I went to college in the middle of downtown Chicago. I lived on Chicago Avenue, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. You kind of just get used to people asking you for money after a while. But one night out with some friends had been punctuated with far more petitions than I could take.
In some fit of righteous indignation and a misguided attempt to look cool for one of the girls in the group, I decided I’d had enough.
“The next person who looks like they’re going to ask me for money, I’m going to beat them to the punch.”
And I did.
He was a short, clearly drunk man who looked like the world had smacked him with a two-by-four and stole his teeth. In his hand, he held a red Solo cup, and I knew—I knew—he was going to ask me for money.
Before he could open his mouth, I sauntered up to him. “Hey, man, do you have any extra money? I’m trying to get on the bus, and I just need a dollar.” I found myself imitating his projects accent.
The man staggered to a stop and wobbled a glance up at me. “Uh, sure. I only got this though.”
He proceeded to upturn his cup, assuming I’d catch the few coins rattling around in the bottom.
I didn’t. In fact, I was so startled by his act of generosity that I sat there watching as the nickels and dimes clinked to the concrete and bounced into the street.
Each coin that danced away into the night sliced neat rows into my conscience. I felt terrible.
This homeless, drunken man had showed me great generosity. Without question, without hesitation. Not knowing that he was supposed to be the butt of a joke.
I stooped with him to gather the fallen change, and he insisted over and over that I take it. I had to admit my wrong to him—right in front of the people I’d hoped to impress.
I insisted that I didn’t really need it, that he could keep the money.
I’d like to say that I added a few dollars of my own to his Solo cup in penitence. But I didn’t. I just wanted out of there, far away from that spot on the street where the disdain in my soul stepped out of the shadows and into the pale street lights of Chicago.
We kept walking. I soon got over my embarrassment and joked about it with my friends. They thought I’d been punked.
I was just hoping my conscience would stop burning.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time surrounded by the poor, homeless, and disenfranchised. And I know how ineffective personal goodwill initiatives can be in redeeming the broken from their brokenness. It takes a lot more than a number-three combo from Jack in the Box to help a man out of the drug-prison keeping him homeless.
Redeeming the hopeless requires a lot of concentrated time, resources, and planning. And it takes the collaborative effort of dozens—if not hundreds—of people.
And I’ve seen my generation step up to the plate. Millennials are supremely concerned with making a difference in the world, and they’ve chosen to plant their legacy flag on the tumultuous soil of social justice. I’ve watched organizations spring up across America with the purpose of freeing the trafficked, feeding the poor, and standing up for the margins of society.
Christian millennials are no different. They champion the cause of the lowly through social media, personal investment, and boots-on-the-ground service. If ever there were a time where the church strove to show the hurting world what the kingdom of God looks like, it is now.
But there’s a part of the way we talk about social justice today that’s concerning to me. The rallying cry behind the millennial generation’s view of the Christian faith could be summed up in the phrase “Jesus loves.”
At the heart of every startup offering hope and help to the frail and failing is the anthem that Jesus loves everybody—particularly the unlovable. Every aspect of the social justice movement has at its core the call of love.
It’s an understandable banner. After all, Jesus’ ministry was directed toward the people in his society that the self-righteous rejected. The poor, the rejected, the abused—these were Jesus’ people. Jesus loved the unlovely.
But there’s a part of Jesus’ life and ministry that, for the most part, goes largely ignored in the popular-level discussions on social justice issues: Jesus loved sinners.
It just so happened that the sinners who saw their sin were the poor and the abused and the rejected. The woman at the well in John 4 was the product of a patriarchal society that tossed women aside when the men they married were done. The tax collectors—Matthew and Zacchaeus and a handful of others—had no place among their fellow citizens. No one wanted them. Everyone considered them second-class citizens. The prostitutes and adulteresses had to use their bodies to sustain themselves in a society that took particular delight in crushing the life out of those very same bodies when the fun was over.
But in each instance, Jesus had an agenda. He didn’t love just to love. Jesus loved people out of their sin.
Jesus’ social activism was aimed at a two-pronged goal: to announce the kingdom of God and bring people into it. And that involved pointing out sin and calling sinners to repentance.
While they perched on the well wall and sipped cool water, Jesus identified the Samaritan woman’s own culpability in her serial relationships. Jesus’ call presented Matthew and Zacchaeus with a choice: abandon their sin-filled thievery and follow him, or keep stealing and remain forever isolated. And to each of the women who came to Jesus with broken bodies, he loved them, forgave their sins, and called them toward holy living.
If we’re going to follow Jesus’ example for social justice, we need to both show the broken what the kingdom of God looks like and offer them the door into that very same kingdom.
In his sermon at Nazareth, Jesus explained precisely the what and the why behind his mission:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)
Why does Jesus heal the blind and free the oppressed? Because it inaugurates the promised kingdom of God. And it proclaims the gospel. It calls people out of sin and into righteousness.
Jesus’ ministry wasn’t about social justice for its own sake. Imagine being the mother whose son was dying of cancer and was next in line when the disciples shut down the healing line in Capernaum. You’d traveled several miles on foot to see the Healer. And right when it was your turn, he closed up shop.
So you camp out. You lie on the hard dirt in front of Peter’s house as your son whimpers in his sleep. The next day dawns with hope in the sky. You’re next. Your son will be healed.
And then you discover that Jesus has left. Peter’s mother-in-law says Jesus wanted to preach the gospel elsewhere. He was gone with the sunrise, and he took the hope of healing with him.
Jesus’ goal wasn’t to heal all the sick or blind, or even to elevate the disenfranchised. Jesus’ goal was to inaugurate the kingdom of his Father and preach a gospel of repentance from sin. Jesus’ goal—and the goal of his disciples after him—was to bring people into the kingdom of God.
That’s the why behind the social justice of Jesus.
Ten Years Since
I’ve come ten years since that moment in Chicago where I watched my arrogance toss the money of a homeless man into the street. The hammer of destitution has done its work on my soul, and left me with a much softer heart toward the hurting in this world. I’m proud of my generation—a huge segment of the church dedicated to actually showing the world what Christ’s kingdom will look like. But we must also consider the purpose to which Jesus called his church—to make disciples. And that begins with a call to repentance from sin.
We can’t have justice without it.
Cover art by Mandy Busby.