The Bible and Social Justice

A review of “When Helping Hurts” (Moody Press: 2012)

Today, there is a new movement for social justice in the church.  From the words of Pope Francis to the teachings of many young evangelical pastors, there is a broad encouragement to serve our fellow humans and to pursue justice.  While the Catholic Church has a strong tradition of social justice teachings, many evangelical churches struggle with a less-than-thought-through approach to the “how,” “what,” and “why” of justice.  The questions that these evangelicals ask are: “what does the Bible say?” and “how does this translate into today’s context?”  

An important book published in 2009 and revised in 2012 entitled When Helping Hurts attempts to answer some of these questions.  Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert try to broaden the evangelical toolbox while avoiding the divisive political analysis that usually separates the right from the left.  They have succeeded to the extent that they enjoy endorsements from Joel Belz (on the right) and Ron Sider (on the left).  In an earlier work, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (Divided by Faith, 2000) pointed out evangelicals tend to view social issues in terms of personal relationships, leading to “simplistic and unidimensional solutions to complex social problems.”  Expanding the toolbox beyond individual and interpersonal relationships is necessary to understand and address the systematic and structural injustice in society and the world.  Corbett and Fikkert make a move in that direction.

Yet the evangelical strength is relational, and Corbett and Fikkert start there.  Their analysis of poverty starts with our broken relationship with God and the consequent broken relationship with our fellow human beings. They then lead the reader through a series of anecdotal and hypothetical situations that represent typical evangelical responses to social justice.  This gently allows the reader to see that good intensions are not good enough, and that well-meaning efforts based upon simplistic understanding of the problems often result in more harm than good.  They then introduce the reader to more structural approaches such as micro-lending and asset-based community development. 

Corbett and Fikkert are especially critical of the growing trend among large churches to abandon the traditional approach to missions, which is to partner with an experienced agency.  They challenge the prideful motivation and unspoken superiority complex that drives many churches to attempt to directly address poverty in the Majority (that is Non-Western) world.  Almost always, these direct efforts are harmful to recipients. 

Do the authors succeed?  To the extent that they help churches go beyond the stereotypical understanding of poverty they do.  If white evangelicals, who are mostly middle-class and suburban, can see that the problem is not “them” but “us,” a strong step forward will have been made.  However, their careful avoidance of public policy when analyzing the causes and solutions to systemic injustice leaves a gaping hole.  But perhaps they realize that once that bridge is crossed they risk losing much of their audience.