so far #5: social justice (theologizin’)

During the Winter Break, I kept busy blogging several “so fars” for the Road Trip – themes that have proved prevalent across my exploration. I wrote about college ministers learning customization for the Millennial Generation, poor ministry communication, the joys of locality, and the prevalence of social justice activity.

Then I had the flu.

So I got a little diverted from that purpose. But there are a few more Collegiate Ministry themes from my trip so far, so here we go.

Today’s note is actually related to the last “So Far” post, where I mentioned the many examples of Social Justice in action I’ve seen.

While I’ve seen plenty of SJ in action, I haven’t often seen any theology behind Social Justice spelled out to students. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of Bible studies or other relevant teachings. I just haven’t been a part of any.) Behind the scenes, though, in conferences like Catalyst and Ivy Jungle, and in my interviews with College Ministry leaders, Social Justice theology has been a huge theme.

Specifically, the theological line I’ve seen is a “Kingdom Come” theology. As best I can summarize what I’ve heard, the focus is on God desiring to build His Kingdom on earth. Therefore, He is glorified as we work with Him to help that happen. We do that through bringing God’s justice, peace, beauty, etc., here, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Yeah, it kinda sounds at times like classic Postmillennialism, and for some the ties are more than implicit. But regardless of eschatology, the point is this: Social Justice isn’t just good because “Jesus loves people”; it’s good because it is “what Jesus is doing in the world” – bringing His Kingdom to earth. “Kingdom Theology” is often the name applied, though that name has been used for other theologies, too. But I think this Wikipedia article gets pretty close to the “brand” of Kingdom Theology I’ve seen this year.

Now it’s time for a big, important, huge note.

Big important huge note: I’m not defending nor denying this theology. How could I, when I haven’t had the time to sort through the arguments? I’m just writin’ what I’m seein’, and I’m seein’ this all over the place.

That said, this is extremely prevalent theology that has been around for a while but is now showing up in the Collegiate Ministry world in force. Probably, some of you feel this is a big , fat “duh” because your church or denomination has been rockin’ this talk for years. But I know firsthand that’s not true for everybody!

Because Social Justice is a major theme throughout the colleges of our nation, most college ministers will need to grapple with this theology. Since Social Justice is attractive to students, any theology that “gives their passion greater meaning” will be attractive, too.

But that’s a little bit of a concern, right? Because regardless of what we believe on any particular theology, how we come to believe that theology matters a whole lot! (Words like “hermeneutics” and “epistemology” fit here.) Especially in Collegiate Ministry, we need to be very good about helping students come to theology honestly – through valid & wise searches for real-life truth. Since Millennials (and many of their leaders) are quite passionate about compassionate ministry, it can be tempting simply to pick a theology that “fits us” best.

Again, I’m not discounting this theology. I haven’t gotten a chance to do enough work on it, and I may ultimately accept it all-out! But I am discounting any theologizin’ that accepts a notion because we like it, before examining it for truth.

Think about the aspects of this newest generation that could “fit” with some great theologies OR could “fit” with some terrible theologies – things like compassion for the world, tolerance, consumerism, optimism, and openness could “fit” classic Jesus-Truth or crazy-ridiculous cults! So “fit-ness” may not be the best test.

After all, this isn’t eHarmony.

But in a good portion of the discussions I’ve heard about this theology, the focus seems to have been more on “the good this theology produces” rather than actual truth-searching.

I don’t want to believe this simply because I like it and I like its fruits.

Even if this theology turns out to be absolutely right, what happens if the next “passion-fitting” theology isn’t true? Are we teaching students (and ourselves) that our deep passions are meant to be met by the first suitor who seems to fit the bill? That’s big trouble for theology-picking, right?

Meanwhile, there is much opportunity for us and our students to “grapple” here. A couple of places to start could be this article by N. T. Wright and the book Kingdom Come by Allen Wakabayashi, an InterVarsity staffer I had the pleasure of meeting. Those are the first resources I’ve run across on this trip, but sorry I don’t have more right now. If you know of more (for or against, I guess), please let us know in the Comments!

written from California State University San Marcos

6 Comments

  1. When I read it (several weeks ago), I read it pretty quick-like. I’m interested, for sure, but am gonna have to sit down and examine it. Unless smarter theologians do that for me, which maybe I’m kinda stalling for?

  2. Matt Lemieux

    Well… I came to “Kingdom Theology” from Wright’s Jesus and Victory of God. Another pretty prominent popular-level source is Rob Bell of the Grand Rapids Mars Hill church.

    And you are correct, that it does have a lot to do with certain postmillennial views. That said, Wright isn’t a postmillennial. At least, he hasn’t written anything to date that would lead me to believe that he is.

    All that said, this is a theological development that has been some time in the coming. I’d say it comes out of the developing thought on Jesus and his apparent mission as the Messiah. It is also a continuing reaction to the rather rampant gnostic pop-theology of escapist premillennial views. I don’t believe that it is overly fair to state that this new theology is coming about as a result of this drive for social change. I think they are two disparate developments in a common culture.

    At any rate, it’s been fun reading of your trip… If you are ever back in the South again, swing by Clemson. :-D

    Yours, Matt

  3. Good word, Matt. You’re right – for lots and lots of people, this theology is coming as a result of honest study. I’ve just seen lots of the opposite on the trip, which is a bummer.

    If you Google “Jesus and the Victory of God,” you’ll get the Amazon page for the book Matt mentioned.

    Are there any specific resources from Bell to look at?

  4. Matt Lemieux

    Rob Bell has two books out:
    Velvet Elvis and SexGod

    I’ve read and recommend Velvet Elvis as a wonderful intro text for postmodern thoughts and forms of Christianity. Bell does a great job of describing some of the underlying history and theology of his thought. Perhaps a touch less systematically than you may be looking for, but a great intro.

    The other thing you can do is listen to his teachings at http://marshill.org/teaching/index.php. They can give you an idea of how this theology is articulated practically.

    Fair warning on Wright’s Jesus on the Victory of God, that’s a scholarly work on the life and times of Jesus. It’s 741 pages. For a more popular level stroll through most of the material, I’d recommend The Challenge of Jesus by Wright at a more manageable 202 pages. :-)

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