A Reorientation to Discipleship

Could there not be a more important topic at the beginning of the third decade of the second millennia than social justice? Simply a cursory observation of the contemporary cultural landscape indicates there is not. Indeed, justice might rightly be described as a uniting hallmark for the struggle of all people. Whether one is seeking racial justice as in post-Apartheid South Africa, religious justice as in the context of the Prime Minister of India’s intolerance of minority faiths, educational justice as in the valiant attempts to raise people out of poverty across Sub-Saharan Africa, or political justice as in the vain attempts to overturn the 2020 election of the US president, social justice is a constant leitmotif and reminder of the plight of millions, if not billions, of people across the globe.

No matter their ideological background, the fight for justice is equally manifested among liberals and conservatives as a natural human expression of what is right. This “rightness” communicates a subjective pursuit of a group’s position in society in order to achieve their sense of justice. While we might lionize the notion of blind justice as an objective realization of equality among groups or people, the fact that other groups and peoples struggle in opposition to another’s interpretation of objective reality testifies to the complexity of social justice. In other words, what is socially just to one group may be perceived as injustice by another.

Even among groups with convictional similarities we find differing interpretations of social justice. Evangelicalism is such a group. Where one might expect to find unity around a set of doctrines, there is division in the application of those doctrines and especially as they relate to acts of justice. There are attempts to remedy those divisions. Christians for Social Action (CSA[1]), a group of reluctant evangelical scholar-activists, hope to stir the “imagination for a fuller expression of Christian faithfulness and a more just society” (https://christiansforsocialaction.org). Others like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) encourages evangelicals to act in causes of injustice, “God is calling us to radical action to restore righteousness and justice and promises to be there with us as we spread God’s Kingdom values” (https://worldea.org/en/news/micah-challenge-reflection-deborah-and-justice/). The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s (LCWE) covenant on Christian social responsibility formed a global statement, even expectation, for how evangelicals would respond to instances of injustice: 

We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression. Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead.”[2]

Yet, agreement on what social justice looks like evades evangelicalism. Here, reflecting on history might help us arrive at some form of consensus as a way forward. There is little doubt that the world is united around the injustice of the atrocities of the German Third Reich. The political, economic, and societal turmoil manifesting in genocide, partisan manipulation, and maniacal pursuits of power epitomized a humanity latent with injustice. Drawing from this time period, a study of one German theologian’s call to “a people who would rise up” and take seriously “God’s will and … a life of morality” (DBWE 10:127)[3] might help in formulating united evangelical acts of social justice. Indeed, at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast, Eric Metaxas famously quipped, “This is a Bonhoeffer moment.” In spite of what scholars have called “deceptive” (Nation 2017) and a “breathtaking piece of fiction” (Green 2012), Metaxas’s New York Times best-selling biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2010) has raised the American, if not the world’s, evangelical consciousness of the German theologian in unexpected ways. 

This chapter will examine Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric discipleship and view of social justice as a potential model for constructive engagement of political, economic, and societal injustices. In addition, an examination of critical theory, which emerges simultaneously in Nazi Germany, will reveal a social theory deficient in application yet potentially valuable for the critique of political, economic, and societal systems. While there might be merit to critical theory, without an anchor in what Bonhoeffer calls the ultimate reality and consummate purpose of humanity—respectively, God and his glorification—that system becomes an end in itself resulting in continued tensions among groups who oppose the theory’s particular outcomes. 

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Adapted from the forthcoming book: Social Injustice II: Evangelical Voices in Tumultuous Times. Learn more about an evangelical view of social justice in our collection of essays.

Social Justice Collection

[1]An unfortunate acronym not to be confused with the Confederate States of America.

[2] The covenant cites the following Bible passages: Acts 17:26,31; Gen. 18:25; Isa. 1:17; Psa. 45:7; Gen. 1:26,27; Jas. 3:9; Lev. 19:18; Luke 6:27,35; Jas. 2:14-26; Joh. 3:3,5; Matt. 5:20; 6:33; II Cor. 3:18; Jas. 2:20

[3]DBWE 13:285. As has become customary when referencing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, DBWE is the indicator for Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Edition, the seventeen-volume set of his collection of writings in English.

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