In his talk on Daniel 4 this week Barney made passing reference to the “biblical mandate to bring justice by changing the structures of society”. I forget exactly the point he was making, but it would have had something to do with Daniel’s words to Nebuchadnezzar after interpreting the dream about the tree that is cut back to the stump:
Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity. (Dan. 4:27)
The talk was excellent and stimulated good conversation. But I’m not sure about that throw-away comment. Is there really such a “biblical mandate”? Is it clearly taught in scripture that a central task of the church is to go and bring justice by changing the structures of society?
There’s no question that God’s people are expected to demonstrate justice internally, in the various forms of their shared community life.
The Law of Moses mandated for Israel distinctive patterns of righteous and just behaviour. It was a primary responsibility of judges and kings and other leaders—right down to the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day—to uphold righteousness and justice. And when things got out of kilter, as they inevitably did, the prophets drew attention to the fact, called Israel to repentance, and warned of national disaster if those responsible failed to put their house in order.
But it can hardly be claimed that the Jews programmatically engaged in—or were encouraged to engage in—social activism outside of Israel. The most that can be said, I think, is that if they had kept the commandments and walked in the ways of the Lord, they would have modelled righteousness and justice for the surrounding nations.
The prophets were not indifferent to the fact that great injustices were done in the world around, but the response was invariably to announce that the God of the whole earth saw these things and sooner or later would act as a judge or a king to punish wickedness and put things right.
For example, God hears the “outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah”, two angels come to investigate, the threatened homosexual gang rape reveals to them just how bad things had got, and so the destruction of Sodom becomes the paradigm for divine judgment on social injustice throughout the Bible (cf. Ezek. 16:49).
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles is often cited as an argument for mission as social transformation. But Jeremiah is concerned primarily with the material well-being of the Jews. On the one hand, they should plant gardens and eat the produce; on the other, they should seek the welfare or shalom of the city because “in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:5-7). This is not mission; it’s self-interest.
How many people who hold up Jeremiah’s letter as a model for social engagement also mention the lengthy and conventional proclamation of judgment on Babylon in chapters 50-51? Babylon will prosper only as long as YHWH means to keep his people there. But then the city will be attacked, plundered, punished because “she has sinned against the Lord” (Jer. 50:14). The ruins of the city will become a home for hyenas and ostriches—social transformation of a sort, I suppose.
Returning to Daniel 4: perhaps having regained his right mind Nebuchadnezzar made a point of practising righteousness and showing mercy to the oppressed. But this makes Daniel an agent of social transformation only insofar as he gave Nebuchadnezzar a theological framework for understanding his dramatic experience. It’s significant, and perhaps a powerful model for Christian engagement in the political sphere today, but Daniel is simply speaking on behalf of the God who is sovereign over the whole earth.
Would we call John the Baptist a social activist? He tells the crowds to share their clothing and food. He tells the tax collectors not to take more than is permitted. He tells soldiers not to “extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations” (Lk. 3:10-14). But this is a call to internal reform, and in any case the basic message is that the axe is already laid to the root of the fruitless trees, that the Lord is coming with his winnowing fork in his hand “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).
Jesus’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with social transformation. It was too late for that. The “kingdom” message was that unjust Israel was facing destruction. John had been the last of the prophet-servants sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel in search of the fruit of righteousness, and the wicked tenants had killed him. Now God was sending his Son, and they would kill him too. What would the owner of the vineyard do? The chief priests and the elders of the people knew the answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41).
What did Jesus do in the temple? He overthrew the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons as a symbolic gesture—the priests had turned the temple into a den of robbers (Mk. 11:15-17). But reform was out of the question. The message was clear: the whole temple system was about to be destroyed (cf. Jer. 7:8-15).
Certainly, Jesus healed the sick and demon-possessed and fed the hungry in Israel, but always miraculously, by the power of the Spirit, and as a sign that a much more significant intervention of God in the history of his wretched and tormented people was at hand.
He set high moral and religious standards for his followers to set them apart as an eschatological community that would survive the coming storm of God’s judgment against Israel. But I think we search in vain for anything that could be construed as a mandate to bring justice by changing the structures of society.
The apostles who took the good news of Jesus’ resurrection beyond the borders of Israel were fully aware of the depravity and wickedness and unjust social structures generated by the idolatrous culture of the Greek-Roman world. But they did not set about organising teams of passionate activists who would work to bring justice by changing the structures of society.
What they did was to establish communities of people who believed—against a tide of popular opinion that would come in before it went out again—that the God of Israel had raised his Son from the dead and that the future would be very different as a result. Sooner or later God would judge his own people. Then he would judge the nations. Or rather Jesus would carry out that judgment on God’s behalf and rule over the nations in the new age that would follow it.
If bringing justice by changing the structures of society was to be part of the mission of the church, you’d think that there would be some evidence for it in the book of Acts—a missional text if ever there was one. But there isn’t. What drives the mission in Luke’s narrative is the proclamation that Jesus has been raised from the dead and given an authority higher than that of Caesar. This is the message preached at Thessalonica, for example (Acts 17:2-7), and when Paul later writes to the church, he commends them for having turned from idolatry to serve the living God and wait for his Son from heaven, who will deliver them from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
Paul urges the church in Rome to respect the governing authorities and pay their taxes as a strategy for surviving opposition and persecution (Rom. 13:1-7; cf. 12:14-21; 13:11-14). Peter writes to the “elect exiles of the dispersion”, instructing them to be “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him” (1 Pet. 2:13-14). These are the New Testament equivalents to Jeremiah’s letter. This is how you should live well in a hostile pagan culture-until your exile is brought to an end.
But finally Rome is denounced for its idolatry and social injustices: kings have committed immorality with her, merchants “have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (Rev. 18:3). Rome is just another Babylon—“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”—and will be brought down. It will likewise become “a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast” (18:2). At no point does John suggest that the churches should work for social transformation across the empire.
The biblical model for social transformation is a long-term catastrophic or eschatological one. Only rarely does a city get advance warning of the coming judgment of God on social injustice and repent-the response of the government and people of Nineveh to the begrudging preaching of Jonah is the exception rather than the rule.
The argument of the New Testament is also that God will judge the nations at some point in the historical future. The churches were not passive bystanders in the eschatological narrative. They had a crucial role to play. On the one hand, they proclaimed the coming reign of God over the nations. On the other, through the power of the eschatological Spirit they enacted in the present, in community, in concrete ethical and religious terms, Jew and Gentile united in Christ, the life of the post-pagan age to come.
Inevitably, embodying that new life in the build-up to God’s judgment on the nations would have had an impact on society. But that was a spin-off effect of doing things right among themselves. This is the force of Peter’s words to the Jewish-Christian diaspora in Asia Minor: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
So it seems to me that the biblical mandate in the broadest terms is to proclaim, according to the historical context, the sovereignty of God—not least over the historical condition of his own people—and to interpret the world on that basis.
This is not an argument against either “personal evangelism” or social activism. But we too easily set the two in opposition to each other and then we let that tension pull mission apart. The lesson to be learnt from scripture, I think, is that neither personal salvation nor social activism makes much sense as mission without the containing narrative about God in history.
That is as true now as it was for Daniel or John the Baptist or Jesus or Paul or Peter or John the apocalypticist. But we are tongue-tied, inarticulate. We don’t know how to say it.