The Church’s Role in Social Justice Work

*This essay was written for May 2016 issue of The Journey Magazine* 

In the wake of several highly publicized incidences of police brutality, in which Black and Brown lives were cut short and their killers left held unaccountable, American cities have bubbled over with social unrest. In response, grassroots activist movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Dream Defenders, organized and lead primarily by queer women of color, popped up throughout the country and have forced America to, yet again, answer for its longstanding legacy of oppression and injustice on a national and international stage.

Conversations about justice—what it is, who’s privy to it, and how can it be attained for those it often eludes—have risen to the forefront of the public consciousness, sparking intense debates in schools, church houses, workplaces, town halls and social media.

Many people, myself included, have been left asking, what role does the church play in social justice? Reverend William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, answered this question of the church’s role in the fight for justice by putting his boots to the ground. Flanked by a small group of clergy and activists, Rev. Barber entered the NC state legislative building in April of 2013 and blocked the doors of the Senate chambers, singing “We Shall Overcome,” and quoting scripture before being arrested (Rab, 2014).

This display of civil disobedience came in response to a conservative shift in NC’s General Assembly in the 2012 election, which has since been marked by cuts to safety net programs and public education, tax increases, blocking of Medicaid expansion, and an introduction of voter ID laws that disproportionately restrict access to the polls for Black and Brown folks. Rev. Barber led the charge for what became known as Moral Mondays, weekly protests on the NC’s state capitol with attendance estimated at over 2000 people (Rab, 2014).

In terms of its role in righting the societal wrongs of our day, the Church is overwhelmingly characterized by tunnel vision of the spiritual variety. In other words, the Gospel has been reduced to preaching the Good News in hopes that those who hear it will receive Christ into their hearts and have eternal life in Heaven. However, this singular focus on salvation falls shy of Christ’s mission, as He sought not only to share the Good News but also to be the Good News here on Earth (Luke 4:18). Christ demonstrated God’s love for people in tangible ways. He healed the sick (Matthew 14) and the blind (John 9); He raised the dead (John 11); He fed the hungry (Matthew 15); He instructed in love, where others condemned (John 8); He turned tables in righteous anger over corruption (Matthew 21); He died for us (John 3).

Rev. Barber exemplified with his ministry the role of the church in the fight for social justice: to show Christ’s love for those impacted by oppression in tangible, compassionate ways. That is the whole gospel. It requires more than just telling people Jesus loves them, slapping a bible in their hand and inviting them to church. When people become tally marks on our sheet of saved souls, their humanity is erased. We must also demonstrate a genuine concern for their lived experiences. Are they eating? Do they have access to clean water? Do they feel safe in their homes? Do you even have a place to call home? Do they work somewhere that provides a livable wage? Do they have clothes? Do they have access to healthcare? Where there is a need, it is the Church’s responsibility to stand in the gap, as Jesus has done and continues to do for His church.

As Richard Stearns explains, our focus mustn’t be singularly on societal ills or spiritual matters. The two are inextricably linked. He writes, “When we become involved in people’s lives, work to build relationships, walk with them through their sorrows and their joys, live with generosity toward others, love and care for them unconditionally, stand up for the defenseless and pay particular attention to the poorest and most vulnerable, we are showing Christ’s love to those around us, not just talking about it. These are the things that plant the seeds of the gospel in the human heart” (Stearns, 2009).

There’s an old saying that goes something along the lines of, when the sun goes down and the house goes dark, what good does it do a man to complain about the darkness? That’s what happens when the sun goes down. He must become a source of light. When meat goes bad, and begins to rot, what good does it do a man to complain about the rotting meat? That’s what happens when bacteria is left to grow. He must become a source of salt. (Stearns, 2009). Similarly, Christians mustn’t sit by and complain about how bad the world is becoming. That’s what happens when broken people are left to their own free will. Christians must be salt and light. This is one of many of the church’s roles in the fight for justice.

Rab, Lisa. “Meet the Preacher Behind Moral Mondays.” Mother Jones. Mother Jones, 14, April,  
     2014. Web.
Stearns, Richard. The Hole In Our Gospel. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2009. Print.

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