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.


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