Years ago, as my wife and I were renovating our house, we met an African American gentleman who came to help with one of our projects. We welcomed him into our home and left him to do his work. After he finished the job, we began to talk. He graciously thanked us for the hospitality and mentioned it was not always the case. Upon my inquiry, he proceeded to describe some horrendous experiences he had endured as a Black man in people’s homes in our small Southern community. Some wouldn’t allow him in their houses, others watched him like a hawk, and others spoke in passive but incredibly derogatory ways toward him as he worked. He even told us that there were certain areas in town that he asked not to be assigned because Confederate flags fly proudly in front yards, which is still far too common for those of us who call this place home.
As Christians, the ways that this man had been treated should turn our stomachs and push us toward a righteous resolve to rid our communities of these abohorent and blatantly sinful attacks on the dignity of our fellow image-bearer. And while racism isn’t as open and obvious as it once was in our nation, it is still painfully present even if in more subdued or subtle forms. Many Christians today often feel caught between the realities of racism in our society and the calls for social justice that at times are at odds with the biblical social ethic. On one hand, some tend to argue that racism is nonexistent or at least not a prominent issue facing the church — often being seen as a secondary or tertiary issue to other cultural and social issues in Christian ethics. On the other hand, much of what is promoted in terms of social justice today does not accord with true social justice, biblical defined which is rooted in the inherent dignity of all image bearers and redemption through the cross of Christ.
How is a Christian to navigate these questions today of standing against racism but not losing biblically grounded justice? Scripture makes clear that racism in any form is a grievous sin before our Holy God and is to be repudiated in the strongest of terms, wherever it is found, by the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Rev. 14:6). As Christians seek to walk through these complexities and tensions, we must keep two overlapping truths together. First, biblically grounded social justice is central to the gospel message being rooted in the imago Dei. And second, downplaying social justice or failing to address the outworkings of sin in our society is a repudiation of the Christian social ethic (Psa. 89:14).
Social justice and the gospel message
The concept of social justice has at times been hijacked by the wider culture to stand for causes or to justify actions contrary to the biblical message of human dignity and the reality of sin. Christians rightly decry how the term has been overly politicized and has been taken up to promote causes that degrade true human flourishing and the common good in our society. Some calls for social justice reduce all of human existence to power dynamics or push radical social agendas that are designed to normalize hyper individualism and complete moral autonomy. But we also must be honest that the gospel message has likewise been hijacked by some — especially in the past — to support or even promote the horrors of slavery, segregation, and the continuation of unjust policies that seek to define someone’s value and dignity based on their skin color or background. Injustice is an affront to God and his character no matter where it is found.
The Christian moral tradition clearly illustrates that the gospel message is the good news that Jesus Christ lived the life we were created to live and died the death we deserved to die in order to give us everlasting life in relationship to God for eternity. It also makes clear that this message of new life in Christ contains wide-reaching and life-altering social implications for all of society which is rooted in the God-given dignity of all people (Gen. 1:26-28). The personal aspects of the biblical ethic directly inform the social aspects because we are individuals living in community with one another. We each bear immense responsibility for pursuing truth and upholding justice in our society. As new creations in Christ, we are to model for a watching world what Jesus meant when he called his people to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (2 Cor. 5:17; Matt. 22:37-39). Overlooking our neighbors or passively allowing injustices to be perpetrated is completely contrary to this command by God to stand for the vulnerable and downtrodden in our communities as we seek to biblically defined justice wherever injustice is found.
An ethic to make the world tremble
As the world-class evangelical Protestant theologian and ethicist Carl F.H. Henry boldly stated, “Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness.”1Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. IV. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979, 551. For Henry, social justice is a key part of the gospel message because it is the outworking of the Christian social ethic grounded in the imago Dei and modeled by the Church throughout a host of social justice issues such as racism, caring for vulnerable children in the womb, or decrying the killing of the elderly in the name of “dignified death.” Rightfully defined in this era of immense confusion over the social aspects of the biblical ethic and the nature of responsibility, the Christian social ethic is robustly pro-human dignity in every aspect of society, even those deemed not worthy of respect or honor by the culture around us.
This vigorous and unadulterated biblical social ethic must be retrieved in each generation as new challenges arise and questions of human anthropology are being asked in light of the quest for moral autonomy and even in the face of modern technological developments. Henry, speaking of the nature of the gospel and the Christian social ethic, once wrote that we must “confront the world now with an ethic to make it tremble, and with a dynamic to give it hope.”2Henry, Carl F. H. Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift toward Neo-Paganism. Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1988, 166. This practically means that we recognize sin and the distortion of human dignity wherever it may be found, as well as the hope of reconciliation that we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In an age of rampant moral autonomy and hyper-individualism, the Church must see and proclaim that sin is not simply an isolated personal issue, but something that is pervasive throughout every single aspect of society. Thus, we must not only articulate a vision of biblical justice but also seek to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). We must ensure that our words align with our actions as we proclaim a message of hope in a sin-torn world longing for redemption. As the prophet Micah reminds us, the Lord has spoken and commands that as his people we are to “love justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our God]” (Micah 6:8).
- 1Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation and Authority. Vol. IV. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979, 551.
- 2Henry, Carl F. H. Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift toward Neo-Paganism. Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1988, 166.