In the 1980s when I first made my church debut, my neighborhood was a terrifying drug supermarket and what it lacked in trees it made up for in burned-out buildings. Save for a three- or four-year period of my life, I have attended church nearly every Sunday since I was eight days old. My parents have pastored a church in the Alphabet City part of Manhattan for decades. With the exception of my family, most of the congregation in our church were people of color, many of whom were recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Some of them were illiterate, others grappling with this new and incurable disease called HIV/AIDS, and others had grown up in nightmarish conditions (sexual and physical abuse, systemic poverty).
Having grown up in this community, I have been aware of social justice issues for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen the need for poverty alleviation; for good public health initiatives; for providing robust education; and for racial justice. These experiences shaped my politics, my education, my career ambitions and plans. I have never really had much patience for faith without works, not just on the personal, local level, but also when it comes to tearing down unjust systems of oppression. To me, there cannot be talk about the gospel without examining how it plays out in public life and in public systems.
But the deeper I plunge into knowing and loving God and being known and loved by him, the more I have been humbled by the realization that the job of saving this world has already been filled, wonderfully and effectively by Someone else.
I have been humbled by seeing my own spiritual poverty, the disease of sin that ravages the world around me and is present in my own heart, and my woeful ignorance of God and the way his world was meant to work.
I have been humbled by the recognition that because this world is imperfect and groaning to be made new, even my best attempts at setting things right will be paltry and insufficient for what really plagues the human condition.
Please don’t get me wrong: As a Christian, I absolutely believe that we should be at the forefront of movements to “loose the chains of injustice” and to create a world that reflects the loving, generous, just, merciful, and gracious heart of God. How amazing that God chooses to use us—imperfect, inefficient instruments that we are—to be his hands, feet, and mouthpieces?
And yet, if those movements are not coming along with a desire to reflect God’s goodness and glory, they will always fall short of the kind of changed hearts and minds we most need. We may be able to make living in this world a better experience, but sin and evil will always be present. We may be able to reduce the number of the poor, the persecuted, the hungry, but human flourishing is not just about material security. A movement that doesn’t also help people know a good and glorious God is one that sees the world as all there is. And that can’t possibly be true.
Because when I think back to the church of my youth, I remember my fondest memories of worshiping God. This was the real thing—people who needed Jesus finding him and holding nothing back, giving him all the praise and worship due him. I have never seen anything like that since. These men and women were spiritual millionaires and would probably bristle at the idea that the hope and salvation and deliverance that God offered were slippery, intangible notions disguised as material solutions.
Despite the messiness of their lives, this community experienced the radical miracle of God seeing their poverty, their sickness, their inability to even read his word, and meeting them. He healed them. He loved them. He filled their souls and affirmed the dignity that every human most needs: To know that their Creator loves them.
In the book of Jeremiah, God is described as “the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth” because it is “in those things he delights.” That wholeness includes all the personal and public, social and individual needs this world has. As Christians, wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we need to be people who delight in practicing steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.