By Mark Kelly
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about issues of social justice and righteousness. There is so much injustice around us – sex trafficking, hunger and homelessness, children suffering needlessly – the list could go on and on. And except for a few notable cases, most Christians in the United States pay little attention. We go on about our comfortable middle-class lives, insulated from the suffering and pain all around us – not just in the Two-Thirds World, but across town and even next door.
The Bible, however, has a lot to say about God’s concern for people who suffer and his expectation that his people will care about them. One of my favorite verses in that regard is Proverbs 31:8-9 – “Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are helpless. Speak for them and be a righteous judge. Protect the rights of the poor and needy.” (TEV)
And it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Jesus said whether we help “the least of these” will play a part in deciding our eternal destiny. (Matthew 25:31-46)
So I have always had a soft spot for people who call Christians to care about the hungry and homeless. Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was an important turning point for me as a young man. So was Arthur Simon’s Bread for the World.
Evangelical Christians have a rich history of social action. I’m not sure there was any such thing as a social conscience in the West until the stirrings in 18th-century England that resulted in monumental reforms like the abolition of slavery. (By the way, you don’t want to miss the upcoming book and movie entitled Amazing Grace.)
It has been very discouraging to me that the churches and Christians I have known over the years, by and large, have had virtually no concern for anyone but themselves and others like themselves. There have always been exceptions, to be sure, but only exceptions. Many are willing to give a dollar or two so someone else could help the lost and needy, but few are willing to actually get their own hands dirty.
And just so you know this isn’t merely another tirade from a self-righteous crusader, I’ve been more discouraged by my own lack of concern and involvement than anyone else’s.
So it was a joy beyond description when I heard Rick Warren speak for the first time about his P.E.A.C.E. Plan. Here, finally, was someone I knew to be above reproach doctrinally who had a vision of God’s people rising up and tackling all the global giants – not just the problem of spiritual emptiness, but also problems like extreme poverty and endemic disease.
Here was someone who had not only understood God’s heart for the “orphans and widows” but also had been given a global platform from which to call a billion of God’s people to obedient action. The possibilities stagger my imagination!
One of the most attractive elements of Pastor Rick’s P.E.A.C.E. Plan is that it recognizes government is only part of the solution. Both ends of the political spectrum in the United States seem to think government is the solution to problems they want to address. The Religious Right wants to make everybody moral by passing laws against behavior that unquestionably is a stench in God’s nostrils. The Religious Left wants to use the power of government to force wealthy people to help poor people – callous unconcern also being an abomination before God.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of responsible government, but in both cases, the doctors are treating external symptoms instead of the heart of the problem.
The beauty of Pastor Rick’s P.E.A.C.E. Plan is it recognizes that the heart of the problem is a heart problem. We are all, apart from Christ, spiritually empty and selfish. Attempts to improve social conditions will never have a chance of success until people begin to share God’s concern for the lost and needy. So the first two global giants he mentions are spiritual emptiness and self-serving leadership – and the first two elements of P.E.A.C.E. are planting churches and equipping servant leaders.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners/Call to Renewal blogs today about New Year, New Congress, New Opportunities, in which he repeats the call of A Covenant for a New America “for the nation’s political leaders to address the mounting crisis of so many people in our nation who are falling further behind, and many more worldwide who have fallen off the world’s agenda.”
We certainly share Mr. Wallis’ concern for the vast multitudes who each day struggle for survival. More importantly, God shares that concern. And politicians who ignore the needs of hungry and sick children will answer to the Righteous Judge, if not the electorate.
But governments have never solved the problems of suffering and injustice. One reason is that laws don’t change hearts. Another reason is that governments are impersonal. People who are hurting and struggling don’t need a government program, they need someone to come alongside and help them find a way through. A third reason is that governments aren’t big enough. As massive as the U.S. bureaucracy is – as large as the most visionary person would have it be – it will never be large enough to solve the problems of suffering and injustice. A fourth reason is that God told his people – not the government – to help “orphans and widows in their distress.”
We ought to call on governments everywhere to rid themselves of corruption and self-interest and address systemic problems that keep people from being able to live decent lives. We ought to vote for politicians who are committed to that.
More importantly, however, God’s people need to put down their TV remotes and get out into their communities – into the hospitals and prisons and nursing homes and orphanages and homeless shelters and “bad” neighborhoods – and look for the opportunities God has waiting on them “to bring good news to the poor … to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” (Luke 4:18-19 TEV)