Individual Spiritual Change is Not Enough for Social Justice

Have you thought and/or been taught that as a follower of Jesus that we should focus on evangelism and discipleship because that would result in societal change and justice for everyone? Until recently, that is what I thought too.

I’ve been corrected in my broader reading as I considered the nature of human sin and a biblical view of mankind.

Niebuhr argues for the necessity of politics in the quest for social justice because of the reality of human sinfulness seen in the selfishness of both individuals and groups. From his perspective, reason alone cannot conquer social justice, “since reason is always the servant of interest in a social situation.” In this way he finds liberal Christian theology misguided in its insistence on human rationality’s ability to enable mankind to become truly moral beings.

…he establishes a moral divide between individuals and groups and their respective efforts at morality. In fact, the unavoidable experience of humanity is the driving self-interest of the group.

… he asserts that individuals are morally capable of respecting the interest of others and behaving wisely when they perceive conflicts of interest….individuals are capable of altruism. For social groups, however, it is nearly an impossibility to resolve the conflicting concerns of their subordinate constituencies in a selfless and rational manner. Groups absorb only the selfishness of individuals, not their magnanimity.

Quoting Niebuhr “..[G]roups are only the collection of individual’s selfish impulses, not of their unselfish consideration for others. This collective egoism of individuals becomes more powerful. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals who compose the group reveal in their personal relationships.

“Therefore all social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion.

Every group, as every individual, has expansive [idolatrous] desires which are rooted in the instinct of survival and soon extend beyond it…. Thus society is in a perpetual state of war.”

His solution is a community in which “there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent [its] common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster.” (p.31-32 n 36) 

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century. The quotes interspersed are from his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. He and his brother Richard, who wrote Christ and Culture, were heavyweights. Reinhold even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. He influenced Dr. King more than Gandhi.

It was from reading Dr. Peter Lillback’s Annotations from a Letter that Changed the World from a Birmingham Jail that I found the quotes above.

Ideas have consequences. It seems to me that evangelicals and their institutions need to re-examine our application of the doctrine of sin and act in accord with the Word of God.


Reaction to Injustice: Double shot of Ferguson and more

Food for thought in light of injustice in Ferguson.

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. – Dr. King to a group of religious leaders

Just arrived from a country I will not name where people are systematically treated unjustly and without human dignity by their own government. Injustice is everywhere.

The news from here has been a double shot of reverse culture shock for me.

I was disconnected from all American media when Mike Brown, an unarmed young black man in Ferguson Missouri, was shot to death by a police officer. When I turned on social media I was shocked, confused, repulsed.

 Let me be clear on a few things:

  • Injustice frustrates me and I’m just beginning to realize it. Too feel it. I’m sorry that I am so slow.
  • I know that as a white man in America I have many privileges. Of this, I’m not ignorant.
  • I know that I am prejudiced, racist and slow to act more than I want to recognize. I’m not innocent.
  • I realize, through discussions with my Latino and Black friends, that there is much I don’t get.
  • Generally, the evangelical church is idling away without acting or even speaking. This must change.

Postings from pastor friends of mine, Mike Higgins (Dean of Students at Covenant Seminary in StL, and native son whose dad lives in Ferguson), Brad Edwards (a chaplain in the Nat’l Guard in StL and former military police), and Leonce Crump (colleague in ATL) caught me up, got me mad, grieving and ready to DO something.

But what can I do? Share what I’ve learned.

Share what I’ve learned over time. My simple start is to post quotes. Many from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and a very insightful book about MLK’s letter by Dr. Peter A. Lilliback. It’s title is Annotations on a Letter that Changed the World from a Birmingham Jail. You can read my review and/or get a copy here for $0.50.

It’s worth the time. Our God LOVES justice. Jesus suffered the greatest injustice for us to be reconciled to God AND EACH OTHER! It’s going to take work – actions and words.