A few days ago, I Tweeted the following:
Jesus devoted little if any of his ministry to dismantling unjust systems and structures. He spent nearly all of his time preaching the gospel, teaching, and doing good to individuals. We don’t live in 1st-century Israel, but his model is still relevant to us.
I was surprised not only at just how controversial this Tweet was, but at how mixed the responses were. Some Christians viewed it as obviously true while others called it “slaveholder theology.” What accounts for the differences?
One reason seems to have been a misunderstanding about what I meant by “dismantling unjust systems and structures.” Numerous people responded that Jesus clearly preached against injustice, challenged the religious authorities, befriended the marginalized, and even cleansed the temple. His teaching rightly inspired later Christians to overturn systems like slavery. I agree with all of that. However, that’s not what I meant by “dismantling unjust systems and structures” and that’s not how that phrase is normally used (try Googling it).
When modern activists talk about “dismantling systems,” they absolutely do not mean criticizing certain attitudes, preaching against sin, or even engaging in protest. For example, antiracist activists routinely chastise people for merely being personally opposed to racism when what is needed -in their view- is sustained political action that transforms laws, policies, and institutions that produce inequitable outcomes. Some Christians have similarly criticized churches that merely preach against racism and teach that it is a sin, but are politically disengaged and are not actively demanding policy changes. In particular, the view that churches should primarily aim at transforming systems indirectly, by transforming individuals through the gospel, comes under particularly withering criticism. “Just preach the gospel” is seen as a cop-out in the face of systemic injustice.
But, from this perspective, it’s much harder to argue that Jesus was focused on “dismantling unjust systems and structures.” He did not engage in sustained political activism, affirmed paying taxes to oppressive Roman authorities (Mat. 22:15-22), refused political power (Jn. 6:15), and insisted that his kingdom was not of this world (Jn. 18:36). While Jesus’ teaching did correctly inspire his followers to seek justice and did eventually transform the world, that kind of indirect action over the course of centuries is simply not what activists have in mind when they use this phrase.
The second objection I received was that I must not think Christians today should seek justice. Here, I grant that my Tweet was unclear. I alluded to the fact that Jesus’ context was different than ours, but didn’t explain how. When asked, I immediately clarified:
I didn’t say “Christians shouldn’t care about injustice” or “Christians living in a democracy shouldn’t exercise their political power.” In fact, I deliberately alluded to the difference in our context today
[Jesus’] model is relevant to us not because we copy him exactly. He lived in 1st century Israel and we live in the 21st century U.S. Our contexts are different. But it still shows us what is primary (the gospel) and what is secondary (good work[s], including works of justice).
When it comes to opposing systemic injustice, I’ve often used abortion as an example because it resonates with conservative Christians. While we try to change individual hearts, we also work to overturn unjust laws. There is no opposition between the two. I’ve written about this issue in numerous places but, obviously, I don’t expect Twitter users to familiarize themselves with my corpus before quote-Tweeting me. That said, it is worth clarifying that I’ve never argued that Christians should not care about justice and did not say that in this Tweet.
While I don’t mind clarifying these issues and think that some of the criticism I received was understandable, there’s a reason I Tweeted what I did. I worry that many people, even evangelicals, are retrojecting their ideas about social justice activism back onto Jesus and are reading him through that lens. This is extremely dangerous (EDIT: just as dangerous about reading our ideas about conservative politics back onto Jesus!). I strongly urge those who are skeptical that this is happening to read the thousands of comments and quote-Tweets I received, some of which I will repeat here:
“he literally said rich people can’t go to heaven then got killed for inciting an anti-capitalist riot”
“I dunno dude, he literally walked around healing poor people for free, and if that’s not disrupting Galilean healthcare, I don’t know what is.”
“white evangelists truly have devoted decades—and imperialists, centuries—to rewriting colonialism as blessed, to erasing jesus christ’s legacy as a revolutionary. then devoted themselves to gathering a cult of millions around this lie. and succeeded.”
“The Gospel dismantles oppressive and unjust systems, though. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc etc cannot stand before the Crucified God, at whose precious feet we are all made equal.”
Note that these comments and others like them reflect not just a particular interpretation of my Tweet, but a particular interpretation of Jesus himself. Moreover, Dustin Benge, the provost of Union School of Theology and one of the most edifying Tweeters on the site, posted this Tweet on Sunday:
“Modern theology: Jesus dismantled systems. Biblical theology: Jesus dismantled sin.”
He received similar criticism, which accused him of promoting “slave master theology,” despite the fact that his Tweet included no suggestion whatsoever that Christians should not seek justice.
Three years ago, when Tim Keller Tweeted
Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.
he likewise received a great deal of criticism, despite the fact that Keller is hardly someone who could be dismissed as being unconcerned about justice.
Brothers and sisters, I realize that my Tweet was easily misunderstood, that I could have anticipated the response, and rephrased it. I try very hard to avoid polarization and to speak carefully and charitably. However, we need to recognize that there are deep problems at work in our culture and in the church. The social gospel and liberation theology are not dead; they are not even dormant. They are erupting.
As I Tweeted:
Christians need to keep first things first. Christ’s redemption of sinners is of first importance. Period. Creating a just society filled with people who spend eternity in hell would be one of the most tragic things Christians could ever do. Acts of justice flow out of the gospel. But they are not the gospel. Both proclaiming the gospel and doing good works are are commanded. The two are organically connected. But the former has priority given the nature of the gospel and the mission of the church. The gospel is a declaration that people need to hear. A lack of good works will vitiate our witness, but it will absolutely not vitiate the power of the preached word. In contrast, good works are commanded and adorn the gospel. But they are not the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. Honestly, I feel like we’re in danger of forgetting how deep our need is and what good news the gospel is. As if the gospel is just okay, but what is really attractive is justice. No. Millions will get no justice in this life, but if they trust in Christ, they will have joy for all eternity. They will have Christ as their king and God as their father and they will be forgiven. That is truly the best news we could imagine. We don’t have to make it relevant or attractive.
Now more than ever, we need Christians who are willing and able to make distinctions between first things and second things, who can distinguish the Law from the Gospel, and who are aware of the ideological forces shaping our culture. We don’t need to choose between justice and Jesus. But we do need to choose which one will be the basis for our worldview.
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