I received an email from our school superintendent the other day that read: “I am deeply saddened to report the passing of Dontrae Henning, a beloved member of the class of 2010. Dontrae was killed by gun violence while sitting in a car on Monday night.”
Now, very little is known about the circumstances that led up to this tragedy. But at intense moments like this, people understandably want to ask, “Whose fault was this?”
Traditional liberalism tends to say “It’s the corrupt system’s fault.” Traditional conservatism tends to say “It’s the broken family’s fault.” In other words, everyone always thinks it’s someone else’s fault. While there certainly is blame, I’m fairly confidant that sitting around and assigning blame is unproductive. What I do know is that, like every other 17 or 18 year-old, I made many foolish choices by that point in my life too. And yet I never once felt as though any of those foolish choices would lead to me sitting in a car one night and getting my life taken. What that means is that I was afforded a level of grace by God – a grace of safe living conditions, grace of a loving family unit, grace of a Christian upbringing, grace of quality education and abundant life opportunities – graces that many others are simply not afforded, at least to the same degree.
Now I have no reason to feel guilty about the blessings I received. But it’d also be inappropriate to fail to recognize those blessings for what they were, GRACE. The spiritual blindness of the human condition leads us to take more credit than we deserve. This is the reason why everyone who wins an award first remarks, “I worked really hard.” While they may have worked hard, it’s dismissive of the efforts of others to say you won simply because you worked the hardest. It ignores good fortune and positive circumstances. It ignores God’s interventions. Put differently, the Christian response to blessing would NOT be to say, “I earned this,” nor to throw my hands up and say, “I guess I got lucky!” Instead, the reborn response to good fortune would be to ask, “How do I bless others with the grace afforded me?”
So, for instance, in Milwaukee, we have thousands of kids who by the age of 17 or 18 have almost no marketable skills. They have almost no trajectory of healthy social productivity. Author Matthew Desmond did a remarkable job laying this out in his best-selling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Make no mistake, this is a Christian responsibility. Why is social brokenness a Christian responsibility, you ask? Everyone has gods, but Christians are the only ones with a God of grace. Consequently, Christians are the only ones who can who have the resource of grace themselves to apply grace, undeserved love.
Yes, secular people can throw money at stuff. Yes, secular people can demonstrate social activism. But only someone who has received Jesus Christ’s life for theirs, gifting them eternal life in paradise, will have the resource to say, “Okay, now my life for yours. I’m willing to be hurt in order to help bring your hurting to an end.” On the other hand, if you believe this life is all there is and that the highest goal of this life is your own personal comfort (the highest pursuit of the modern western person), you will never live like that.
Perhaps the most vivid illustration of structural injustice I’ve ever heard was presented in Divided by Faith, written by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. They create a parable in the book that goes something like this: There are two guys, Guy A and Guy B, who both need to lose some weight. They both decide to go to a summer camp to lose weight. But let’s say at Guy A’s summer camp everyone is fit. Everyone encourages you to lose weight. All the stores are health food. And all the gyms are inexpensive and popular. Now, let’s say at Guy B’s summer camp the only place to get food is McDonald’s. The one gym there is lousy and super expensive and you have to wait in lines to use machines. And finally, most of the people there are pretty out-of-shape. Now, of course there are still some important individual choices to be made and personal ownership of those decisions. It’s still certainly possible for Guy B to lose weight through discipline and willpower. But you cannot deny that it’s going to be more difficult for Guy B to lose weight at his camp than Guy A. That’s structural inequality.
Now the reason God doesn’t just give everyone a basket with an equal amount of goods in it to provide for needs is because he doesn’t desire for us to be merely dependent upon him, but also interdependent upon one another. So, he might put two sets of goods in my basket and none in another, because he wants me to share with the one who has none. In that case, we’re not only both provided for, but we’ve built relationship together. And if you’re so bold as to think that God cares little about structural injustice, that anyone who encourages Christian humanitarian efforts is merely practicing a social gospel, I’d encourage you to re-read Jesus’ haunting warning in Matthew 25:31-46. On the Day of Judgment, Christ says the litmus test for true orthodoxy will not merely be accurate doctrinal confession (i.e. “Lord”), but active social compassion.
The reality with structural injustice is that you don’t have to be an overt racist or classist to perpetuate a system that favors some ahead of others. You can participate non-consciously, which is probably most participation. We rarely recognize clear advantages when we’re the one receiving those advantages.
So, to overturn social injustice, you must have two things: 1) Someone must call your attention to social injustice; 2) You must have a compelling reason to change, even inconvenience yourself along the way.
I think it’s worth noting that in the history of believers, despite clear warnings, God’s people have occasionally been completely unmotivated to enact social justice…with painful results.
The prophet Amos’ chief mission in his 8th century Northern Kingdom ministry was to call the wealthy Israelite elite to repentance over their structural injustices. Assyria and Egypt, the understood powers of the day, had become weakened for various reasons. This enabled Israel to overtake important trade routes, resulting in a rapid influx of cash into the empire. But the financial impact was only seen by the professional class, not the working class, which created a greater class disparity. Sound familiar?
The most obvious demonstration that the nation was becoming corrupted by this wealth was the injustices taking place in the court system. Bribes were commonplace. And the victims of a system like that, almost invariably, were the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, and the poor (Zech. 7:10). By profiting off the poor, the wealthy were building their dream houses. God called them to repentance through Amos, but when they didn’t, he finally came down and said, “Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.” (Amos 5:11-12) The God who positions the stars in the sky, changes the seasons, causes the rains, etc. (Amos. 5:8), he’s the one that will have final say on wealth distribution, since it all belongs to him and he controls it anyways.
So our simple filter when it comes to making life decisions and managing blessings is this: Does this honor God? Is this me first or is this you first? The reason any structural injustice takes place is because you have a bunch of people who collectively, defying God, are saying, “Me first.”
Where are you at on this? I’ll be honest with you, there’s a strong part of me that has become convicted that if, for instance, I was born and raised in the 53206 zip code, there’s more than a small chance that I’d probably be in jail right now. In other words, if you put my exact same disposition and spirit into a young man in a geographic area and cultural circumstance of high violence, poor economics, poor education, family dysfunction, and social injustice, he might very well end up in jail. What that means is I was shown some grace and blessing in circumstances. And what that then means is that with the choices and management opportunities I’m given in life, I need to bless others.
Why? Not to earn my salvation, but because by grace I’ve already been blessed with salvation. Rather, here’s your motivation for social healing: Jesus is the one who was literally on the inside of God, safe and secure inside the Trinity, but voluntarily left that comfort to come to earth and be unjustly banished outside of the holy city. Worse yet, Jesus was brutally pushed out of God’s love upon the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Matt. 27:46) But he willingly and graciously did it so that we who deserve to be cast outside for our injustices would instead be forever welcomed inside God’s family. To the degree I recognize that I am the beneficiary of his injustice, I will become a healer of injustice myself.
God now opens our eyes to injustice and to the outcasts (the victims of injustice). Don’t wait till you “feel led” to get involved. I think for many years I believed you had to feel compelled to do the things that were right in God’s sight or it would somehow be disingenuous. I’ve since learned that’s just not the way Christian maturity tends to work. Instead, a Christian walks by faith and does what is right in God’s sight, watches God work through him, and that generates the appropriate feelings.
As the Christian Church in the west continues to wane, I’m led to think that the believing communities that will last are those who best carry out fully what Jesus designed his church to be: His voice of truth, yes, but, no less, his hands and feet of compassion.