Scripture says earthly governments are ordained by God to administer justice, and believers are to be subject to their authority. The civil magistrate is “a minister of God to you for good . . . an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:1–4). But it is also true that no government in the history of the world has managed to be consistently just. In fact, when Paul wrote that command, the Roman Emperor was Nero, one of the most grossly unjust, unprincipled, cruel-hearted men ever to wield power on the world stage.
As believers, “we know . . . that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), so worldly power structures are—and always have been—systemically unjust to one degree or another.
Even the United States, though founded on the precept that all members of the human race “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” incongruously maintained a system of forced slavery that withheld the full benefits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from multitudes. Many generations of people from African ethnicities were thus legally (but immorally) relegated to subhuman status. According to the 1860 census, there were about four million in the generation of slaves who were being held in servitude when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Civil War and the abolishment of slavery did not automatically end the injustice. A hundred years passed before the federal government banned segregation in public places and began in earnest to pass legislation safeguarding the civil rights of all people equally. Until then, freed slaves and their descendants in Southern states were literally relegated by law to the back of the bus and frequently treated with scorn or incivility because of the color of their skin.
I got a small taste of what it felt like to be bullied and discriminated against in the American South in the 1960s. I spent a lot of time traveling through rural Mississippi with my good friend John Perkins, a well-known black evangelical leader, preaching the gospel in segregated black high schools. During one of those trips, as we drove down a dirt road, a local sheriff—an openly bigoted character straight out of In the Heat of the Night—took me into custody, held me in his jail, and accused me of disturbing the peace. He also confiscated (and kept) all my money. He ultimately released me without filing charges. I suppose he considered the money he took from me an adequate fine for doing something he disapproved of.
In those days any appeal to higher authorities would have been fruitless and possibly counterproductive. All I could do was try not to antagonize him further.
I was again ministering in Mississippi with John Perkins and a group of black church leaders in April 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. One of the men leading our group was Charles Evers, head of the Mississippi NAACP. (His brother Medgar had been killed in 1963 by the KKK.) When news of Dr. King’s murder broke, we drove to Memphis—and literally within hours after Dr. King was assassinated, we were at the Lorraine Motel, standing on the balcony where he was shot. We were also shown the place where James Earl Ray stood on a toilet to fire the fatal shot.
I deplore racism and all the cruelty and strife it breeds. I am convinced the only long-term solution to every brand of ethnic animus is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Christ alone are the barriers and dividing walls between people groups broken down, the enmity abolished, and differing cultures and ethnic groups bound together in one new people (Ephesians 2:14–15). The black leaders with whom I ministered during the civil rights movement shared that conviction.
The evangelicals who are saying the most and talking the loudest these days about what’s referred to as “social justice” seem to have a very different perspective. Their rhetoric certainly points a different direction, demanding repentance and reparations from one ethnic group for the sins of its ancestors against another. It’s the language of law, not gospel—and worse, it mirrors the jargon of worldly politics, not the message of Christ. It is a startling irony that believers from different ethnic groups, now one in Christ, have chosen to divide over ethnicity. They have a true spiritual unity in Christ, which they seem to disdain in favor of fleshly factions.
Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of “social justice” is a significant shift—and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.
Over the years, I’ve fought a number of polemical battles against ideas that threaten the gospel. This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far. In a series of blog posts over the next couple of weeks, I want to explain why. I’ll review some of the battles we have fought to keep the gospel clear, precise, and at the center of our focus. We’ll see why biblical justice has little in common with the secular, liberal idea of “social justice.” And we’ll analyze why the current campaign to move social issues like ethnic conflicts and economic inequality to the top of the evangelical agenda poses such a significant threat to the real message of gospel reconciliation.
I hope you’ll see that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25)—and that’s never more true than when we are talking about the strategy God has chosen for the spread of the gospel and the growth of Christ’s kingdom.