Public Square

What the Social Justice Movement Is Missing

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Whether or not you identify yourself with the social justice movement, as Christians, we are all for social justice because Jesus represents all that is truly just. No other institution on earth has a greater interest in justice and human flourishing than the church.

Social justice advocates are focused on fighting poverty from all sectors of society, especially through the church and the government. Whether it’s volunteering with a homeless outreach project with your church or protesting in front of the Capitol for economic justice, advocates recognize they must fight poverty from all sectors of society to be effective.

Different institutions can accomplish different things for poverty. If we want to be good stewards of our resources and meet the needs of the poor in the most effective way possible, we must deeply consider who does poverty relief best.

The answer to this question is exactly what the modern social justice movement is missing.

Who Does It Best?

How we do something matters just as much as what we’re doing. When it comes to issues of poverty and hunger, we seem to have the “what” down, but the “how” questions are much more difficult to answer.

If we want to take seriously our Christian call to love thy neighbor, we must ask, “Who does it best?” while considering three different institutions: church, government, and business.

The church, government, and business are all ordained by God and each have a very important role to play in poverty relief. But each exists for a much different purpose than the other. It’s important to take a close look at the strengths and limitations of each institution to understand the best way to promote the common good.

The Forgotten Institution (and Source of Prosperity)

Between 1981 and 2005, the World Bank reported the number of people living on $1.25 per day or less decreased from 52% to 26%. That’s amazing. In one generation, extreme poverty was cut in half. How did that happen?

Peter Greer, president of HOPE International, says this was not due to church charity or government programs, but business and job creation. Business is often the forgotten institution when the church comes together to fight poverty. In For the Least of These, he says,

For too long, capitalism was treated as a bystander in poverty alleviation and human development. Rock stars and air activists were calling for more charity and a greater response from the global community, but few were calling for investment in entrepreneurship and policies that promote economic development.

Why are activists coming together promoting business as a more effective solution to worldwide poverty than church charity or government aid? Only because business can do something neither the church nor the government can do: create economic prosperity over the long haul.

The church, private charities, and the government can transfer wealth from one person to another – a church through donations and a government through taxes. This can be a short-term solution to poverty. But only business offers a sustainable solution because it can generate the prosperity needed to reduce poverty over the long-term.

However, business can’t do everything for poverty. Just like any other system or institution on earth, it’s flawed. And that’s when we look to the help of charities and government programs.

The Most Effective Charity

The government plays an important role in securing individual rights and rule of law that make a just, free, and flourishing society possible. But one resource the government will never have is a personal relationship.

Your church can know a person’s needs in a way the government cannot because your church is closer to the problem. Your church can love a person in a way that a government cannot because your church is closer to the person.

We cannot forget the unique role God has given his church to reach out and actively care for the spiritual and physical needs of everyone—especially those in need—in ways that business and government will never be able to.

We need the church, the government, and business involved in alleviating poverty. Realizing the capabilities and limitations of each institution will help us better understand how to do that more effectively.

Is Poverty Too Big for the Church?

Poverty is too big for the church as a stand-alone institution, but poverty is not too big for the body of Christ.

The body of Christ is made up of legislators, entrepreneurs, and volunteers; courts, businesses, and charities. Each institution, each organization, and each person has a unique role to play in God’s Kingdom. Then who does poverty relief best? We do poverty relief best.

The church today is equipped now more than ever to take God’s call to help others flourish. The social justice movement is fueling the charge with energy and enthusiasm, but it will ultimately fall short without seriously thinking about who does poverty relief best.

Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of our institutions will change the way we fight poverty. Our efforts will be more effective. Our methods will be more dignifying. And the results will be unprecedented.

So what if we thought of entrepreneurs as someone God has called to create prosperity to lift their community out of poverty? And legislators as someone God has called to preserve justice for the vulnerable? What if we thought of the church as the primary social safety net?

That would be a taller order. But it would also look a lot more like social justice.

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  • William F. Powers

    Excellent article. Thank you.

    I hurt for the needy, here in our country and around the world. However, I have long thought that what goes by the name “charity”—whether by church OR state—is only good as a temporary measure. The gifts only last as long as the transfers take place. As a result the recipient is never in control and is always at the mercy of the giver. If the chain is ever disrupted for any reason the poor are back in dire straits.

    The old adage really is true: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” People need and—for the most part—want to support themselves and make a contribution to their fellow man. Business gives them that opportunity.

    I am a Christian and am glad that churches, synagogues, and other charitable groups help the poor and disadvantaged. When those gifts help people through hard times it is fantastic and helpful. When those gifts become the source of reliance they become counterproductive and even harmful.

  • Kevin Raymond

    I think this article hits it right on the head. i just need a way to put into action. thank you for your insight.

  • Pedro

    Thanks Elise. That’s a good reflection on the issue.

    While “a church”, and “the Church” are two different things, neither seem interested in honoring business / vocation of laity. Instead, I sense that business is judged as not much more than a financially necessary evil. (Businesses employ and pay laity that can then contribute to the salaries of the ‘professional Christians’ whose vocation is Gospel proclamation.)

    The Church has erected a hierarchy of holiness that places foreign missionaries at the top with ‘full time church staff’ just below them. Laity is at the bottom of the holiness hierarchy and is good primarily as the source of funds to facilitate the ‘real work’ of those higher up the hierarchy.
    Local churches don’t seem to realize that the Social Justice work of God is already being done by the body of Christ in businesses the world over.

    Until local churches see it differently, they will continue to believe that they, and perhaps some para-church 501c3’s, are the only holy solutions to social justice issues.

  • Brent Morris

    Well written and great insights. The most impactful mobilizations of people within churches are where churches depend upon the intelligence and work being performed in the communities by para-church organizations and non-profits.Personal relationships are indeed key to serving people and fighting injustice

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