The Moral Duty of the Christian to Engage with Social Issues

If someone says to you that social issues are not relevant to the Christian, that as Christians we should tend to “us and ours,” or (even more narrowly) our own family, that we should focus on our own sin to the exclusion of the sins of others, or that we should retreat into a private spirituality, this person is encouraging you to become as wicked and negligent as they are. The Bible is clear, Christian tradition is clear, that the Christian is to be engaged in the refutation of evil, both public and private. This clarity not be necessary, but the selfishness which narrows our focus and allows us to deaden inner moral promptings has been addressed by the grace of God: what should have been plain to anyone with functioning moral faculties is explicitly commanded and linked with self-interest in order to reach the most dead.

“But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” (Ezekiel 33:9)

God’s people are set the task of warning against wickedness. And so what is this wickedness? They might say that it is only a narrow set of sins: rejection of God, sexual immorality, or any of the ‘private,’ ‘individualized’ sins. They say this to narrow down what the Christian must warn about–to make sure the Christian only preaches a gospel of individual salvation and morality, turning the gospel into self-help. In doing this they are trying to make you as wicked and negligent as they are. Wickedness is much more.

Greed and greedy development of real estate:
Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. (Isaiah 5:8-9)

Neglecting the safety of others:
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it. (Deut. 22:9)

Not paying fair wages, mistreating workers and impoverishing them:
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.  Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.  Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

Not helping provide for your relatives:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:8)

Mistreating animals:
If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long. (Deut. 22:7-8)

Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel. (Prov. 12:10)

Christ’s Explicit Commands and Model
Christ’s own words command a way of life consisting of ushering in the Kingdom of God, which, of course, is an external reality, a state in which not only internal change occurs, but human society and environment are set right (including politics, since the political merely refers to the way humans structure their lives in relation to one another, which obviously includes rulers and governments):

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. (Matthew 5:13)

Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another. (Mark 9:50)

What does salt do? It is spread through food to preserve or flavor it–an analogous to the people of God being spread through the world in order to change it.

Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Matthew 16:24)

Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me. (Mark 8:21)

What did the Cross of Christ do? Usher in (or begin to usher in, depending on your eschatology) the Kingdom of God, with resurrection and eternal life being a mere part of that Kingdom (ask yourself: what good would it do to be brought back to life, only to live in this continually broken and damaged world, and for us to continue sinning and corrupting ourselves? Salvation cannot be just rescue from death, but also a rescue from the wicked corruption of the world, and so a setting right of politics). We are to do the same, and imitate our Lord, who…

…went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matt 4:23)

Does this make you uncomfortable? Are you tempted to respond, “well I’m sure Christ would not want us to tire ourselves out! Why wear ourselves down? Why not do good when we get the chance to do it comfortably?” Look at the words of our Lord:

Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:343-38)

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? (Matthew 6:25)

This latter saying of Jesus is normally taken in a self-centered sense: don’t worry, God will protect you! But if anyone had bothered to read the previous verse…

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

…they would see that Jesus is condemning our worry as a type of devotion and loyalty to the self! Do no prioritize your own life and comfort above service to God. And what is this service, but to help usher in the Kingdom of God? Our way of seeing and ranking the importance of the world should not center around our own comfort or success.

A Brief History of the Church
Here is a brief summary of what happened after the Crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (roughly 33AD): Christians spread through the Middle East, Asia Minor and Europe. Those in Rome and Roman provinces became a pain in the ass, often condemning military service and other symbols or activities central to Roman society (i.e. those things which were key to maintaining political power and order). They were so obnoxious that they were persecuted off and on. Being a thorn in the side of political power resulted, after just two centuries, in a “Christian” Roman Emperor assembling and paying the expenses of the first ecumenical council (Nicaea 325AD).

By 390AD, Bishop Ambrose had the power to condemn the emperor for massacring protesters, reducing him to groveling before the steps of the Church for forgiveness (incredible, given that the Roman Emperor was, from Augustus on, worshiped as divine). Letters written as pleas for the Emperor to spare Christians persecution (Justin Martyr’s “First Apology,” died 165AD) had now become confidence condemnations and excommunications of the Emperor (Ambrose’s “Letter 51”). The practice of the Church has always been social/political/external, just as that of the prophets had been aimed to reshape society, not just the interior parts of humanity. Of course the Church has never been perfect, but it was at least trying, unlike us.

The Christian Paradigm
The Christian paradigm, the Christian way of seeing the world, making decisions, ranking the importance of things, and determining our duties does not prioritize those sins we so naively think are “internal” to us (what’s the difference between internal/private and external/public sins anyways? The philosophical difference is almost impossible to cash out). Neither does it involve any sort of egoism. Instead the Christian paradigm embraces the entire world, all of creation, and relates it back to God, who is Beauty and Goodness. And the Christian works to bring down the Kingdom of God: to subject the whole of creation to God’s perfectly beautiful and good rule. It is not a private religion or practice. It necessitates reaching out to all of creation, with ourselves as merely its parts, and working to bring about it’s proper functioning, to restore it’s darkened beauty.

Further Reading

Ambrose of Milan. “Church Fathers: Letter 51,” http://www.newadvent.org, accessed September 7, 2020, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/340951.htm.

“Massacre of Thessalonica,” Wikipedia, July 31, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_Thessalonica.

N T Wright, How God Became King : The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (New York: Harperone, An Imprint Of Harpercollins Publishers, 2016).

Ryan EA. “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians.” Theological Studies. 1952;13(1):1-32. 

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