Saturday, 9 August 2008

The cross and society: a heart for social justice

I've been thinking for a while that I'd like to do an occasional series on the cross and its implications wider than the call to evangelism and salvation of individuals who trust Jesus.

It's true that these are massive and glorious implications of Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection. Yet I fear that one of the reasons that some feel uneasy about a penal and substitutionary understanding of Jesus' death on the cross (that Jesus took our punishment in our place and in our shoes) is that they perceive that it has nothing to say more widely than the salvation of the individual. One university chaplain I know claimed to hold exactly this position in relation to penal substitution. Yet over the past year or so, as I've been reading Scripture, I've noticed that a whole load of wider implications flow from holding this position, which I plan to survey in a series of posts. Here's the first one.

The cross and social justice

God presented [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:25-26, my emphasis]

Often evangelism and campaigning for issues in social justice seem to be set against each other as activities that Christians should engage in and pursue. Non-evangelical Christians often seem to have a much better record at being a voice for and campaigning for those who most often suffer injustice in the world today. I've also noticed that when evangelicals do speak about issues of social justice, it's almost inevitably spoken out with no reference to the cross whatsoever. It's as if we know we should care about the downtrodden and abused, but resort to a kind of proof-texting outside of a Biblical theology that points to Jesus' death and resurrection.

Yet one of the things that that a penal model of the cross says above all is this: God is bothered about ensuring that justice is done (see the quote from Romans, above). A penal understanding of the cross is based upon the (Scriptural) premise that a holy God demands that justice must be done. A holy God cannot just acquit guilty people of their sin (contra Allah of the Qur'an). This need for justice to be done flows from the very character of the God of the Bible - he would cease to be fair to his character if justice were not done. And so one of the things characterising the heartbeat of God is a heartbeat for justice to be done. By implication, through the cross we see that one of the things that God hates (we might state it even more strongly: something that he will ultimately not tolerate) is when injustice is done in his world and when evil appears to have the last say.

God's hatred of injustice that climaxes at the cross can be seen throughout Scripture. I've always found the description of God in Deuteronomy 10:17-18 moving: God cares about justice for those who, in Old Testament society, were the least likely to receive it. Perhaps today God would describe himself as the one 'who defends the cause of the abused child and the mentally disabled, and loves the asylum seeker and the dispossessed, giving them food and clothing'. Those who are unable to easily tend to themselves and those who are most likely to be abused are those who God speaks for. God passionately cares for justice. (See also a post I wrote on Jesus' parable of the unjust judge and the persistant widow, which I believe is all about God working justice for those of his people who are experiencing injustice today).

It's true that ultimately God's justice will be delivered, when Jesus returns and finally rights all wrongs in judgement of all. It's also true that being realistic about human sin means that we will never be able to eradicate all poverty or social ills. Yet God's passionate ache for justice that demanded a penal sacrifice of Christ endures today. God's heart still breaks as injustice goes on in the world.

I grant that the ultimate need of each individual in the world is to be reconciled to God through Christ. Evangelism is of vital importance - and I'm not wanting to dull anyone's commitment to proclamation of the gospel. My fear is rather that, as evangelicals, often we imply that we need not care about justice for the abused today because justice will one day be done, and we abdicate our responsibility to social justice in the name of evangelism. To do this is to see our own desires and passions diverge from those of the Lord. The cross reminds us that to be unbothered about injustice is to tolerate something that God himself hates.

So what?

The cross speaks of the God who will not let injustice have the last say in his universe. To share God's heart is to be stirred into action by the injustice we see. So why not, for starters, take a few minutes to...

Sign the Micah call
Lobby your MEP about renegotiating trade rules for Africa
Pray for the persecuted church


Dave K said...

Glad you decided to do a series on this. It is something I needed to be challenged on.

But, is justice and the cross the best starting point for social justice? Or should it be love, or mercy? Those are in the cross too and they may be more comprehensive in their demands on us.

Also, how do we link 'social justice' with individual salvation. I feel that they are not independent implications of the one event, but how would you draw the connections?

peterdray said...

