During the end stretch of last year’s heated presidential race, Barack Obama was tagged by some as a “socialist” for his controversial tax plan, which called for a system of redistribution of wealth. Now, with President Obama’s equally controversial vision for universal health care taking center stage in the political arena, the “socialist” label has surfaced again. But what some Christians view as a dangerous slide toward socialism, see as a needed step toward a more biblically just health-care system.
Without taking sides in the political debate, we want to explore this issue of biblical justice vs. socialism. To help bring clarity to the subject, we went back to a 1993 book from the pioneering evangelical social activist John M. Perkins. In Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development, Perkins lays out a broad vision for incarnational ministry, which includes both spiritual and economic outreach. In this excerpt, he challenges believers on the importance of social justice and explains how it differs from manmade economic and political systems.
In my years of ministry, from the dusty byways of rural Mendenhall, Mississippi, to the lively streets of Northwest Pasadena, different Scriptures have become very special to me. In particular, two passages about justice have been real motivators. The first is Amos 5:24, where God exhorts those who want to be religious but who exploit the poor to “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (NASB). The other passage is Micah 6:6-8, where the prophet asks the question, “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God?” Micah’s answer cuts right to the heart of true religion: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”
Justice is close to God’s heart, and ultimately justice is an economic issue. Justice is asking the question, “Who owns the earth?” Psalm 24:1 tells us, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Justice is our management of God’s resources, our working to make these resources open and available to all of God’s creatures. It is an injustice when access to the bounty of God’s creation is controlled by a greedy few. Therefore, a central part of our mission of representing a just God is to work for justice.
Most of the Old Testament deals with God’s just requirements linking the plight of the oppressed to the practices of the wealthy. This notion is hard for many American Christians to swallow because we Americans are the wealthiest people in the world. We are not different than the people of Israel if we are not willing to examine how our lifestyles separate us from the poor. The apostle James warned the Body of Christ, not unbelievers, when he wrote:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you (James 5:1-6, NIV).
If the issue of how our wealth is linked to others’ poverty makes us defensive, we will find it hard to do Christian community development. What is encouraging, however, is that if our own wealth can be a source of the problem, it can also be a solution to the problem. Christians are called to use their personal wealth to advance the kingdom and bring about justice and development.
The call to justice is not a demand for the redistribution of everyone’s wealth so that all citizens have equal assets. Instead, the concept of stewardship tells us that Christians should not accumulate wealth without regard for its impact on others. God created us with the motivation to care for ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods. The desire for a peaceful lifestyle, a reasonable amount of financial security, and a healthy community environment are God-given desires. If the love of God dwells in us, then the Holy Spirit will prompt us more and more to be concerned that everyone will have those desires met. We will not be content to live in comfort while others suffer; instead, we will try to use our resources in ways that will enable all God’s children to have their basic needs met.
Some Christian leaders have opposed the biblical notion of justice because they confuse it with Marxism, communism, or some other type of socialism. This is a naïve reading of biblical justice. Although Marxism is founded on the principle of representing the oppressed laborer, Marx never affirmed the dignity of all people; and the communist system has never in practice defended the rights of the laborer.
Communism has clearly failed. It could not compete with the energy and motivation of free enterprise. The old Soviet communist system was unable to produce the goods and services demanded by its people. Saying that the American capitalist free-enterprise system needs some adjustments to bring about justice is not rejecting the capitalist system.
The work of justice is demanding because it forces us to ask the honest questions that God asked Israel. But asking these questions and searching for creative answers should be an exciting and joyful thing, not a burden. We should be asking ourselves, “How can I be a better steward of what God has given me?”
We should be going to private businesses and institutions where Christians wield influence and encouraging those Christians to ask, “How can I use my position and the resources that come with this position to serve God and the poor?” We should be offering suggestions to government agencies when appropriate, and we should always speak out against governmental injustice. Ultimately, however, we cannot look to the government to solve the problems of the urban poor. Rather, we should take that as the responsibility of Christians. Christian community development is “good news to the poor” and makes the church a bright light for all the world to see.
Adapted from Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 1993. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from .