A Distinction: Social Service vs. Social Action
The woman holding the sign asks an interesting question. My guess is that she does not believe much in God(s), but her question is one that is being asked more and more by people who do believe in God, too. The question for a long time has been how Christians ought to engage with politics; the question is shifting to whether or not Christians ought to engage with politics.
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.
- 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:
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 structural 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.
Perhaps a practical example will help us better understand this difference. There is an intersection near the house where I used to live that seemed to have an unusual amount of traffic accidents. We could have taken one of two approaches:
- We could have canvassed the area, going door-to-door or calling house-to-house, warning people about the intersection and begging them to be careful.
- Or we could have gone to the city government and ask that a traffic signal be installed.
Which of those possible solutions would wisdom inspire?
It’s always good to feed the hungry; it’s better — if possible — to eliminate the causes of hunger. In this way, love, wisdom, compassion, and strategic thinking combine to make us that much more effective.
So...now...how do you answer the woman holding the sign?