Social Justice

IF:Gathering organizers: Jennie Allen (left), Jen Hatmaker, and Lindsey Nobles. Photo courtesy of Moxie Collective. Via RNS

If past conferences such as Women of Faith drew thousands of evangelical women to indoor stadiums for devotional Bible study, a new generation of evangelical women is looking outward and concerned with issues such as social justice.

The IF:Gathering in Austin earlier this month was one of those conferences. At the Austin Music Hall, about 1,200  women were greeted by farm tables decorated with candles and cabbage- and lavender-filled centerpieces. The free coffee came from Westrock Coffee, an organization committed to safe working conditions in Rwanda. But the wholesome, back-to-nature ambiance was just the start.

The women participating, including more than 44,000 online, sponsored 600 children through Food for the Hungry. Speakers included sex trafficking victim advocates Christine Caine and Bianca Olthoff, humanitarian photographer Esther Havens, and Annie Lobert, founder of Hookers for Jesus, a ministry for prostitutes that attempts to end sex trafficking.

Jim Wallis, President and CEO of Sojourners and author of "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good", joins Pete to discuss what it will take to finally win the "war on poverty".
Abstract smoke image, grace illustration, Amnartk /

Abstract smoke image, grace illustration, Amnartk /

One sort of Christian believes taking Eucharist weekly saves her. Another Christian believes his confession of Jesus Christ as Lord saves him. Still another looks to his Baptism. Another to her participation in the body of Christ. One to his repentance. And another to her care for the sick, the hungry, the prisoner, and the poor.

We elevate one belief or practice over another, then divide ourselves as Christ followers by the priority we set when, in fact, all of these are taught as saving by Christ, who alone is our salvation.

Christ saves me, not the accuracy and purity of my beliefs. Christ saves me, not my works. Christ saves me, not the measure of my adherence to a doctrine or practice.

When all is said and done, many Christians tend to look to their habits, their faith, and their perseverance when it comes to salvation rather than to the work, belief, and faithfulness of Christ in us, over us, under us, and through us.

It’s a tired trope that evangelicals only recently began caring about “social justice,” a buzzword that carries connotations of political activism and “the social gospel.” In fact, orthodox Christians have long recognized in Scripture a call to defend and uphold the dignity and well being of all persons, especially the poor and powerless. Take, for example, John Wesley, who led prison reform and abolitionists movements in 18th-century England. More recently, evangelical leaders like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis have promoted Christian engagement in anti-war, environmental, and immigration causes, while facing suspicion of falling prey to partisan politics. At the local church level, sex trafficking, fair trade, and clean water campaigns are trendy ways today for lay Christians to fight social ills, even if that means simply clicking a “Like” button.
As a sophomore at Calvin College, I began hearing a refrain from classmates who had shed their evangelical heritage like a bulky fur coat at the start of spring. "Evangelicals only care about abortion and gay marriage," they sighed, parroting headlines of the time. It was 2004, and the "values vote" had apparently secured George W. Bush's reelection. We rushed to show that no, really, we cared about poverty and social justice too (unaware that Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and others had been saying this since before we existed).
Original photo by Andrea Sabbadini/RNS.

Original photo by Andrea Sabbadini/RNS. illustration created through

The news that President Obama will meet with Pope Francis on March 27 brightened a snowy Tuesday morning for Catholics who see a broad overlap between the president’s agenda and the pontiff’s repeated denunciations of income inequality and “trickle down” economics, and his support for the poor and migrants.

Other Catholics, especially conservatives already unsettled by Francis’ new approach, hoped that the pope would use the encounter at the Vatican to wag a finger at Obama over the president’s support for abortion rights and gay marriage.

So what will the two leaders talk about? What issues will they avoid? With Francis, anything is possible, but here are some initial ideas on how the summit could play out:



Listen in as Jim Wallis and Sojourners CEO Rob Wilson-Black kick off the new year with a discussion on Pope Francis and the new Pope's influential presence in all kinds of media.

Andrew Abela, dean of School of Business and Economics at Catholic University of America. Photo: Ed Pfueller/CUA, via RNS.

Dozens of Catholic leaders are protesting the decision by the Catholic University of America to accept a large donation from the foundation of Charles Koch, a billionaire industrialist who is an influential supporter of libertarian-style policies that critics say run counter to church teaching.

Charles Koch and his brother, David, “fund organizations that advance public policies that directly contradict Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues from economic justice to environmental stewardship,” says a four-page letter to CUA President John Garvey, released Monday.

The letter was signed by 50 priests, social justice advocates, theologians, and other academics, including several faculty at CUA in Washington.

Former Catholic Relief Services head Ken Hackett will be the next ambassador to

Former Catholic Relief Services head Ken Hackett will be the next ambassador to the Vatican. Photo via RNS.

The U.S. Senate has confirmed former Catholic Relief Services head Ken Hackett to be the next ambassador to the Vatican.

