering the political arena is one of the most effective ways for the Church to be ‘salt’ and ‘light ’. No area of life is outside our remit or beyond our God-given responsibility. Education, the environment, poverty, crime, racism, working conditions, immigration, taxation, health –to be silent on any of these issues is to deny God his rightful place in society, and to deny those affected by these issues the hope of his justice.

For more information about Faithworks, visit or phone Nathan Oley on 0207450 9050, or write to us at Faithworks, The Oasis Centre, 115 Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 0AX