I was intrigued by television personality Glenn Beck’s advice that Christians “run as fast as you can” from a church that has “social justice” on its website. Beck apparently sees “social justice” as something new, springing from Marxism and not only irrelevant but harmful to Christianity.
Thinking about Beck’s advice, I asked myself, WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” and immediately wondered WWLD, or “What Would Lucifer Do?” Which one, Jesus or Lucifer, would run away from a congregation that has “social justice” on its website? For those of us who want to do good, not evil, what does the Lucifer Effect tell us about Christianity and social justice?
The biblical roots of social justice go deep. Jesus, a devout Jew who became an itinerant teacher for the last three years of his life, preached from his Jewish tradition. He quoted Isaiah and Amos, the Hebrew prophets who called on their political leaders for social justice.
The political connection is important.
It’s true that Jesus did not aspire to a career in politics. His focus was on the minds and hearts of the individual human beings he met on his journey. He encouraged people to be reconciled to God by loving their enemies, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and visiting those in prison. He urged people to treat other people as neighbors.
Jesus told the story of the Jerusalem road and the Samaritan who helped an injured man lying by the side of the road—in stark contrast to the two religious leaders who “passed by on the other side.” That story shows clearly the distinction between WWJD and WWLD, because Jesus would help, while Lucifer would come up with “reasons” to pass by on the other side.
Folks like Glenn Beck may argue that Jesus was all about individual conduct and did not tell followers to create justice in their social system. Yet Jesus began his three-year ministry by reading from Isaiah’s Chapter 61: “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” In this chapter (well-known at the time), Isaiah describes the kind of nation Israel can become if it is a nation based on justice. The prophet Isaiah preaches God’s message: “For I, the Lord, love justice.”
This prophet, this chapter, launches the ministry of Jesus. And why not? Anyone who has worked seriously to help the poor soon becomes aware of how the roots of poverty are deeply embedded in the structures and institutions of our society.
As citizens we vote for our political leaders. WWJD? Elect leaders who refuse to change systems that perpetuate injustice? Or choose leaders who understand that an individual’s power to help those in need is affected by social systems that perpetuate poverty? As citizens, do we work to change unjust social systems? Or do we insist that social justice is none of our business?
What would Lucifer do?
The insidious message of the Lucifer Effect is that systemic poverty is not our problem, that we have enough to do taking care of ourselves, our families, and the individuals to whom we are charitable. This is a self-focused, narrow benevolence. It’s much easier to be merely charitable than to accept personal responsibility for social systems that perpetuate poverty. And when celebrities like Glenn Beck label social justice un-Christian, the Lucifer Effect encourages us to go along with the behavior and advice of an outspoken leader who offers us the easier path.
So take a look around. We’re all on the Jerusalem road, and in many ways it’s not a safe place to be. It may be OK for the well-to-do, who can hire private security guards, send their kids to the best schools, and pay for good medical care. But for the vast majority of working people—whose income simply isn’t enough to pay the bills and whose kids are trapped in dead-end schools—the Jerusalem road can be deadly.
WWJD and WWLD. Is the only difference between Jesus and Lucifer that Jesus would help the occasional victim while ignoring the unsafe conditions…and Lucifer would ignore both? Or should we read Jesus’s message of personal transformation in the larger context of social justice, the context Jesus himself established by choosing the words of Isaiah as his first public teaching?
The words of the prophet echo down through the millennia, resonating with the hearts and minds of so many others who are religiously inspired to create justice in our world.