Social Justice and the Broken Body of Christ

The Crucifixion by Aaron Douglas and The Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio

The Crucifixion by Aaron Douglas and The Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio

This post hinges largely on a basic premise that I firmly believe, and one that grieves me because I firmly believe it:

American Christians are not doing enough to promote social justice.

Exploring this premise unfolds in numerous directions. There are many in which Christians fail, there are a number of reasons (valid and faulty) that Christian give for being less involved, there are plenty of ways in which Christians can become more involved, and there is a plethora of indictments that might be brought against American Christianity for their shortcomings in this area.

It would be impractical to try to touch on all of this in a mere blog post, so let’s turn our attention to one incongruity that strikes me as inconsistent and perhaps even hypocritical within the zeitgeist of American Christianity.

Christian doctrine must, like all religions or other concepts of spirituality, reconcile our distinctly physical existence with what is, as far as we can tell, non-physical. How is it that people “go” to heaven? How does God “hear” prayers? How is one “filled” with the Holy Spirit? These are part of a set of very complex philosophical questions that people have tried to answer for thousands of years.

Oftentimes, Christians will make a distinction between the physical and the non-physical or spiritual, speaking of the ways in which their flesh is at war with their spirit, or the way in which their brain is different from their mind or the way in which a spirit or soul exists within their physical frame.  Christian must consider these distinction when judging how they handle themselves, as well as how they interact with their fellow human beings. This brings Christians to what is really a false dichotomy: “Do I serve my neighbor’s physical needs or their spiritual needs?” Is a Christian to feed poor people or give them Bibles? Should they become a doctor or should they become a pastor?

Even as I write this I have to fight the urge to run off in a dozen different directions with this, but I will do my best to focus this discussion on the single most important picture of the relationships between physical and non-physical: the Nazarene named Jesus. Just as Jesus’s place in the Trinity is a logically accepted mystery, so too is the union of Jesus’s spirit with an earthly body a tricky doctrine of nearly unsurpassed significance. In short: the second person of the Trinity, usually referred to as “the Son,” existed at the beginning, long before Jesus ever did. But the Son took on a human body, and thus the spiritual Son and the physical man were fused together in what is known as the hypostatic union. In order for the Gospel to work, Jesus must be a god-man; he must be 100% divine and 100% human.

Christians fail to value social justice when their view of their neighbor’s physicality does not match their fixation on the body of Jesus. Too often, Christians look at issues of social justice and fail to see where there might be an opportunity to evangelize or explicitly present the Gospel or in some way tend to the spiritual side of their neighbors, and as a result they consider it not worth their time. Supposedly, they will substitute this with some sort of direct spiritual action, but I find that this is not the case and usually this spiritual action amounts to posting a spiritual message on social media. Christians worry about wasting their time and effort pouring themselves into an issue of social justice, all the while living a life that they justify with words like “relevancy,” confining their spiritual work to the occasional conversation with a friend or coworker, furthering the false dichotomies of sacred and secular.

Because it is an issue that I am invested in, I will use race and racism as my primary example in this post, starting now: too many Christians, even those who acknowledge that racism is a big deal, are slow to act against it because they don’t think that the Gospel can be advanced in battling institutional racism. If they do not see a way that fighting racism can be a direct avenue to sharing the Gospel, then they see mistreatment of people based on appearance as something not worth devoting direct attention to. The “physical” need (job discrimination, harmful stereotypes, economic disadvantages, police brutality, justice system bias) is seen as being secondary to the “spiritual” need (accepting Jesus as savior, becoming a Christian), so much so that the physical need is just ignored.

Meanwhile, American Christianity is obsessed with the carnality of Jesus. Most Christians have, at some time, been walked through the gory details of Jesus’s death, emphasizing the physical pain that he went through in order to be the atonement for sin. The bloody spectacle of The Passion of the Christ brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, as people sat through extended sequences depicting the destruction of Jesus’s body, including the horrific flogging sequence that is based on one sentence in the Gospel of John. The physical details of Jesus’s death are the most obvious example of Christianity’s obsession with the body of the Christ, but it is hardly contained to this. Communion reveals a fixation on the body that ranges from the most mild interpretation (that the bread and wine merely represent blood and body) to the rather mind-blowing concept of transubstantiation (the bread and wine literally become the blood and body of Jesus). Some Christians muse on the sexuality of Jesus, and most everyone can’t help but wonder about some details that are fairly trivial, such as whether or not Jesus cried when he was a baby. The bottomline is that Christians care a lot about the human part of the god-man Jesus.