I agree that, of course, God's love and mercy are supremely seen at the cross and that there are massive challenges that flow from them both. I guess the reason that I particularly wanted to take the line on justice was because sometimes we think like this:

(1) I'm called to love others
(2) The supreme need that unbelivers face is to be reconciled to God through Christ
(3) Therefore anything I do to 'love' people isn't really love unless its telling them the gospel.

I think in some circles acting in love in social engagement is seen as a bit of a cop-out. I was wanting to argue that a penal substitutionary theology also validates combatting injustices.

I'm not sure what your last paragraph is driving at - perhaps you could elucidate and then I'll respond?

Dave K said...

I see now. That makes sense to me. I think you succeed in your aims.

However... as we were going through Christianity Explored a few months ago it kept on coming up in Mark that Jesus went around seeking opportunities to preach, but not to heal! I felt that the healings were spontaneous outpourings of love when confronted with need. Jesus prioritised teaching when there are thousands of people doing just that today when he could help people practically in ways far beyond our ability. Teaching is a high privilege.

So although social engagement is not a cop out, it is secondary to the declaration of the gospel. We should be involved in social engagement whenever the opportunity is there (and you pointed out some good ones), but it must not get in the way of the preaching.

I suppose there is a distinction between the symptom and the cause. Death and injustice came because of sin and expulsion from God's presence. Life and justice come through new obedient hearts and reconciliation with God.

Doctors do all they can to relieve the symptoms, but not if it is preventing them administering the cure.

Now I'm doubting myself. Have I looked at myself in a mirror, gone away, and forgotten what I look like?

Sorry, that is just my mind wandering off responding to your comment as I try and think things through for myself.

Oh yes, my last paragraph. Sorry for being unclear. I was trying to ask you how you avoid having the implications of penal substitution being just a list of points, i.e. 'from this doctrine we can draw out the following lessons:

1. We should tell others about this glorious event.
2. We should trust Christ died for us.
3. We should emulate God's justice demonstrated here.
4. We should see Christ glorified in his suffering.
5. We should see the suffering of Christ and follow him in it.

These points can seem disconnected and unsynthesised. What does a theology of the cross look like which includes all these as mutually entwined doctrines which support each other?

Don't worry, you're not obliged to answer. It's your blog.

peterdray said...

Hmmn. Now you've got me thinking...

I guess that perhaps clearest that the Bible gets to a 'coherent' synthesis that ties these strands of teaching flowing from the cross is Philippians 2:5-11, which says I should look at the cross and:

1. In humility treat others better than myself (looking to the needs of others before my own);
2. In doing this to submit myself to the will of God the Father and trust him to work out the implications in my life and death.

Gospel humility will sometimes mean telling someone the gospel, and it will sometimes mean serving them in love in other ways too. I think it means seeking to meet real needs as best I can in the strength of God's grace. A person's deepest need is to know Christ, and so there's no way that this can never be on my agenda. But there are other real needs too which I am called to try and meet as I humbly put others before myself as Christ did. There are certain situations where I'd perhaps want to meet these first. Either way, Scripture would seem to say we'll know what the right thing to do is when we let compassion drive us.

I don't know whether humility and submission to the will of the Father flow directly from a penal and substitutionary view of the cross (although Gethsemane would perhaps render Jesus' humility more graphically - he knew that he was about to face 'the cup', yet in humility became obedient to death) - yet is this the coherent synthesis we're searching for?

What do you think?

Dave K said...

You've got me thinking too.

Phil 2 is good to work through though.

We are to have the mind of Christ. From that union with Jesus and 'participation in the Spirit' flows out actions like those of Christ. This is a person who is humble enough to except shameful death instead of grasping glory. This is a person who's humility did not stop at giving things to others but went all the way to giving himself by identifying with others.

... thinking aloud.

Perhaps there isn't a coherent synthesis apart for the character and person of God. That is where the threads come together and not in penal substitution. But then again maybe not... because the penal substitutionary death of Jesus is (I dare to say) where we see the character and person of God most clearly revealed. So in that doctrine we see the God we worship and so from it flows humility, self-sacrifice, a desire for justice, etc in our lives in this world.

So I think that the synthesis comes in God himself, but because we see God most clearly in his cross and resurrection penal substitution is a valid place to look for a justification for social justice.

Still working it through... thanks as ever for the motivations to think.箭靶子顏竹 said...

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