Is Compassion Enough?

Christianity in Australia has never been as politicised as it is in the USA or even in the UK. There are obvious exceptions such as Daniel Mannix (1864-1963), Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne for much of the 20th century, who openly intervened in political debates amid much controversy.

But he is the exception that proves the rule. The relatively quietist approach of Sydney Anglicans then should not be seen in isolation from that broader cultural pattern. Yet it is still the case that Sydney Anglicans find a particular basis for non-intervention in their theological understanding of the world. The transformation of the community at large is a happy by-product of preaching of the gospel for which thanks and praise ought to be given to God. It is certainly a proof of the truth of the gospel that it ‘works’ as a lifestyle.

But the Christian task is to preach the gospel first and foremost as a matter of eschatological urgency. Social transformation is only ever a stopgap solution. Though Sydney Anglicans were prominent in the Lausanne movement which declared in 1974 that pursuit of social justice was not incompatible with preaching the gospel, they were not enthusiastic for political and social ends. They were in fact strong critics of a kind of Christianity that denied the pressing claims of the coming end of all things and instead become a social gospel.

For former principal of Moore College Broughton Knox, ‘social justice’ was itself a questionable category. In an article entitled ‘Social Justice or Compassion’ he argued that ‘the teaching and actions of Jesus nowhere show a concern for ‘social justice’:

The reason is that the call for social justice springs from envy rather than from compassion… Compassion, not social justice, is the motivation for Christian social action…Poverty calls for compassion… but a Christian is not called on to campaign for a closer equalisation of incomes either within our society, nor for that matter between nation and nation. Christ’s gospel is not concerned with equity but with relationships.  

It was a provocative point to make, since the language of social justice had become a nostrum even within the evangelical movement (as it is today). It was not an empty academic point, either: Knox was personally and actively compassionate towards the poor. I lived in the principal’s residence at Moore College in the years following Knox’s retirement and can recall the stream of homeless men that would come to the door asking to see the ‘padre’ from whom they had received help in the past.

We mustn't mishear Knox here, either - he though social action was laudable, but that 'social justice' was a goal that smacked of utopianism. It failed to see that love was needed most of all.

Australia’s political culture is robustly democratic and so a quietist stance is not in itself problematic for the most part. Other groups tend to take up the cudgels against social injustices, and there are few issues in which the lines are sharply drawn. However, the cost of this passivity can be observed in the history of the Church of England in South Africa, with whom the diocese of Sydney has had historic links. CESA was not a racist church, and it has long had black and white congregations and bishops. It did not provide a theological justification for the apartheid policies of the South African government.

In the aftermath of the apartheid years, Bishop Frank Retief of CESA made this submission, in 1997, to a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
...when the government made legislation that accorded with our moral or biblical understanding, we supported them. However, on the great issue of justice for all, we were often insensitive. We had not made the connection between gospel and society…We were witnesses to how the Bible and its message can be misused to support an evil ideology. National government used the Bible to support its policies, to give the impression that they were a Christian government. But then so did some liberation theologians who finally supported violence as a means of continuing the struggle…Where we have been negligent, careless and insensitive to biblical injunctions and mandates as we have been, may the Lord graciously forgive us….The fact that the Bible was used in the past to condone injustice does not mean its true message may be ignored today…It is our belief that this day and hour calls for men and women of conviction and integrity to apply the message of the Bible more accurately and faithfully to our emerging society…

This is a courageous, impressive and moving statement from a cousin of the Sydney diocese recognising that the strategy of political withdrawal was a mistake for biblical Christians in South Africa, but recognising also that it was not the Bible itself that was to blame. Retief’s theological convictions are the same as Sydney’s, and he has often spoken in the pulpits of Sydney. What he notes is that the theology of eschatological deferment runs the risk of becoming unable to say anything about the presence of a real evil in the here and now.

Compassion is not nearly enough.


(Feature photo: Josep Ma. Rosell)

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (34)

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  • Sandy Grant
    November 29, 11 - 9:56am
    Having just finished writing a comment on Karin Sowada's politics thread, about continuing the fight to see reforms to the pokie industry to reduce the harm from problem gambling, I guess you will know I am not politically quiescent.

    However I'd love to hear much more about what you are saying should be added in addition to the compassion which "is not nearly enough".

    Social justice? Knox's social action? And is it a prophetic voice against injustice and mistreatment of the vulnerable and marginalised? Or is it more - advocating particular political solutions? Is is done as 'the church'? As 'the Christians'? As Christian citizens?

    Is social action or justice in any way part of the mission of the church (or of the individual Christians who go out from the church)? Or do we just love people compassionately where we find them and speak and act against injustice where we see it?
  • Michael Jensen
    November 29, 11 - 10:14am
    Sandy - thanks for the great questions. And thanks for your continued pursuit of justice for the poor in the area of pokies - a tax on social welfare payments, a friend of mine used to call them. Sadly accurate.

    I am wondering if our questions about the church's mission and doing things as 'the church' and so on don't just get us tangled - and so we do nothing. It seems to me not complicated at one level: we proclaim the righteousness and mercy of God and his judgement on all people. That has obvious social and political implications, as it did in the OT. Social justice isn't the gospel, but it is surely an implication of the gospel (just as our personal holiness is).

