Spiritual Justice Is Social Justice, and Vice Versa

Westmont Horizon
January 30, 2007

What really causes suffering today? Is it abuse of power? ignorance? crime? poverty? idolatry? doubt? demons? heresy?

And what do you think of my list of causes? Does the first half seem sensible and the second half wacky? Does the first half seem shallow and the other deep? Does the first half seem educated and the second half naïve?

World Vision vice president Bryant L. Myers’ wonderful book Walking with the Poor identifies a feature of the modern western paradigm that guides our imaginations: a separation or dichotomy between the “material” and the “spiritual.” He says our Enlightenment heritage has trained us to think that “evangelism (restoring people’s relationship with God) is spiritual work, while social action (restoring just economic, social, and political relationships among people) is not.” Churches and missions do the one, governments and development agencies the other.

What do we do about that? We are often encouraged to combine or integrate or balance spiritual healing and material assistance, and that sounds wise. After all, a ministry of one but not the other has certainly gone wrong – as when the demands of the daily distribution to the Jerusalem church’s poor interfered with the apostles’ preaching ministry (Acts 6:17). But “combining” these leaves the dichotomy in place. It treats material and spiritual ministry as if they were not already one thing. Luke used the same word for both “table service” in Acts 6:1 and “word service” in Acts 6:4. In fact, the church’s first named “development officer” was Stephen, who delivered the book’s longest sermon and who was the first to be martyred for his testimony to Jesus Christ (Acts 6:8-8:1). Stephen was about one thing – ministry – not two.

Until we abandon the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual, no shift in our approach to injustice will take us in the right direction.

Consider the great emptiness so many of us share today, from America’s rich all the way to our poor. It is more than the God-shaped-hole-in-your-life you have heard about in a thousand sermons. Many peoples elsewhere in the world are not haunted by emptiness the way we are in the west. Our dreams, our educations, our freedoms, our wealth, our many entertainments, our stories, our resentments, our political schemes, our business ventures, our friendships, and even our spouses do not fill it. It shows up in adolescent alienation that strains relationships with parents and authorities. It shows up in mid-life crises that trip up friendships and jeopardize marriages. It drives us to video screens and substance abuse for solace, to political romanticism for escape, and to narrow cynicism for survival.

Has our spiritual poverty arisen because our modern lives are structured in ways that aren’t very compatible with our humanity, or do demons haunt the post-Christian west? Yes. Does it call for reforming our families, businesses, and lifestyles, or for prayer and evangelism? Yes. Is it treated by stopping injustice, or by keeping the Ten Commandments? In case you had not noticed, the Ten Commandments do just that: they condemn spiritual, political, familial, economic, and psychological injustice to keep twelve tribes of freed slaves upright and free. Is ending spiritual poverty a matter of social justice, or a job for the church? Open the New Testament and you will see that the church is God’s social justice: an open invitation to a new life together for all women and men, slaves and masters, Gentiles and Jews, outcasts and elites, children and parents that points to Jesus’ return to end all that is wrong. The church is the invasion of God’s new world and thus the doom and the hope of our old one. (Or it would be, if we did not turn it into a place of spiritual sustenance and material irrelevance and leave ‘development’ to governments, big business, and NGOs.)

Many Westmont students change markedly in their time here – swinging, say, from dreams of youth ministry to aspirations of social work or vice versa. But they don’t change nearly enough, because many leave stuck with the same dichotomy they came with. That is a pity. In fact, it is a fundamental failure. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and given Spirit don’t bring a spiritual escape or a political utopia – how could they? – but make a fellowship of saints who someday “will judge the world” (1 Cor 6:2). His reign is no two-tiered universe but one new creation of which the church is the primary sign.

“Do you not know that we will judge angels,” an exasperated Paul asks the Corinthians, “not to mention daily life?” (1 Cor 6:3). We knew it once, but we have forgotten, and it is sapping our churches’ strength and garbling our witness. Social injustice creates spiritual poverty and spiritual poverty drives social injustice. Abuse of power, heresy, and the rest are aspects of the same condition. Who else will see this and treat them so, except for us who have learned to see through the cross?