What makes this fixation on the physicality of Jesus that much more inconsistent is the way in which many Christians do not emphasize the deity and thus the spirituality of Jesus. Sure, any Christian can tell you that Jesus is God, but what does that really mean? It means, among many important things, that Jesus wasn’t just afraid of being hung on a cross – rather, what had Jesus crying out for help (and possibly sweating blood) the night before his death was his impending separation from the first person of the Trinity, commonly called the Father. Think about this – the Son had been with the Father for eternity. The Son had been incomparably happy, because he was with the Father, forever. But, in order to take the weight of sin, the Son, now incorporated in Jesus, would be separated from the Father. If you believe in that theology (which Christians should), then that prospect is way (way) scarier than even the horrific fate of crucifixion.

If you read the New Testament, you will find a startling dearth of references to the physicality of Jesus, with the exception of references to the fact that a spiritual being took on an earthly form. The authors of the New Testament are much more concerned with the spiritual implications of the life and death of Jesus the Nazarene. However, in regards to fellow human beings, the story of Jesus is flanked by ministries inspired by Jesus that emphasize tending to physical needs. In Lukes’s account of John the Baptist, the Baptizer responds to the three questions of “What shall we do?” with three directions of physicality: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”…. “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”….  “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that the Christian leaders in Jerusalem made only one special request as he set out on his ministry to the Gentiles: “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” The book of James says that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” It appears, to me at least, that the authors of the New Testament were very concerned with the physical needs of the world, but in regards to Jesus they were less interested in the violent destruction of his body and more interested in his spirituality.

And yet, so many Christians go on emphasizing the humanness of Jesus. This is not to say that they ignore the spirituality of Jesus, but it certainly receives less emphasis, and it is vastly disproportionate in comparison to the way in which so many Christians regard the way they should care for their neighbor.

So now that I’ve raked the muck, let me see if I can propose a fix to what I hope you see is an inconsistent, even hypocritical mindset for many Christians.

The first thing is to consider how you balance your vision of Jesus as being both physical and spiritual. But I can’t really say what that balance should look like.

Because perhaps there’s a good reason for the particularly carnal vision of Jesus, and maybe there is a good reason for the tendency to see Jesus as a human first and God second. In Jesus, Christians have the full revelation of God. By taking on the life of a human, the separation between God and humanity was bridged. But it was only through the physical actions of Jesus that this good news might be understood, as Paul repeatedly refers to Jesus as the answer to a mystery hidden for ages. It was because the Son stepped into a human life – a human life that involved friends and family and laughing and weeping and anger and food and drink – that humanity might see the good news delivered to them through Jesus’s call for love and peace in a ministry aimed to be for humanity’s good and for the Father’s glory. Indeed, Jesus’s humanity is crucial to appreciating his life.

But this emphasis on the physicality of Jesus should extend to the rest of his life, rather than just on his death and resurrection.

Consider the story in which Jesus heals the paralytic. The first thing Jesus tells the man is that is sins are forgiven, but of course the crowds cannot comprehend this. They need some sort of proof from Jesus, otherwise his ludicrous claim is blasphemy. What does Jesus do? He gives a physical sign and heals the man so that he may walk.

Of course Jesus came to save the souls of sinners from death, but he also said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Kendrick Lamar knows what I’m talking about).

Which is all to say: Christians can talk all they want about Jesus’s love as they tend to the spiritual needs of their neighbor, but sooner or later they had better prove it.

And, if you can’t see the love in social justice, then you are probably thinking about various causes with a skewed vision. What the news says about Black Lives Matter protests is going to set you against it. What the old guys at your workplace say about feminism is probably really misinformed. Chances are if you live in an affluent community you have no idea what perpetuates poverty. The reality is that American society is progressive enough that average people have ample opportunities to invest themselves in improving the physical well-being of fellow human beings. And that is, from a Christian perspective, a way to tend to their spiritual needs. Remember: the dichotomy is false.

Why do Christians remind themselves of the broken body of Jesus hanging on a cursed tree?

Could it be for the same reason that we should remind ourselves of the smoldering body of Bobo hanging from an apple tree?

I ardently believe that Christians are called to tend to the physical needs of the world, even when there is no explicit opportunity to share the Gospel – I think the life of Jesus and the rest of the Bible makes that quite clear. And I believe there are tremendous opportunities for Christians from all walks of life to engage in matters of social justice and improve the physical well-being of their neighbor. And, through that, Christians can “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” while also providing opportunities to share not only the message of the Gospel, but the love of Christ in a way that is as tangible as a crucifix.

If Christians can come to value the body of their neighbor like they value the body of Christ, just imagine what a world we might live in…

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


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