While We Talk, People Die

Why our good intentions for social justice aren't enough.

If I’m talking to you, you know who you are. You’re the person who knows stories and statistics of injustice in the world, and you also know that you haven’t been doing anything about it. Although you might assume I’m speaking in a judgmental tone, let me hasten to assure you that I am not. But you do know the truth—you haven’t turned all of your great intentions into action. Your words about social justice are empty, even though you have well thought-out arguments about why it’s important and how exactly one should respond to the needs of the world. People are still dying of poverty, disease, persecution and war, and you’ve ignored your heart-tugging in favor of busyness, comfort and a litany of excuses.

I’ve been there.

Right now, you might still be expecting a huge dose of guilt. You may be waiting for more compelling stories of need than the ones you’ve heard already. Perhaps you’ve already written out some condemnation for yourself in a secret, dark place inside. (I hope not.)

The truth is that this world is in a battle between good and evil. And although God does not need us to be a part of it, He wants us in it. He wants us to fight. He already has the victory either way. This life is not a drama about you or me. It’s a saga about God and how He is bringing His redemptive power to the world. And He has things for His followers to do in this drama to see His Kingdom come here on earth.

Composing well-articulated soapboxes for social justice isn’t bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Likewise, filling our time serving the church but never going outside the safety of its walls isn’t really following Christ. It seems that our American brand of Christianity wants to make the rich young ruler our patron saint—we want following Jesus to be comfortable and on our own terms.

Jesus opens His ministry by quoting Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

And then He does just that! He meets people from all walks of life and gives them all of the freedom they know how to crave. And not only that, He also trains a bunch of nobodies to do what He does, granting them “all authority on heaven and earth.” 

This is our heritage as Christians, and yet it seems we’d rather play it safe than actually put our words into action.

Isaiah 58 makes some audacious promises.

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: 

to loose the chains of injustice 

and untie the cords of the yoke, 

to set the oppressed free 

and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry 

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— 

when you see the naked, to clothe him, 

and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, 

and your healing will quickly appear; 

then your righteousness will go before you, 

and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard …

If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry 

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, 

then your light will rise in the darkness, 

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and your night will become like the noonday.

It seems that living a righteous life is dependent on acts of justice. Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t about getting saved! It’s not legalism. We’re saved by grace alone. But clearly, taking action on behalf of those in need is a vital part of our life as God’s people.

Jesus says that, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This is where the hope and joy of this upside-down kingdom comes in. Abandoning our pride, abandoning our safety, abandoning our well-articulated arguments so that we can wholly follow Jesus will bring life—more life than we can imagine! 

This is my story. Growing up in a Christian home, it took me a long time to know how powerful the faith of my family really was. But God led me, step by step, reaching out in a bit more faith than I knew I had to abandon my will to follow Him in increasingly deep ways. This has led to knowing and loving people who are physically poor close to home and all over the world. This has led to finding brothers and sisters in places where Bibles are illegal. This has led to death for my comfort zone. This has led to my words being fewer, but having people and names behind my arguments. This has led to a fuller understanding of God than what I would have known if I never went outside of my church. This has led to life abounding over all fear.

Social justice—really doing what Jesus does—changes everything for the better. And more than saving the world, I find that I am the one whose life is saved.

So it’s time to stop talking about acting and to start acting. Fortunately, there are lots of places where you can get started! Find out what refugee populations live in your city. Chances are you have skills that someone who’s lived their life in persecution and fear needs. It might be as simple as teaching them how to use a stove. There are also all kinds of programs that are set up to help America’s underserved. Cooking classes and after-school outdoor education camps for kids living in the inner city, adult education classes for people who have never earned their high school diploma, prison ministries. And these are just some local ideas! If you’ve learned a skill or vocation, it’s probable that there is a place outside of America that could really use training in that skill. Teaching English is a simple thing that can help many in the developing world secure better jobs. If you do a little bit of research, you could get to see more of the world while serving those in dire, physical need.

It also gets said a lot, but it’s worth saying again—give generously to organizations working in areas of injustice. Jesus wasn’t kidding when He said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” If you hold “your” money loosely and give to the things God cares about, you’ll find you care more too. But the important thing is to stop sitting on your hands and do something. Your heart needs the adventure that following Jesus will provide.



