Friday, April 09, 2010

Seminary Reflections: Justly Social

I have spent this semester in an exegesis course on the Letter to the Ephesians. While there are significant parts of the letter with which I continue to struggle, and some places I still don’t particularly understand, I have deeply enjoyed exploring what I think of as being an elaborated theology of community.

In Ephesians, “life together” is not simply a characteristic of everyday life meant to be regulated by codes of Christian ethics. To the contrary: community is the very characteristic of our salvation. God has by grace “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (2:6, NRSV). Later, the Gentiles to whom the letter is addressed are welcomed into “the household of God,” which by Christ “the whole structure is joined together” (2:19-20). The Greek verbs here use the same syn- prefix we see elsewhere in synagogue; this is a community gathering, not just a personal transaction.

I see this as a key distinction. Often in the Epistles, and likewise at certain places in the Gospels, we find proscriptions for community life, as in Paul’s exhortations in 1 Corinthians on food offered to idols or on appropriate behavior at the Lord’s Supper. It is tempting to understand these exhortations as directions meant to help individuals, brought together by shared belief, to put up with one another. Something like, “You’re in this thing together: here’s a few thoughts to help you deal with it.”

But Ephesians flips this on its axis. Christian community isn’t something we have to deal with: it’s something we have to strive for; it is at the very root of our Christian vocation. Yes, Ephesians later moves into some very controversial language as it proscribes rules for households, and I find myself deeply at odds with some of what it says. But I nonetheless take as its central theology the idea that we are called to live out, on this Earth, the community God has already created for us.


It’s been a few weeks now since Fox News pundit Glenn Beck created another political firestorm by suggesting that churches promoting “social justice” might just as well be promoting communism: “If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. ... Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!” Beck has received no shortage of tirade from his usual opponents, and from some new ones. And yes, I’m here today adding my objection to the record.

But I want to do more than simply object. I’m neither a linguist nor a political philosopher. I can’t explain the background of the phrase “social justice” to the degree I might like. But it strikes me that there’s an ambiguity in the phrase not unlike the ambiguity over what it means to be a Christian community.

Christians should work in homeless shelters, fight poverty, fight for the marginalized, advocate for human rights, and a thousand other “social” issues. The question I pose is: why? Are we doing “justice” in the realm of the “social” – doing good deeds in the world around us, helping “others,” making it easier for all of us to live together in this world?

There’s nothing wrong or bad about that rationale. But I just want to push it for one moment. In Ephesians, we don’t get “justice” until first we heed our vocation to be “social,” to be in community. The first flows from the second: we are called to be community, and so we act upon each other accordingly.

Christ has broken down the dividing-wall of the temple, bringing Gentiles and Jews together (2:14). What other dividing-walls has He broken down? Where are the dividing walls that help us to define our community? What about the ones that separate our neighborhoods from the ones across the tracks? The ones that separate our churches from our neighborhoods, or from the churches down the street? These, certainly, are the first ones that Christ has destroyed.

Christians should pursue social justice. You’ll get no argument from me. But Christians should also pause just a moment to consider what it is that we mean when we articulate the term. I suspect that what we’ll find is that, if we can ever figure out how to be “social,” the justice will roll down like water.

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