Whether and how Christians ought to participate in politics are delicate questions. The common belief that Christians are primarily of the Kingdom of God and should always be on mission for the salvation of souls clashes with a desire to use any ability to bless one’s neighbors through good and wise rule (though thoughts as to what constitutes “good and wise rule” varies widely). I have worked on a political campaign, study political philosophy, incessantly read political news and am often told to consider a career in politics, yet even so (or, perhaps, therefore) I find myself wondering what Christianity says about politics and power. While intellectual wanderings on the subject may never end, today’s musings will deal with Christian social justice.
While references to Christianity and religion are indigenous to and continual within American political discourse,* there have been ebbs and flows to the usage of religious imagery and language for social justice. The 1896 Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was one of the most powerful users of Christian rhetoric. His conclusion to his “Cross of Gold” speech is potent:
If they [moneyed interests] dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.
William Jennings Bryan
Cross of Gold Speech, 1896
I have two thoughts on this speech and thus Christian rhetoric on social justice:
First, it’s offensive.
Second, that’s the point.
From my first reading of Bryan’s famous oration I was and have been put-off with the speech. At first glance it appears that Bryan degrades the cross and the gospel by saying that an economic situation in which classes compete against each other is analogous to Christ’s crucifixion. It seems that he is aligning worldly economic interests with Jesus’ sacrificial death to save mankind. I’m offended because part of me believes that the gospel – that is, the part concerned about the salvation of souls – should be the sole goal in a Christian’s life and action. At no point should a follower of Christ compromise the gospel by conflating Christ’s victory over the penalty for sin with a victory over economic hardship – after all, that’s the problem with the prosperity gospel: Christ did not promise material welfare but a right relationship with God.
Upon farther reflection, however, the offensiveness of the link of economics and the crucifixion wears off. Bryan, who was a devout Christian, must have understood his metaphor and did not think it demeaned the nature of Christianity. Rather, his words make sense in light of a view that Christians have a keen interest in the plight of the poor and disadvantaged because they have a duty to improve the well-being of others. While this social justice mission may seem distracting to the salvation of souls, Jesus concerned himself with the welfare of the poor and needy. Talking of his final judgment of mankind Jesus said:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another…Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Mt 25:31-40)
Did you see that?
“…as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
It is easy to gloss over such words and not let them sink in. It is easy to think that the social justice side of Jesus is tangential to his gospel of the salvation of souls. But here Jesus is saying that loving and serving and caring for the poor and the needy is central to salvation because it demonstrates a loving, serving and caring for him, the poor’s loving Creator. And Christ does not let people with an internal love for him but no external service to the poor off the hook, but he states that this service to the needy is that which distinguishes those who do and do not enter into eternal life. Of course Christ says that whoever believes in him will have everlasting life (John 3:16), and this passage does not disagree with that but suggests that belief must not only include intellectual assent but also a faith that manifests itself into good works. (see Jn 14:15, Eph 2:10, Jms 2:17, 26)
It is vital to the mission of the church and even to an individual’s salvation to care about the poor and those who are suffering, yet this mission for the oppressed only rarely is translated into politics. While Martin Luther King Jr and William Jennings Bryan made strong cases for social justice based on their Christian faiths, today the ‘Christian’ political causes are traditional marriage and abortion. While these are causes many Christians deeply believe will help America flourish, Christians and Christian political leaders too often forget about the oppressed, the downtrodden, the strangers, hungry and thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned.** Many have forgotten or just don’t care about the less fortunate among us. I have heard others hastily erect defenses by saying that the church should care for the poor and disadvantaged and the government should keep its hands off the church’s mission to serve the poor, but that is both ineffective and limiting. The church does not and, unless a massive revival in care for the needy, will not take care of all the needs of the poor and oppressed. Also, for as much good as the church does do (which is a great deal), the church could do even more good if helped out by a government with a Christian attitude towards the poor. The church, or at the very least, Christians ought to politically push for social justice.
Today’s Christian politicians should follow the example of Christ and make a strong and forceful case for the moral duty of Christians and government to serve and care for the poor. Though social-justice oriented politicians have a wide variety of policies available – reasonable cases can be made for both free-market and more interventionist programs helping the poor – Christians, especially those in politics, must care about and must act for the oppressed. Jesus demands it.
*See the Declaration of Independence declaring that “Nature’s God” entitled the American people to sever their relationship with Britain, President Lincoln resolving “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” amidst the Civil War, and President Truman saying “The fundamental basis of this Nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount” among countless others.
**Abortion can easily be seen as social justice because babies, whether inside or outside the womb, are defenseless. I find it a stretch to consider traditional marriage as stemming from a principle of social justice. Both of which, though, could easily be considered Christian – though not exclusively so – causes.