I begin with a health warning. What I am going to write has an underlying theological narrative, for reasons I hope will become apparent. In a strange way, a lot of the folk I work with in the community aren’t Christians yet share many of my social justice concerns and also “get it” when it comes to understanding and doing what is needed, sometimes more so than many of my Christian friends, who might focus on what they might see as more “spiritual” concerns. I hope it won’t deter those who aren’t interested in theology but it is as well to set my stall out from the outset.
My own journey and many of my views, and how I reached them, have been addressed already in my writings, found elsewhere on my website, and I don’t intend to repeat these other than briefly in passing. Neither do I intend to do a deep theological analysis, although I recognize that is important since theology is learning about God, and what God thinks concerning social justice is all important. It is felt in certain quarters that religion and politics are taboo subjects, not to be discussed in polite society, but both will be discussed here, and for good reason, for both have an important bearing on the subject. It is likely I will likely irritate those from all ends of the religious and political spectrum as a result.
A few years back in my town of Southend, a movement that had the label “Love Southend”, and which involved several of the churches, started. Part of the vision was to practically show God’s love to the town by serving in whatever way was seen to be appropriate. Two of the initiatives were Street Pastors (discussed elsewhere) and “urban generation” projects – doing what needs doing in a community, such as picking up litter, painting playgrounds and laying on teas for elderly folk. Arguably, the church, despite its many faults, has been doing such activities and many more, right from the start.
While this is not quite social justice, which ought to be seen more in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society, many would see such activities as being related. What has become apparent in my journey is that Christians are becoming increasingly aware of social justice issues, whether it be the conflict currently being played out in Gaza or the effects of the rich poor divide in UK society, and there might seem a growing resolve to address these concerns, not just among those labelled “Liberal” (theologically speaking) but also among those labelled “Evangelicals”. It has also given rise to tensions and conflicts, when one might (and should) hope for unity and common purpose.
I recall in the early days of Love Southend, two well known speakers taking meetings within a short period of one another. One was Tony Campolo and the other was James Packer, and both would claim to be Evangelical, theologically speaking. Campolo represented “the concerned with social justice” wing of evangelicalism and Packer “the get your theology right but also practice it” wing. Campolo’s meetings were well attended; Packers weren’t. I was disappointed despite beginning to identify with some of Campolo’s social justice concerns, some of which have been discussed on my blog, as I felt his theology was decidedly suspect. Packer, on the other hand, may well be the greatest living, sound and insightful theologian alive, and I was disappointed that people did not see that as being important. While an in-depth discussion of the respective theological perspectives of the two men is outside the scope of this posting and is difficult anyway, just as a comparison between apples and oranges is, my concern is that Christians may be pandering to the spirit of the age by going for what is popular rather than what is true.
When it comes to politics, I have already reflected on my journey from left to right to oscillating somewhere round the middle, while being currently disillusioned with the system as it currently stands. When I became a Labour activist in my mid teens, it was because of a concern over social injustices I saw around me, and this has never left. Some may claim, and they may well be right, that the politics of the left are more likely to attach more importance to social justice concerns when compared with the politics of the right. Yet, I remain unconvinced that having more state intervention will lead to a more socially just society. It could be argued that by encouraging free enterprise this could help create the wealth to take people out of poverty and allow opportunities for those of more humble means to better themselves etc. Sadly, what often happens is the rich become richer and the poor become poorer and social injustices increase, with the empowered rich oppressing the dis-empowered poor.
While social justice concerns may well be associated with those who support the politics of the left and those who ignore social justice are often thought to be those who support the politics of the right, I have come across too many exceptions to know that is often not the case. There is a salutary warning here – we could find ourselves unwittingly supporting one or other political faction, who might use a social justice issue we happen to care about to further their own agendas. As for me, I am beholden to the words of the Bible: “Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, for the rights of those who are destitute” Proverbs 31:8. I agree with Elie Wiesel who vowed: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented“.
So let me state my position on the two taboo subjects. Theologically speaking, I am with Packer, but I also recognize that some of the social justices identified by Campolo are valid and these need to be addressed, both at a higher, more esoteric level, and by doing what needs to be done, at every level and by whatever means and often at considerable personal cost, while working on behalf of, with and for the victims of social injustice, who I have found out on my journey are on my doorstep and amount to a considerable number. As for politicians, while I recognise there is a whole raft of issues to weigh, I will tend to support those who best address issues of social justice. One of the problems of going down the extreme route is that by giving preference to one or other group, we might exclude others. There is a fine balance and few if any politicians achieve it.
The Bible warns there will be a turning away from the truth and the embracing of deception in “the last days”, and sadly I see evidence of this. It is the truth on which we must stand. But the Bible clearly preaches against social injustice and so must we and that also is the truth. Throughout the Bible, I see God telling us to speak up and act on behalf of the poor, and this can be a dangerous and demanding undertaking, but for God’s enabling grace. Politics is a means to an end but, from where I am standing right now, I am unconvinced whether the desired outcome when it comes to social justice will be best achieved by the political right or the political left, although I will work with any politician committed to tackling social injustice. But above all, I am convinced that God is a God of justice and it is to Him I look and in Him I will put my trust and on who my hope rests.