Justice Work is Kingdom Work: My Response to Scot McKnight
February 5, 2013 3 Comments
Recently Scot McKnight (New Testament professor, blogger, and popular author) addressed those gathered for the National Conference on Youth Ministries. In his address he made a stark distinction between “Kingdom work” and “social justice” and called on the youth ministers gathered there to direct their youth toward the former rather than the latter. I first heard about his address through Twitter as people live-tweeted the event. My initial reaction was something like, “That’s interesting, and I think I get what he’s saying, but it sure seems like he’s overstating his case and talking to the wrong group of people…”
A few days later I was approached by The Christian Chronicle to respond to his remarks. And, after reading the entirety of his address, I became less charitable and more critical. The Chronicle has since published the article about the event, and included a link to Dr. McKnight’s full address and my full response on their blog. For convenience I’ve included my full remarks below. However, I encourage you to read his full remarks as well as my response. I’d love to hear what you think about the exchange.
I hear what he’s saying but think he’s speaking to the wrong audience. There may, indeed, be Christians for whom a commitment to social justice has replaced a commitment to a local church or the Church at large. However, I think he’d be hard-pressed to find a significant number of those people within the churches of Christ. Rather, the historical lack in the churches of Christ has been deep commitments to those aspects of the faith that go beyond what is done in Sunday worship. The people he has in mind, it would seem to me, would be certain streams of the mainline churches rather than members of the churches of Christ. Even our most social justice oriented ministries tend to remain deeply tied to the life of a local church or churches. For instance, Made in the Streets, a ministry that serves homeless children living in Nairobi slums, attracts college students from colleges and universities across the United States who see serving with the ministry as a way to serve the kingdom through a justice ministry. However, life at MITS revolves around the life of the Kamulu Church of Christ as much as it does the ministry center in the Eastleigh slum. I simply do not think the problem Scot identifies is one which is widespread in the fellowship of the churches of Christ.
My second thought is that Scot is right, he really has no idea what social justice is because he seems to think that it is only, or primarily, about politics. Rather, most social justice ministries tend to exist in the civil society sector, and are often tied to churches. And he is simply wrong that “social justice…compassion…and peace” are “not kingdom work” (p. 2). How one can read Luke 4:14-30 or Matthew 25:31-46 and not discern that a part of kingdom discipleship is doing justice and compassion and peace is baffling. And, if they are a part of kingdom discipleship it is hard to see how they are not a part of kingdom work.
The idea of social justice arose when Christians in the industrial age who ministered in poor congregations, like Walter Rauschenbusch in New York’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, tried to apply the biblical vision of justice, best encapsulated in the OT in the notion of shalom and in the NT in Jesus’s phrase “the kingdom of God,” to the social structures (like exploitative employers and conditions in the slums that grew around industrial age factoreis) that made and kept them poor. In ministering to their congregations they realized that traditional ministries of mercy, like soup kitchens, were insufficient to serve the people in the congregation. In the biblical vision of shalom these ministers found the resources to work for fair and just working conditions, for example, for their members. In creating a society that was more just these ministers embodied Jesus’s claim that in the kingdom the poor receive good news and the oppressed are set free.
Scot claims that working on behalf of the homeless is not kingdom work, but that Bible studies, Sunday worship, and especially Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) are kingdom work. Why this stark bifurcation? I agree with him that the latter things are kingdom work but I see no reason for thinking that the former is not. I would agree that kingdom work is not confined to the former, but I know very few Christians who would say serving the homeless is kingdom work but observing the Lord’s Supper is not. Again, I’m not sure who he’s talking about, but these people don’t really exist in the churches of Christ.
And this is where Scot gets into big trouble. He says, “Your commitment to the local church is the sum total of your kingdom commitment”. And it is here that he overstates his case. If he wants to push those Christians who have replaced a commitment to the local church with work on behalf of the homeless then he is in the right. If he wants to say that serving the homeless in a nonprofit or through local politics is inherently not kingdom work he is horribly mistaken. Allow me to share a story: At a church I once worked at there was a clothing bank for the homeless staffed by church volunteers. However, the church shut the bank down because the volunteers got tired of cleaning the room because “those people just throw stuff around and don’t show respect for the room.” Now, in Matthew 25 Jesus makes it pretty clear that clothing the naked is kingdom work, and when churches choose not to do that kingdom work because it is inconvenient those Christians who rightly see this call of Christ are right to do it wherever they can. It is not just “good work” as Scot says, clothing the naked is clearly kingdom work.
Finally, Scot is right that Jesus is more than a prophet and that prophetic Christianity “is not enough.” However, he is wrong that prophetic Christianity “is a cloak…[for] western liberal politics.” Sure, there are times when this may be the case. However, occasional abuse does not warrant total dismissal of the prophetic strand of the Christian tradition. Prophetic Christianity is not in all times and in all places nothing more than progressive politics. At its best it is much more than that; at its best it is the annunciation of the Kingdom of God breaking into the world in all places. Yes, in the Church, but not only there.
So, when he says that “work in the world can never be kingdom work” he is badly mistaken. Christians find God calling them to work in all kinds of places and to heavenly vocations not located in the act of preaching or teaching Sunday school. Teachers, counselors, service workers, nonprofit employees, parents, and even politicians can follow God’s call on their life in their daily work. And answering this call is not merely good work; it is kingdom work. I doubt that Scot thinks that people have no God-given vocation outside of the church, but it seems in this presentation that that is the case. If so, I worry that Scot’s vision of the Kingdom is far too small to match the size of the Kingdom of God which encompasses all of creation and all of life. For, as Scot says, where Jesus rules there is kingdom. And, as we Christians confess, Jesus is Lord of all creation.
[In a follow-up email] The one thing I would add to what I already sent is this:
Inasmuch as Scot identifies a phenomenon that is true (which I, again, am doubtful of in churches of Christ), the appropriate response, it seems to me, is not to claim that justice work is not kingdom work. Rather, it is to push local churches to be the spaces in which it is possible for Christians to do that kind of kingdom work rather than, in the example of the homeless ministry I mentioned, forcing discipleship-oriented Christians to look to places outside of the church to do that work. The problem, in short, is more a problem of churches not doing all that kingdom work is than individual justice-seeking Christians mistaking what and where the kingdom is.