Hackett replaces Miguel Diaz, a theologian, and he gives President Obama an experienced voice on social justice in Rome where a new pope, Francis, has made caring for the poor a priority.

Hackett’s confirmation came Thursday night by unanimous consent as senators wrapped up loose ends before the summer recess.

No opposition was expected since Hackett has strong ties to both parties; for five years he served on the board of former President George W. Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation and he is reported to be close to Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, whose brother is a priest.

Ed Stetzer 08-02-2013

New data shows that Protestant churches, including evangelicals, are increasingly involved in social action ministries.

Christian Piatt 08-02-2013
Man, frustrated, Oleg Golovnev /

Man, frustrated, Oleg Golovnev /

Our church is right in the heart of the city and as such, many who make their home outside find their way into our worship services on Sunday and throughout the week for various reasons. The first year Amy and I were here, we made a concerted effort to allow people to sleep on the steps and in the courtyard of the church if they so chose, as it seemed to be the bare minimum offering of hospitality required of us.

In the past few months, however, things have gotten a lot more complicated. Several fights have broken out over turf, a couple of people have fallen and lost teeth or broken ribs, and at least three times, people have broken into the boiler room to sleep. At least once or twice a week, we catch a group of younger folks shooting up heroin in the courtyard, their needles scattered about in the midst of the greenery. We have found every kind of bodily waste one cares to imagine in the common area, and this Sunday during our annual church cookout, I had to escort one man out of the restroom for masturbating to pornography in one of the bathroom stalls.

There comes a point when the hospitality afforded to those we are trying to welcome in has to be weighed against the safety of those already present in the community. Although the sanitation issues and the vandalism were less than pleasant, the violence, drug use, and sexual indiscretions finally pushed us over the line. We met with the Portland police and had a notice posted that said any loiterers who refused to leave upon request would be arrested.

Christian Piatt 08-01-2013
Painting of Pope Francis by faithmouse /

Painting of Pope Francis by faithmouse /,

Pope Francis quickly is establishing himself as the “peoples’ Pope.” He has actively advocated for the poor, downplayed his elevated status, and speaks in colloquial terms that make him seem that much more human. He has left open the possibility that non-Catholics, non-Christians, and even atheists may fall within the vast embrace of a radically loving and merciful God. And now, he’s even made what many consider at least a benign – if not affirming – statement about homosexuality.

Historically, popes have toed an ideological line, asserting that homosexuality is inherently evil, and that all gay people are fundamentally disordered. In an expression of sincere humility, political savvy, or perhaps some combination of both, Francis took a more compassionate position, adding at the end of his comments, "who am I to judge?"

Welcome to the 20th century, Catholic Church.

Nikole Mitchell 05-28-2013
mixed media religious images, Gordan /

mixed media religious images, Gordan /

The more I study theology and the more I take Jesus' teachings seriously, the more messy my life becomes. 

I was raised to believe that Christianity is about going to church on Sundays, not saying bad words, trying to be good, and having all the right beliefs (and knowing who doesn't have the right beliefs). Within this framework, Christianity is very neat and proper. One dresses in such a way that conforms to modesty (no tattoos and piercings, thank you); one uses coined phrases to know who's really in or out (we say 'blessed' not 'lucky'); one never touches a cigarette or consumes alcohol (because that's what makes us 'not of this world' right?); and one makes sure to only hang out with those who have the same beliefs (for having different beliefs or opinions is clearly a sign of waywardness). This was my world all the way into my 20s. 

Then something happened. Or, in actuality, many things happened. I am unable to pinpoint one thing that upended my world. It was a bunch of little and big things that projected me onto a path of radical living, and I give the credit to the Holy Spirit (and to my husband, but that's another story). 

As a result of those many little and big things, I began to see the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament in new light. Passages I had heard all my life took on a whole new and radically different meaning. Beliefs I had taken on without thinking came crashing down, as I began to hold them in view of Christ's teachings. It was then I started to discover how far off my thinking, and thus my life orientation, was. 

Mallory McDuff 05-06-2013
Teen sleeping in, Myimagine /

Teen sleeping in, Myimagine /

Making an ultimatum about church attendance to a sleep-deprived teenager may be my own version of hell on earth.

“We are leaving for church in 10 minutes,” I said, summoning my most authoritative voice before the lifeless lump under the covers.

My seven-year old Annie Sky watched the tense exchange between me and my 14-year old daughter Maya, who made periodic moans from the top bunk. With furrowed brow, my first grader sat on the couch, as if observing a tiebreaker at Wimbledon with no clear victor in sight.

For a moment, I wondered why I had drawn the line in the Sabbath sand, announcing earlier in the week that Maya would have to go to church that Sunday morning after an all-day trip to Dollywood with the middle school band. Somehow I didn’t want Dolly Parton’s amusement park to sabotage our family time in church. (The logic seemed rational at the time).

When Maya lifted the covers, I glimpsed the circles under her eyes and sunburn on her skin. But I repeated my command, with an undertone of panic, since I wasn’t sure if I could uphold the ultimatum.

