The Difference Between Social Service and Social Action
In June of 1982 a group of Christians gathered together in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their goal was to explore and explain their reasons for believing that Christians ought to be both socially and politically involved. Eventually, a report was published, and embedded in that report is something I think may help us think more clearly about all this. Christianity, the report said, when it is internalized and lived out, compels us to engage in both social service and social action. And there is a difference between the two. Social Service
- Relieving human need
- Philanthropic activity
- Seeking to minister to individuals and families
- Works of mercy
- Removing the causes of human need
- Political and economic activity
- Seeking to transform the structures of society
- The quest for justice
The report went on to describe social action (political involvement) this way:
“It looks beyond persons to structures, beyond the rehabilitation of prison inmates to the reform of the prison system, beyond improving factory conditions to securing a more participatory role for the workers, beyond caring for the poor to improving — and when necessary transforming — the economic system (whatever it may be) and the political system (again, whatever it may be), until it facilitates their liberation from poverty and oppression.”
In other words, sometimes poverty is the result of poor choices on the part of the impoverished person. Or maybe it’s just bad luck. In those cases, we should reach out and attempt to alleviate that person’s suffering. But there are other times when poverty is the result of corrupt politicians, racist legislation and entrenched evil. In those cases, we must do more than attempt to alleviate an individual’s suffering; we must work to eradicate that in the system which produces poverty.
And like it or not, that’s going to require political involvement.