By Alan Bean
“Social justice outside the church is not biblical justice or kingdom work. It is social work. Fine, that’s a good thing. But let’s not call this kingdom work.”
So says Scot McKnight, author of “The Jesus Creed: Loving God and Loving Others“. McKnight has no beef with works of justice performed outside the church, it just doesn’t qualify as kingdom work. (You can find an extended treatment of his remarks in this Associated Baptist Press article.)
McKnight believes in justice, especially the kind of justice that mattered to Jesus. But that’s just the problem, few churches share his passion. Take the issue of mass incarceration, for instance. Over the past four decades, churches have adopted a law-n-order, lock-’em-up stance. We wanted to be on the side of the angels, and that meant supporting law enforcement force the bad people (particularly drug dealers) off the streets.
And it wasn’t just white suburban churches that drove into this ideological ditch; black churches, by and large, have allowed a valid concern with public safety to overwhelm Christian compassion for the last, the least and the lost.
As a result, most Christian churches have either ignored the mass incarceration issue, because it didn’t impact them personally, or have actively endorsed unjust policies.
We did the wrong thing for the very best of reasons, but we did the wrong thing.
So what is Jesus supposed to do? Give up on justice because the people who use his name aren’t interested? The kingdom of God isn’t the church, and the church isn’t the kingdom of God. If Christians won’t do kingdom work, Jesus will turn hang out with non-Christians who share his concerns.
If the least and the lost are in prison, Jesus is in prison. The life of the kingdom is enmeshed with the life of the jailhouse. Those seeking justice for criminal defendants and prison inmates will get tangled up in the kingdom whether they like it or not. They may not be religious. They may be anti-religious. But if they’re working for justice they are working with Jesus.
That is the point of Jesus’ parable about the good people who refused to attend the kingdom feast because they had more pressing priorities. The poor and the lame and the outcasts are rounded up and herded into the banquet hall. They aren’t asked if they wish to attend. They must attend. They are the guests of honor. If you don’t like Jesus’ guest list, your options are limited.
People with kingdom priorities honor Jesus even if they don’t want to. People who renounce kingdom values are relegated to the outer darkness where men (and women) shall weep and gnash their teeth. They may be quoting Scripture and signing their names to orthodox creedal statements, paying Jesus elaborate methphysical compliments and praying three times a day, but they are still in the darkness.
Jesus doesn’t care about your religion; Jesus cares about the kingdom.