When she finally got into the car, I breathed deeply and turned to our family balm, the tonic of 104.3 FM with its top 40 songs that we sing in unison. As the drama settled, I realized one reason why I made my teenager go to church: I want my daughters to know that we can recover from yelling at each other (which we had) and disagreeing. We can move on, and a quiet, sacred space is a good place to start.

Stephen Mattson 05-06-2013

Networked globe. Photo courtesy Toria/

The television flashes images of a skeletal little girl whose ribs seem to be popping out of her ballooning stomach as she sits in a pile of mud and stares at the camera with large pleading eyes. A “1-800” number flashes on the bottom of the screen. A celebrity does a Public Service Announcement for building wells in Africa. YouTube has sharp pre-packaged videos pulling at our heartstrings, and even months after being released, the KONY 2012 viral video continues to float around the internet.

For Westernized cultures saturated with various forms of media and technologically driven information, social justice is becoming increasingly "packaged," carefully marketed, and commercially manufactured to be a product that incorporates the mission it represents.

Whether social justice organizations should be doing this is debatable. Like everyone else, they’re trying to survive in a capitalistic system that ruthlessly competes for our every dollar. The only problem is that we aren’t the ultimate consumers. For social justice non-profit groups, the sick, poor, starving, abused, and desolate are the true consumers; we’re just the financial and volunteer base needed to keep the system working. To do this, organizations are discovering that a corporate business model is sometimes the only way to survive — and sometimes thrive — within the cutthroat world of advertising and solicitation.

Dawn Cherie Araujo 04-11-2013
Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson. Photo by Dawn Araujo / Sojourners

Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson. Photo by Dawn Araujo / Sojourners

On April 11, 1963 Pope John XXIII published an encyclical some initially dismissed as naive and myopic, as too liberal and too lofty. But today, his "Pacem in Terris" is generally lauded as genius and prophetic – well ahead of its time on the issues of human rights, peace, and equality.

As Maryann Cusimano Love, a Catholic professor of international relations, notes, the same year “Pacem in Terris” was published, spelling out the theological mandate for political and social equality for all people, women in Spain were not allowed to open bank accounts, Nelson Mandela was standing trial for fighting apartheid, and Walter Ciszek was serving time in a Soviet gulag simply for being Catholic.

On Monday and Tuesday, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network hosted a two-day conference at the Catholic University of America, commemorating 50 years since the publication of "Pacem in Terris.”

Brandon Hook 02-25-2013
Photo courtesy of The Justice Conference.

This year's Justice Conference was in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of The Justice Conference.

While everyone was blowing up the Twittersphere decrying the injustices of the Oscars, as movies like Argo walked away with Best Picture honors, I was sitting in a Philadelphia hotel lobby trying to chew on everything I’d heard and seen at this year’s Justice Conference.

The two-day event brought together more than 5,000 people to promote dialogue around justice-related issues, like poverty and human trafficking; featured internationally acclaimed speakers such as Gary Haugen, Shane Claiborne, and Eugene Cho; and exhibited hundreds of humanitarian organizations.

While there is certainly more thinking and processing to be done, here are four things that stood out.

Krystal Brewer 01-07-2013
Photo: Movie image, © ffsettler | View Portfolio

Photo: Movie image, © ffsettler | View Portfolio

“You’re a Christian? But you’re so nice!”

I’ll never forget these words, spoken to me by a friend of mine from my college’s theatre program. He was one of my more eccentric friends, more blunt than most, and he was also very openly gay. His exclamation of surprise may be the instance that I remember the most, but he certainly wasn’t the only person during my college years to express their surprise at the thought of Christians living by principles of love rather than intolerance, or at the very least, indifference. 

Elisabeth Teater 12-20-2012
Nativity scene, © oldm /

Nativity scene, © oldm /

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I have sung “O Little Town of Bethlehem” every year on Christmas Eve for my entire life. But I believe this carol’s lyrics, specifically the words of the first verse, invite a little more thought than we normally give them. 

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight

For now let’s ignore the historical inaccuracies of the song, and focus on what the words mean, especially the last four lines. How beautiful is it that through the dark world a light came to bind together the hopes and fears of all the years (I choose to see it as past and future) in Jesus? 

Lisa Sharon Harper 12-07-2012
Arnold Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

President Lyndon B Johnson smiles as he holds up the 'War on Poverty' Bill.Arnold Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

I had a conversation with a young woman I met at a conference recently. The conversation rocked me. 

I represented the faith voice on a panel at a major secular conference for philanthropists. The panel focused on the question: “What are we not talking about?”

One of my colleagues focused on the nonprofit sector’s inability to make real just change in our world because they are bound by the interests of donors who are, themselves, part of the 1 percent. Another colleague focused on the glut of nonprofits offering similar services in otherwise abandoned communities. I focused on the need for social movements to bring about a more just world and the role of faith communities in those movements, in particular.