Social Justice or compassion?

scalesThe latest evangelical ministry buzz word is “social justice”, as popularised by Tim Keller and others.  It seems that if you are not involved in “justice” ministries, you may not be that legit or relevant.  This view is probably in reaction to the evangelical church’s silence and perceived silence on important social issues. The silence of a large swathe of the evangelical church during the Apartheid years in South Africa is often used as an example. 

While I certainly acknowledge that there are massive amounts of injustice in our country, I wonder if “social justice” is the correct term to use when we think about our mandate and motivation as Christians and Christian ministers?  I may be accused of fiddling with words while Rome is burning, but I think this is an important question.

For Broughton Knox, “social justice” was itself a questionable category. In an article entitled “Social Justice or Compassion,” he argued that “the teaching and actions of Jesus nowhere show a concern for ‘social justice'”:

“The reason is that the call for social justice springs from envy and anger rather than from compassion… Compassion, not social justice, is the motivation for Christian social action…Poverty calls for compassion.  Poverty is painful; and action should be taken to make it a thing of the past.  But a Christian is not called on to campaign for a closer equalisation of incomes either within our society, nor for that matter between nation and nation. Christ’s gospel is not concerned with equity but with relationships, with God’s forgiveness of us and our compassionate help towards our fellow man in need.”

Michael Jensen writes about Knox’s article,

“It was a provocative point to make, since the language of social justice had become a nostrum even within the evangelical movement. It was not an empty academic point, either: Knox was personally and actively compassionate towards the poor. I myself lived in the principal’s residence at Moore College in the years following Knox’s retirement and can recall the stream of homeless men that would come to the door asking to see the ‘padre’ from whom they had received help in the past.”

Knox writes,  

“The Christian life is very simple. It is to live in the circumstances in which God has put us in in a Christian way, keeping the commandments of God, serving one another, and waiting for our Lord from heaven.  In addition, some Christians will be sent by the Lord of the harvest to evangelise, to bring the the gospel of Christ to those who have not heard it, and other Christians will be sent as pastors and teachers in Christian congregations.  All Christians are expected to be ready to give a reason of their hope of Christ’s coming, and we are to help those in need…

Jesus was compassionate and his chief concern was to preach the gospel and to lay down his life for us.  When the events of life brought people’s sorrows within the orbit of his experience, compassion prompted the helping action, as when he healed the leper, or raised the widow’s son at Nain.  On the other hand, he deliberately refused to act in matters of social justice which were drawn to his attention.  Thus, when Martha complained about the unequal amount of housework she was shouldering Jesus did nothing to set the matter right.  Instead he gently rebuked her for her wrong sense of values.  When a man complained that his brother had taken the whole of the inheritance and asked Jesus for help to obtain a fair share, he rebuked the man sharply for his covetousness…

It was compassion, not a sense of social justice, which sustained William Wilberforce in his lifelong campaign to bring slavery to an end…A generation later Lord Shaftesbury was sustained in his parliamentary campaigns to alleviate the conditions of children in factories, mental defectives in asylums and chimney sweeps, by his Christian compassion. 

Here is my question: seeing that loving our neighbour and acting for the good of others is a Christian necessity, should we not say to Christians, “Be compassionate”? 

Is not compassion and loving our neighbours, rather than a vision of a just society, the Christian’s motivation and mandate?  While I really do appreciate the massive amount of good work that the “social justice” proponents are doing, should the Christian’s rally cry not be “Love!” rather than “Social Justice!”?  We live in a fundamentally broken, fallen and unjust world.  Is not a vision for a “just” world doomed to failure and not in keeping with the Christian’s mandate. A respected evangelical leader said, 

“Social reform or social justice ministries should understand that they cannot fix the world; but understanding that, we are free to love the world.”  

I realise I may seem to be nit-picking with words and those who esteem“justice” and those who esteem “compassion” may well be doing the very same good, other-person-centred, suffering-alleviation, people-valuing, Christ-honouring works.  However, is not compassion a more biblical category and motivation to use in our thinking about Christian living?

As Christians we are, no doubt, called to act justly and to hate favouritism, dishonesty and corruption etc; but to term the Christian’s or the Church’s mandate as Social Justice may be unhelpful. 

We are we called to do? Love God and our neighbour. 

compassion