Blind Justice?

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 4.22.17 PM

I spent last week at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta. I gave “play by play” updates from the huge event on Out of Ur. With 12,000 people in attendance, school buses and elephants entering the arena, and other bazaar antics the event was definitely something different for me.One thing I didn’t blog about, however, was the pervasive presence of compassion and social justice issues at the conference. These issues weren’t the focus of most of the speakers, but they had a very prominent role at Catalyst. Compassion International as well as an indy film about human sex trafficking were given significant time from the platform. (The applause for the film, btw, was among the loudest I heard while at the conference.) And surrounding the arena were dozens of booths populated by ministries advocating free-trade, third-world debt reduction, children’s health, human rights, etc. One thing is clear-justice is very cool.

Debriefing with a number of friends at the conference, we agreed that the dominant presence of social justice and compassion issues would have been hard to imagine 10 or even 5 years ago. A significant shift has occurred among younger evangelicals toward social awareness, but how deep does the shift run? What’s caused the shift, and will it last?

Clearly, globalization has helped previously ignorant Americans become more aware of injustice and poverty around the world. With the internet and instant global communications, we’ve been brought closer than ever before to those beyond our borders. The generation of Americans raised during the Great Depression is often refereed to as “The Greatest Generation.” Seeing their countrymen face terrible obstacles, their patriotism was aroused. They sacrificed to defeat national enemies in WWII, and then built a nation of wealth and security.

If the Greatest Generation was inspired to care for their country, it makes sense for the present generation to care for the world. The new Americans were raised on 24 hour news television, the internet, and socially active pop stars (Bono being the Zeus of this celebrity pantheon). So it shouldn’t surprise us that they care about the plight of the less fortunate in Africa, Asia, or other distant places.

These younger evangelicals (as Robert Webber called them) are also suspicious of faith without action. The polarization between conservative theology (heavy on the Bible) and liberal theology (heavy on social justice) is being scrapped in favor of a theology that reunites Bible and justice, orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In all of this we should be pleased, and we should applaud the effort to return justice and compassion to the heart of the Christian life.

But I’m concerned.

As I see the popularity of social justice and compassion at events like Catalyst, I have to ask myself, is this just a trend, a fad, a momentary excursion into previously neglected gospel territory that will be abandoned in time? We’ve successfully reintroduced justice to a new generation of evangelicals, but is it being rooted in a fuller, wider, more Christ-centered gospel? Are we seeing justice ministries at conferences like Catalyst because our view of the world, God, and the gospel has really matured? Or, are we seeing justice ministries at events like Catalyst because wider global awareness has simply awakened our affluent Western Christian guilt?

If guilt is what’s driving this justice train, I’m afraid it will quickly run out of steam. When I see the extravagance and opulence of our gatherings-the millions and millions of dollars we spend for the glitz and kitsch-I wonder if stage time for Compassion International or World Vision is a way for us to alleviate a very real but unspoken shame. Could it be an evangelical form of indulgence-penance for a guilty conscience not unlike the cigarette company’s generous donation to the American Lung Association?

Whether this justice awakening turns out to be a temporary fad or a lasting movement may depend upon how we take the next step. Yes, many younger people are genuinely interested in justice and compassion, but will we teach them to root their awakened sensitivities in orthodoxy or emotion? Who will ground them in something more than sentimentality? Can we take them from Justice 101 to graduate school?

  • http://letsmovetothemoon.com Steven

    Yes. This is a huge struggle that I wrestle with all the time. Do I give to overseas missions, knowing that huge reasons for doing so would be to make myself feel better or to be able to say I’m doing something when asked? It seems like the alternative of doing nothing is unacceptable, but at the same time giving to simply appease my conscience doesn’t seem right either.

  • http://quotidianjournal.blogspot.com/ dan haase

    Skye…This is an excellent reflection. I share your concern and it seems bizarre to even think of justice as a fad since it is a significant call in both the OT and NT. What will be tragic is if we allow this to be marketed to death because, “there’s a lot of money in justice.” I particularly think your question regarding whether this focus on justice is “rooted in a fuller, wider, more Christ-centered gospel” is a vital one to consider.

  • Linda

    I’m 55. When I was young my friends and I cared about the environment and women’s lib type issues. Now, women are seen as objects more than ever and the pressure to be sensual is huge. We grew up to be in places of authority where we’ve been able to make some green changes, but we didn’t take this responsibility or our opportunities as far as we could. Our priorities shifted from caring for these passions to caring for ourselves and our families and we sought status, safety and security. I look around and wonder what in the world happened during these last 25 years. Somewhere along the way, we lost our way. I pray the current younger generation stays the course. But, your questions are really good ones. We were Jesus People, passionate and on fire for our Lord. We were Christ-centered until we became self-centered. We were afraid to live by faith, to follow where Jesus lead us, to be confident in our God and not our 401K. Am I being too hard on us? Maybe, cause we have done wonderful things around the world and I believe this world is a better place than it would have been without our investment. But, we could have done so very much more….