At the center of the book of Micah, there’s a promise of a baby who would one day be king.
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.
It’s a familiar passage, one we return to every Christmas as we remember the birth of Jesus. But that familiarity can sometimes keep us from heeding the original context, which can be seen in the prior verse:
Marshal your troops now, city of troops, for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod.
Assyria began by devastating the Northern tribes and has now pushed their campaign up to the gates of Jerusalem, and they have the city surrounded. It’s a siege.
During this siege, with all its fear, Micah gives a prophecy, not of present deliverance but of a baby in the distant future. His audience must have been asking themselves, what does a birth announcement have to do with our current crisis?
What’s true in the circumstances of the initial prophecy is also true of the literary shape of the book of Micah; this prophecy is the very center of the book and the climax of the center section. The rest of the book lies gathered around and focused on it like the little figurines around Jesus in our nativity sets. The book of Micah’s primary theme is injustice (cf. 2:1-2, 3:1-3, 6:8, 10-12, 7:2-3), specifically the injustice of Judah and God’s plan to set things right. A careful reading that notes the birth prophecy’s prominence prompts a similar question to the one that Jerusalem asked: What does a baby to come have to do with the rampant injustice now?
Like Micah’s original audience, we today have been asking almost the same question without realizing it. What does Christmas have to do with the Civil Rights Movement? What does Jesus have to do with social justice?
Many answers have been given, and in our divisive times, those answers are steeped in history, cultural baggage, and accusations. But Micah demands we keep asking the question. I want to survey some of the prominent answers that I see as deficient and suggest one of my own. Each answer can be summed up in a simple phrase tying the term “gospel” to the term “social justice” with a different conjunction. We’ll look at them in turn.
Gospel OR Social Justice
This group sees two opposing camps, and you can only belong to one. In evangelical circles, the most common version of this sees an emphasis on issues of social justice as being an abandoning of the gospel. There’s a historical precedent for this concern. The liberalization of the mainline denominations at the beginning of the last century coupled a forsaking of core doctrine (virgin birth, inerrancy of scripture, bodily resurrection of Jesus) and a fresh social concern. For these voices, the purpose of the church was to seek social good.
The fundamentalist movement was a response to this mistake, rightly demanding that this wasn’t a new phase of Christianity but a forsaking of it entirely. As the battle became more entrenched, fundamentalists became suspicious of even the trappings of the so-called social gospel, such as activism and concern for the poor. Emphasizing these things was seen as the beginning of a slippery slope to liberalism and thus the OR became defining.
This view, which at its heart pits orthodoxy (right doctrine) against orthopraxy (right living), cannot be reconciled with the Old or New Testament. God cared about injustice in the days of Micah and he cares today.
Gospel AND Social Justice
This group sees the church as having two primary missions: to preach the gospel and to do good in our world. Bible studies AND soup kitchens. Evangelism AND activism. For many, it’s easy to see this approach as rectifying the over-correction of the fundamentalists, and it does have an easier time reading a whole Bible. However, there’re some dangers to this approach. First, there’s the danger of perpetual multiplication. It’s like the old Monty Python sketch with the Spanish Inquisition, where every recitation of our purpose demands another thing that’s also important.
The danger of multiplication is rooted in one that’s even more problematic. To give both these terms equal emphasis inherently de-prioritizes the Gospel. We cannot be gospel-centered AND social justice-centered. This camp tends to lose this priority.
Gospel FOR Social Justice
For this camp, like the AND camp, these terms belong together. There’s a very important relationship between the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and the social issues in our world. God’s entire plan is to bring justice (the kingdom), and he’s accomplishing this by first sending a king and then using the kingdom’s subjects in our world. In this case, the gospel is the means, and justice is the end. Again, I would suggest this is closer to the biblical message than the previous views, but this camp tends to downplay the eschatological hope of the Gospel. Instead of Jesus one day returning to establish his kingdom on earth, the church is establishing it now, and the return of Jesus is the climax of the church’s successful campaign.
This is really to misunderstand part of the good news of the Gospel. The church is not called to build the kingdom but to be a witness of its impending arrival. That witness includes living in the ways of the coming kingdom and the good works we do for our neighbors. But the only way the Kingdom comes is with the king’s return.
Social Justice FOR Gospel
This group values social justice because it creates gospel opportunities and receptiveness. They rightly prioritize the gospel, particularly in prioritizing evangelism, and see social justice pragmatically as a tool in that task. They know, and often recite, the old quip “they don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” This camp’s easy to spot because any good work is only truly good if it includes a gospel presentation. Every free lunch sack needs to include a gospel tract. For this camp, evangelism is like fishing; good works are how you bait the hook.
This approach appears to fall short of the holistic love demanded by Jesus. To rightly love, we must care about our neighbor’s whole selves, not just their souls. Those on the receiving end often feel like they’re only valued as a potential convert, a notch on the belt, instead of an image-bearer worthy of love … and unfortunately, sometimes they’re right. It’s also hard to see how this view can lead to any prophetic confrontation that may be negatively received, but that’s an important aspect of a faithful witness.
This brings us to the view that I’d suggest:
Gospel THEREFORE Social Justice
It’s not that changing the world is the gospel or that the gospel has nothing to do with change in our world. It’s that the gospel has changed us, and that changes the way we relate to our world. The gospel creates communities of mutual concern and sharing (Acts 2:44-47). God has been so generous with us that we’re generous (2 Cor. 8:9). We’re concerned for our neighbor’s soul and their supper because that’s what love does, and we’re loved by Jesus (1 John 3:16-18).
Unlike the Social Justice FOR Gospel view, social justice isn’t the bait of the gospel; it’s the byproduct. Unlike the Gospel for Social Justice view, we don’t bring the kingdom but make it manifest. We aren’t seeking to entirely change our world as much as testify to a different world, but that testimony must be not just in word but in deed and truth.
This debate is too long-standing and this presentation too brief for me to assume I’ve convinced every reader, but I hope that these terms will serve both to provide a lay of the land and give helpful language to further discussion.
God sent a baby to address an unjust world. A better answer than mine may exist, but we must keep asking the question: How does Jesus relate to social justice?
 Interestingly, Isaiah does the exact same thing cf. Isa. 7.