Matty P commented…

From what I've been taught and read, the traditional model of simple supply vs demand with respect to labor would suggest that a minimum wage does lead to a surplus of labor. This is the textbook model, the model you refer to as being taught in economics 101. And it should be taught, because it is basic economic theory. However, this model fails to take into account the multiple level, sources, and types of labor as well as the fact that unemployment will always exist as a natural result of market flux and adjustment. Economic theorists are unsurprisingly split (much like you and I) on the actual effects of a minimum wage on the unemployment level. With regard to comments on my leftist and socialist leanings, I must say your assertions are off-base. I am neither liberal or socialist nor am I advocating marxism. You stated the difference in philosophical terms of man's universal equality under law vs in nature. Perhaps my views are egalitarian, as I believe or laws exist to reflect greater moral truths (i.e. It is wrong to take the life of another and so we have laws to reflect that basic moral tenant). It may be obvious, but I am advocating government oversight in business, and while I understand that it is a business' essential existence to make a living or make a profit, they cannot be allowed to do so through amoral practices. We have laws against chemical dumping, laws protecting labors from undo harm, laws protecting intellectual property, and I don't think it too far a step to legislate American companies to provide their employees at home and abroad a living wage.


Bobbyk commented…

No, economist are not split on minimum wages effects on unemployment, they are split on its merits; a big difference! Now after saying that Im sure you can find some several examples of specific instances where the opposite is the case but its not the historical norm. In addition, many govts do not enforce many of their labor laws on the books further skews so much of the gathered data out there.

Yes, the majority of our laws and our constitution was based on biblical law and principles. But advocating more gov't regulation? The Code of Federal Regulations is now over 157,000 pages long (150,000 commandments???); more than 3500 added in 2009 alone. That's a new reg about every 2 hours 24/7 and it just keeps growing. According the most conservative estimates businesses and customers paid over $1 trillion to comply with federal rules. My question is how many regs are enough and will regs ever lead to the utopia you suggest?

One example is Obama's efforts to draw a link between the Wall Street blunders and a lack of regulation. Of course, we will never hear that the most costly blunders to our economy have included two of the most regulated institutions in history, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; not to mention many banks.

Please dont misunderstand, there are some regulations and portions of other regulations that I actually do support, but not minimum wage laws. I do understand the notion that you and other points concerning the unfairness of less than living wages that result as not having a minimum wage. However, please be careful not to confuse a lack of wage issues with a massive unemployment issue.

As previously stated, minimum wage laws, like any price floor, always creates some kind of surplus. In this case, the surplus is available workers, and with any surplus the value of that individual is generally devalued. The same can be said if the unemployment rate is disastrously high. Currently, hundreds of articles have illustrated this dilemma due to absurd unemployment rates in this country. Walk into any business that is typically known for paying minimum wages/employing unskilled often younger workers and see how many 30 year old under-employed workers you will currently find (current teen unemployment at historic records). Figuratively speaking, what has occurred, aggravated by high unemployment, is that the bottom rung of the labor ladder has been removed before many will have a chance to climb it and offer greater productivity to their employers (current or future).

As previously mentioned, labor becomes a dime a dozen. Moreover, massive unemployment coupled with a minimum wage not only causes inflation (loss of your moneys buying power previously pointed out) but likewise the value of the worker to be significantly less. Given the facts, its an easy conclusion to state that a living wage law would help those hired but likewise exacerbate the problem youre trying to solve with the unemployed both through higher unemployment rates and inflation raising the costs of everyday necessities. Thus, helping the greater good, as commonly expressed by minimum wage supporters, doesnt help the greater good.

So the question becomes how can we place more value in the worker or the individual as I believe Jesus would have put it and illustrated? I wish I had a simple solution. I think the false premise here is the assumption that regardless if you are unemployed or if you are underemployed below a living wage that you cannot survive. That is the rare exception involving other factors; particularly lack of opportunity (high unemployment), maybe competition, or govt monopoly! Why? Because businesses are not suicidal! It is by their nature in their best interest (competition and survival) to employ and retain skilled workers. Increased productivity, especially illustrated with the production of goods, corresponds essentially with increased profits! Wages increase almost in all instances corresponding with productivity, which also increases as a result of experience, training, and other factors.


SteveMackey commented…

I admire the author's zeal and fervant plea for us to follow Christ's call to minister and help the least of these. Very convicting. I don't notice anything in here about repentance or presenting the gospel. Also, I know social justice is a term everyone seems to be using, but isn't all justice social in nature? I have a problem with the term because it means different things to different people. Some think it's simply being generous, some replace the true meaning of the gospel with it, and some identify social justice with a particular political ideology. I prefer to think of Jesus' lifestyle as selfless becasue it was just who He is, but His ultimate goal is repentance, which He mentions a number of times, with an appeal for us to make disciples - which He closed His ministry with.


Brian commented…

I saw an example of talking vs. action the other morning at church. Actually it was talk of researching possibilities to help vs. action. Makes me sad ... all the time this occurs.


Dave commented…

Great article! Gratitude is indeed an action word. In other words, are you grateful? Then show me. Faith without works is dead, and but for grace are we saved. Praise God!

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