As debates about churches and "social justice," rage, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert provide a sensible balance in What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011).
They point out that America is different from ancient Israel: "We are not an ancient, agrarian society. ... Our property has not been assigned directly by God. ... Our economy is not based on a fixed piece of land." They conclude that the blessings and curses for God's covenant people "don't apply directly to America or any other nation" now on earth.
Those differences don't relieve us from ethical responsibility, for "we do well when we give opportunities for the poor to succeed." DeYoung and Gilbert write that "the Bible supports the existence of private property" and also "relativizes private property." That means we don't have a right to do anything we wish with what God has given us. It also means that we should not make an ideal out of poverty or an idol out of wealth: "Private property is not what we ought to be living for."
DeYoung and Gilbert build to important applications, including: Don't undersell or oversell what the Bible says about the poor and social justice. Underselling is ignoring the poor, overselling is forgetting that the "poor" in Scripture are not all the poor but "the righteous poor, the people of God oppressed by their enemies yet still depending on him to come through on their behalf." God does not favor giving things that enable those who are poor to be slothful or disobedient.
The authors want us to "accept the complexities of determining a biblical theology of wealth, poverty, and material possessions," which means a willingness "to receive God's good gifts and enjoy them the most, need them the least, and give them away more freely." They offer a useful principle for deciding when to act: "The closer the need, the greater the moral obligation to help." Geography is part of the equation, but "Moral proximity refers to how connected we are to someone by virtue of familiarity, kinship, space, or time. ... The closer the moral proximity, the greater the moral obligation."
This all adds up to the need for thoughtfulness: "Be careful with the term 'social justice.' ... Justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. ... We must always consider the law of unintended consequences. ... For example, it may seem like a good idea to give away mosquito nets for free in Africa, but experience with this approach has shown that when something is free, people don't value it. ... Better to charge a nominal fee."
I've written before ("Three big cheers," Nov. 6, 2010) about the beautiful series of books, perfect for school and church libraries, that is emerging from SEARCH's Christian History Project. (SEARCH is The Society to Explore and Record Christian History, founded by Canadian journalist Ted Byfield to give highlights of the last 2,000 years.) This past year's addition: Volume 10, We the People: A.D. 1600 to 1800, has-like its predecessors-vivid characters with lively writing and a large format featuring lots of artwork and explanatory maps.
We the People starts with the terrible Thirty Years War (1618-1648), "a Christian convulsion that cost eight million lives and achieved nothing." It then takes us through the English civil war, reforms and tyranny in Russia, and the Muslim aggression that ended before the walls of Vienna. It wasn't all bad news-the American Revolution is a high point-but at the end of this period backers of the Enlightenment were pushing for a new darkness disguised as light.
We the People has such vigorous writing that it kept me going on the treadmill. My bedtime reading, on the other hand, includes dipping into commentaries, and a new volume in P&R's excellent Reformed Expository Commentary series-Richard Phillips writing about 1 Samuel-came out last month.