Written by Tyler Lee
Montreat College recently held its annual Call to Action Week, and one of the speakers was Rev. Dr. Mae Cannon. Cannon, a brilliant social justice activist, brought to light questions that some prefer to live in quiet obliviousness to. I was privileged not only to have my worldview challenged in the chapel she spoke in, but also at an Honors Program discussion where she dissected these issues further.
At the Honors Program discussion, she began by analyzing the actual definition of social justice. Her questions: “What is social justice?” and “Why does it have a negative connotation for some people?” led me to a complete redefining of what it actually means to love one’s neighbor.
The definition, according to Cannon, has become loose and poorly used. Tim Keller provides an accurate definition of the phrase, defining it as “treat[ing] people equitably…acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status.” Social justice, both Keller and Cannon proclaim, is not just some cause; it is the basic human desire to be treated fairly.
Cannon continued by explaining that the negative connotation of “social justice” largely stems from the war between fundamentalism and modernism. Ever since the argument for modernism began, she says, people have been crying for the church to stay out of matters in which they do not believe it belongs. This subtly continues on social media feeds, where some atheists allow no room for Christian belief at all without condemnation. Because of this separation, Cannon says, much of the church has become complacent and unmoving in a world that is in desperate need for movement to be made.
While many attempt to separate the concept of social justice and the gospel, the root of Cannon’s main argument is that social justice does not mean comprising the gospel, but pursuing it. In fact, she states that social justice is actually “core and essential to the gospel of Christ.” From Jesus’ earliest sermons, He is proclaiming liberty for the oppressed. For example, Jesus says in the famous Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5).
Passages like this show the New Testament’s combination of two Old Testament concepts: righteousness and justice. Cannon then argues that since we are not worthy of judging others, New Testament righteousness and justice all comes down to treating people justly and equitably, just as we would want to be treated ourselves. Jesus states in Matthew 22:37-40, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” However, these two commandments are not separate, they’re integrated. In loving our neighbors as ourselves, we should be loving them as God loves them, sharing the love of God that lives in our hearts.
How much are we really loving our neighbors daily? I and so many others need to come to the recognition that if we really loved our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, then the world would not only be full of love, but many of the issues plaguing our world would dissolve. This appears to be wishful thinking, but the honest truth is that we fail to do this because of our ever-proud hearts. Day after day, our pride continues to eat us away, building up a wall between us and our neighbors in need.
Cannon’s question (and my question) is: How can we continue to ignore the cry of the needy and oppressed? Not only do we blindly continue to judge (ignoring the word of the one true judge), but we continue to flee from helping our neighbors. It doesn’t take an Acts 2 vision of giving (sharing all one’s possessions) to love our neighbor as we are called to. Mother Teresa often said, “Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.” However, people aren’t looking for their Calcuttas; they’re only looking to condemn each other in Facebook feeds, living with only themselves in mind.
In this day and age, we tend to ignore Jesus’ call to love the least of these and instead focus only on fulfilling our own selfish desires. Some give donations every now and then to charities and feel really proud about it, all the while avoiding any contact with the poor and oppressed. These people look at topics such as social justice and poverty and all they see is messiness. However, the beauty is actually in the messiness of the relationships. The real, visceral nature of messy relationships should awaken us and move us to a permanent state of action and urgency.
We should listen to activists like Shane Claiborne, who states in his book The Irresistible Revolution, “I think that’s what our world is desperately in need of – lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about.”
Social justice through relationships and community is at the very heart of Montreat College. Montreat recognizes that we are called to be integrated into the world, to love the Lord and others with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Service is a critical part of Montreat’s mission, and this service is so often accomplished through personal relationships. A great example of this is at Least of These ministries, held in Asheville on Saturday mornings, where volunteers cook meals in a church parking lot and interact with Asheville’s homeless and serve them breakfast face-to-face. Montreat students and faculty often attend, and it is perfect evidence of loving one’s neighbor through genuine, messy relationships.
Working with groups like Least of These accomplishes tzadeqah, the Hebrew word for justice or right relationships. Sure, these relationships will be messy, but it’s what we’re called to. May we all seek to love people more every day and see the cause of social justice as part of the liberation that God proclaims throughout the entire Bible.