The Gospel and Social Justice: Concluding Thoughts on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States


IMG_0513Steve Skojec, writing in opposition to Pope Francis’ calls for action on climate change and social justice, did a wonderful job of summarizing the core of the opposition to the Pope’s message: stop focusing so much on social justice and instead focus on salvation. Or, to quote from Skojec;

As Thursday’s congressional address emphasized, however, Francis’ priorities are climate change, economic justice, marginalization and the poor, while little emphasis is placed on the deep moral and spiritual crisis that threatens our eternal salvation or our subsequent need for authentic conversion.

According to him, and others, it would be better for the Pope and Christians universal if they instead tried to get people to convert. While it’s okay to feed the poor and advocate for climate change, it’s only okay so long as we’re using such things to “preach the Gospel.” Otherwise, such actions are merely indicative of a glorified NGO.

We’re told that the purpose of the Church isn’t to be some humanitarian organization, but to “save souls,” completely ignoring 2,000 years of teachings, handed-down wisdom, and theology that teaches us there is no difference between the two. After all, when Christ stated the two greatest commandments, they boiled down to, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Those are vague enough to allow us to display that love in unique ways, but strict enough to tell us that love should be the drive in all that we do. Within these commandments, and within Christ’s own teachings and actions, we never see a hierarchy of what constitutes “love,” that one action involves a greater act of love than the other (short of self-sacrifice).

The problem, or so it seems, is that too many Christians hold this idea that the Gospel is ultimately about doing what we should in order to get to heaven. What we should do in order to obtain heaven differs from denomination to denomination, but the ultimate motive behind salvation tends to be, “What must I do to go to Heaven?” Of course, within Christ’s own teachings there is never a dichotomy placed between “being saved” and “social justice.” For Christ there seems to be a both/and aspect to salvation, that preaching the Gospel entails both advocating for social justice and for repentance.

In fact, the criticisms of the modern Pope on his calls for social justice are really a repudiation of millennia of Church teachings. Trust me, as someone who is Eastern Orthodox I do have criticisms of the Papal office, I do have issues with their theology – there is a reason that I’m Orthodox and not Roman Catholic – but those criticisms do not extend to his teachings on social justice. Such criticisms show a lack of imagination and historical understanding in attempting to separate the Gospel from social justice. The two, per Christ’s own example and teachings, are one in the same.

Acting as though salvation is about getting to Heaven (or getting right with God), or primarily about such things is no different than acting as though marriage is all about sex, or primarily about sex. Salvation, like marriage, is about a life-altering relationship that will impact every single aspect of your life. In return, it forces you to change how you view and interact with the world, realizing that some will come to salvation not through the booming cadence of the preacher, but through the quiet actions of love.

Certainly, turning from sin is an important thing as it is a form of liberation. But if we cannot move to liberate people from their current troubles, then what hope can we offer for liberation from sin? What is hunger compared to sin? Yet, if we cannot feed people now, if we cannot eradicate their physical hunger, how can we possibly hope to feed their spiritual hunger? Feeding the poor is the Gospel, because the action fits the immediate need while pointing to a future where hunger will not exist. Advocating change against climate change – a change that is harming humans – is preaching the Gospel, because we’re following in Christ’s footsteps by calling for Heaven here on earth, and in heaven there won’t be overconsumption and abuse of resources. All actions by Christians always hold both an immediate meaning and a deeper meaning (much like Scripture). Christians are to always preach the Gospel, sometimes with words, but always with deeds. If we follow the example of Christ, then we’ll find it impossible to place a barrier between the Gospel and social justice; for how can you have one without the other?

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