"Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?"
Mark 8:34-37, The Message
I think one of the inherent risks of the philanthropy trend of the past twenty some years is that a lot of non-profit organizations exist in reaction against a problem. Most of the time these organizations are started by individuals with extensive experience in an area of social justice. Obviously, the advantage these people have is their expertise in regards to the issue they’re fighting. Unfortunately, because these organizations tend to be run by experts, their work tends to involve a long, uphill battle of trying to educate others up to the level of understanding that the experts themselves possess. This is why we see organizations trying to sell their issue to the public. A large portion of their time and energy is spent trying to convince the public that the issue at hand is important.
An illustration might help paint the picture more clearly. A vegetarian who has lost incredible amounts of weight most likely has a considerable amount of experience with weight and health issues. Perhaps this person used to eat fast food several times a week, and went through a long, frustrating process of kicking this habit, working out, and transferring to a strictly vegetarian diet. This person then decides they need to help other people reach the same goal. One thing this vegetarian could do is preach the good news of vegetarianism to whoever might listen, and perhaps even make an inspirational video with high production values to help people realize how severe weight problems can be. Here’s the problem though: until the public goes through the exact same experiences and trials as our vegetarian friend, they are not going to fully grasp or empathize with the issue. But what can they do? Give money. In a society where the middle class has been bloated out of proportion to accommodate an almost universal American guilt, money becomes an expendable resource. Are we trying to donate our way out of sharing in the sufferings of the oppressed? After all, actual time and effort have become invaluable assets reserved strictly for self.
With matters of social justice, we do a lot of preaching and educating, but with any given issue, the people who will always be the most passionate about it are those who have experienced it first hand, and perhaps their close loved ones as well. Raising awareness and taking preventative measures have some value, but the most valuable lessons we learn as humans are through experience alone. A recovering alcoholic who struggled for 20 years can tell powerful stories and plead their case and warn others about the perils of alcohol, but no one fully understands his pain unless they have been through a similar set of experiences. Social change does not occur through education, but instead through shared experience. A community unites only when it understands fully, from collective experience, why an issue needs to be alleviated. We can learn all of the right answers of how to heal every hurting population, but if we cannot fully and deeply empathize with each experience of injustice and pain, then we cannot fully heal each population or bring lasting change in each broken community. This is why we can’t rely on ourselves as a society to heal ourselves. This is why we have to look outside of ourselves for healing.
Thankfully there is someone who does, in fact, fully and deeply empathize with every singly experience of injustice and pain. And thankfully, he doesn’t heal us in this life. No, this life is only the winnowing, the bridal shower. When Jesus entered the human experience two thousand years ago, he told us that his kingdom wouldn’t exist here. He also talked about a cosmic leveling of the playing field. “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-10). So the humble will be exalted, and the exalted will be humbled. But notice that the roles are not actually reversed; there is no vengeance between the humble and the exalted. Jesus loves social justice, but he’s not interested in educating Africans on how to live lavish American lifestyles, nor is he interested in punishing the 1% into the poverty they’ve cultivated. Jesus desires one thing: for his people to repent of their sin and follow him. Whether greed-enslaved banker or crack-headed rape victim, Jesus wants everyone. And the reality is that in most cases, these two apparent extremes are often not as far from one another as they seem. Everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator of social injustice, of the breaking of shalom. Jesus wants the fraud victim and the rapist too. This is truly what it means for the humble to be exalted and the exalted to be humbled. Social injustice can’t hold the gaze of Jesus’ sacrifice.
So where does this leave us? What do we do with our organizations, our insatiable drive for justice? What do we do with our righteous outrage? Let Jesus lead your outrage and your passion, but don’t let the outrage and passion lead you. After all, Jesus does call us to care for widows and orphans, to minister to the oppressed. If we’re going to do this though, we need to realize that we’ll never fully right the wrongs we see. This relieves us of the unnecessary burden of thinking we can and should attempt to completely alleviate suffering. Caring for a widow doesn’t necessarily entail finding a new husband for her; neither does caring for an orphan entail finding new parents for him. Caring for the oppressed simply means being like Jesus. After all, he’s the only one who can fill those missing roles. And honestly, isn’t “social justice” something of a non sequitur anyway? If all of society received full justice, would anyone be standing? I’d rather advocate social grace.