“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” ~Matthew 25:40
It’s been the driving question for Christians for centuries: What would Jesus do?
The question only continues to grow more complex as we navigate today’s tense political climate alongside the increasing needs of our community. What would Jesus do to help “the least of these?” What is the role of social ministry and social justice in fulfilling the call to love our neighbor?
In order to fully understand these terms and how they are connected, it is helpful first to
define them. Social justice is generally understood to mean working through societal or political systems to achieve equality, fairness and dignity for all human beings. Social ministry, on the other hand, describes providing direct service to people and communities in need.
Essentially, the terms are different means to the same end — serving “the least of these” described in Matthew 25. While social ministry brings tangible assistance to those in crisis, social justice works to rewrite the societal structure that created the crisis in the first place.
Social ministry addresses the symptoms, while social justice attempts to remedy the cause.
Giving meals to the homeless is social ministry — addressing the immediate needs of a community by feeding the hungry. Conversely, supporting affordable housing projects or behavioral health programs that keep people off the streets in the first place are examples of social justice.
Another example: mentoring youth who are at risk of entering the criminal justice system and are in need of a positive role model is social ministry. Fighting against the inequalities in the criminal justice system and the disproportionate arrests of people of color through practices such as restorative justice is social justice.
For too long, people have looked at each term without the other. Those who fight for social justice can forget to address the immediate needs of the people for whom they are trying to advocate, while sometimes those working in social ministry fail to address the structures that are to blame for the circumstances of those being helped. Therefore, it is time that we stop looking at these two terms as an either/or situation. We need both social ministry and social justice work to truly serve as we are called.
In fact, this is the model Jesus followed during his time on Earth. Feeding the hungry and healing the sick are clear examples of social ministry, but Jesus also practiced social justice by fighting against the political structures that created inequality during his time. In Matthew 21, Jesus protested the religious establishment’s abuse of the poor. By driving out the temple merchants and overturning their tables, Jesus combined his social ministry work for the poor with social justice work. When merchants exploited poor people coming to the temple worship, Jesus took direct action to challenge the corrupt practices in the church.
So, what would Jesus do? We already know the answer. He lived a life dedicated to both social ministry and social justice. Jesus addressed people’s immediate needs while also remedying broken societal and political structures.
It is important for those dedicated to social ministry to acknowledge the importance of advocating for social justice as well. In the United States, politics and religion have forever been a taboo mix, but life is never that black and white. We are called to both direct service and direct action.
It is important to note that this is not a partisan effort. In such politically polarized times, it is imperative to avoid getting caught up in the fight between parties as we advocate for structural change. These issues are not isolated to one political party, and meaningful change cannot happen without the cooperation of everyone.
We are called to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and to set free the oppressed (Luke 4:18). We are called to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly (Micah 6:8).
Let us go forth and make this our mission. Let us treat symptoms of suffering while also addressing the cause. Let us love our neighbors through direct service and direct action.