Social Justice Without the Resurrection Is Dead
In today’s cultural climate, much is thrown around concerning the term “social justice.” Many are passionate about seeing the many injustices and oppressions of this world reversed into true human flourishing, and seeing the way the world is as different from the way the world ought to be. The primary worldview used as the foundation and motivation for this term is a notion of “progress,” fueled by a passion to make the world better. While I believe that the social justice impulse is in many ways a good one, I want to argue that the dominant worldview supporting this ideology is insufficient. The Christian worldview, by contrast, offers a foundation and eternal significance for social justice work in this world.
The Christian story begins with an eternal God fashioning the world out of nothing, declaring it to be truly “good.” It continues with a God who then culminates His creation in humanity, male and female, of God’s own likeness and image, to then care for and have dominion over creation.1 Much has been written concerning the theological significance of this “image of God,” but in this article I want to highlight one facet of this Image. Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff in his article, “How Social Justice Got to Me and Why it Never Left,” interprets the Image of God as meaning that “persons are regarded as having a worth that requires of us that we treat them in certain ways.”2 Thus, the foundation of social justice in the Christian tradition is in the recognition of the worth of each human being, imbued by the God of ultimate worth.
In contrast, the worldview of progress contains no such foundation, simply assuming that the human being has worth. The claim of the dignity of the human being thus rests on assertion, “unable to specify what it is about them on which that dignity supervenes.”3 Without the foundation of the Image of God, the progress narrative relies on the malleable spirit of the times. Wolterstorff sees this conclusion not as an opportunity for a zinger against secularism, but as an opportunity for viewing the most vulnerable in our society (he cites the Alzheimer’s patient lacking rational capacity) as worthy of infinite dignity.
Contrary to some “Christian” (read: Gnostic) views of the afterlife, which posit that the afterlife consists of disembodied existence, the New Testament view of eternity is one of resurrection of the body. Those in Christ are to be raised from the dead to life imperishable, free of sin, death, decay, and mourning. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 explains that “death [will be] swallowed up in victory,” for those that are in Christ share in His victory over sin and death, they will be raised as he was raised from the grave.
Thus, the Christian hope of eternity is one in which God continually declares His creation to be good. It is not to be abandoned with the introduction of sin and death, but it is to be recreated to new life. The God who in the garden called humanity to reflect His image, is now calling and equipping His people, through Christ’s work and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to care for creation once again. This work of racial reconciliation, economic justice for the poor, care for the elderly, and other social justice concerns, modeled after Christ’s life, is not done away with in death but will last into embodied eternity. As N. T. Wright summarizes, “God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world.”4
By contrast, narratives of progress or a disembodied heaven do not posit an eternity in which our social justice work in the present will come to fruition. Under these two worldviews, we can have no confidence that our care for the poor will continue in ultimate release of the poor from bondage. In both, the tool of the oppressor, death, has the ultimate victory. The awful reality without Christ’s resurrection is a world free of hope, free of ultimate social justice. Truly, social justice without the resurrection is dead.
To conclude, the Christian framework for social justice, founded on a good creation and humanity’s image of God, motivated by Christ’s work and kingdom on Earth, and transformed by the power of the resurrection, offers a better narrative than that of mere progress. In sum, if you have an impulse to be about social justice, then you should be a Christian. For it offers you a more coherent, beautiful, and eternal story to frame and motivate your work.
A few points of clarity:
(1) What I am not saying is that Christians are able to build the kingdom of God here. Rather, as N. T. Wright helpfully clarifies, we are, with God’s enabling, to “build for the kingdom,” bringing foretastes of the eternally-just-reality to this world. His book Surprised by Hope helped me to understand this distinction.
(2) Also, what I am not saying is that non-Christians, specifically those of the progress narrative, are not doing good or not doing social justice. In many ways they are, and we should celebrate this. Unfortunately, many non-Christians lack a foundation and eternal significance for their work.
(3) Yes, I know. Not all Christians are about social justice. Ultimately, Matthew 25 says this is a denial of Christ himself, who identifies with the poor. Christians are called, not to a cheap grace, but to one in which we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven,” in which we are commissioned to play a role in the kingdom come.
“My friends: Let us listen to the voices and the faces of the wronged. They are everywhere, about us and among us. And let us not harden our hearts.” 5