    I raise the South Africa example because, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the right thing to have done would have been to speak out against the injustice of the system. As the church? As Christians? I am not sure I care very much. It was a good thing, and it just needed to be done.

    What I hate (and I am sure you do to) is the hijacking of evangelicalism for left-leaning or right-leaning political agendas. That's where I, with Knox, baulk at the term 'social justice', because I know it carries freight.
  • Sandy Grant
    November 29, 11 - 10:18am
    Yeah, fair enough replies. I think the one thing I resist is people saying social justice or action is part of the mission of the church. I think that matters. I think the mission of the church/Christians is disciple-making by means of sharing the gospel of Jesus. Full stop.
  • Michael Jensen
    November 29, 11 - 11:28am
    James Davidson Hunter puts it this way - he says the church/Christians are called to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ, not to an agenda to change the world. But of course, you can't witness to Christ faithfully and leave the world unchanged.

  • Stephen Davis
    November 29, 11 - 12:19pm
    Personally I think Knox was spot on about "Social Justice" from what I have seen so far, that term has been used to paint the West as being responsible for the rest of the world's problems. If you are a true Christian, you will by default, have a strong sense of compassion and desire to see "social justice" done anyway. The Holy Spirit tends to tease these things out in all of us to differing extents. As an example, some people will respond with money, some with practical assistance and some with prayer.
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 29, 11 - 1:49pm
    I agree with Knox on "Social Justice" - one person's 'justice' is another person's theft. The Christian is called to be compassionate within his or her surrounds. Christianity is not a political agenda to implement some prayerful socialism.
  • Jim Wackett
    November 29, 11 - 1:52pm
    Thanks for the post Michael. I think the main issue here seems to lie with the term ‘social justice’ its origins and implications. I agree that the baggage it carries is not helpful and a distraction from the main game of faithfully proclaiming the gospel. Consequently, I gave up using the term many years ago. I even find the term compassion a little unhelpful, as it is often used in a way that focuses more on the felt need of the ‘helper’ rather than the recipient.

    Believers shaped by the reality of the gospel in their lives are naturally inclined towards practicing mercy. We have been recipients of the most incredible mercy imaginable in Jesus Christ, and it is only natural that we would seek to reflect that in as many ways as we are able. Those with the spiritual gift of mercy will seek to exercise that gift in sacrificial service to the poor, the marginalised and the outcast. They will pray for and take hold of opportunities to share the gospel in any opportunity that service presents, but it will not be a condition of that service upon those to whom they are reaching out.

    So, let’s abandon ’social justice’, and move beyond mere compassion and agree that Christians can and should practice mercy, particularly those for whom it is a specific gift.

    The real question should not be whether or not we should practice mercy, but HOW we should practice mercy in a way that will adorn the gospel and give glory to God in all things.
  • Allan Patterson
    November 29, 11 - 4:34pm
    Eph 2:10 says we were created to do good works. And Wilberforce was a great example of someone involved in politics doing good, being compassionate, and showing mercy!
  • Stephen Davis
    November 29, 11 - 4:42pm
    I agree wholeheartedly with that Allan!
  • Michael Wells
    November 30, 11 - 2:30pm
    The assumption seems to be that a concern for 'social justice' is only a concern for the poor.
    If we believe in a God who will judge the unjust, working on social justice is simply helping people to avoid judgement.
    Not saying (doing) anything about 'social justice' comes from an emaciated anthropology, that ignores the structural and institutional nature of humanity.
  • David Binggeli
    November 30, 11 - 3:32pm

    "I think the mission of the church/Christians is disciple-making by means of sharing the gospel of Jesus. Full stop."

    Not being in vocatioal ministry, I wouldn't have considered it as much as you, so I would just like to humbly add a query to your comment quoted above.

    Isn't the ministry of the church about new creation and so the 'mission of the church' is as wide as creation itself? It does have a message at it's core, which is the proclamation that Jesus is Risen and Lord (and new life and creation is found in Him), but isn't it unhelpful and unnecessary to try to define a specific 'mission for the church' as disciple-making and sharing the gospel of Jesus?

    I mean, I can see why it's helpful to define the mission as you have done for practicality's sake. But wouldn't it be possible, in a hypothetical context, that preaching the gospel of Jesus and making disciples could actually mean forthrightly encouraging involvement in certain social action if it is recognised by the church as a 'social evil'? So 'discipling' a certain believer may actually mean urging them to take action. The minister may not be logistically responsible for any subsequent action (he's only one man!), but it would seem strange to cut off his involvement in it all together

    ... please read next thread ...

  • David Binggeli
    November 30, 11 - 3:32pm
    I use the above example only to (possibly) show that the mission of preaching the gospel and making disciples is actually as wide as creation itself. And so trying to say 'this is the responsibiltiy of the church and this isn't', may not actually be helpful (maybe except for when we're talking purely about pragmatics and logistics). I say this not because I know I'm right (i don't!), it's a genuine query :)
  • Michael Wells
    November 30, 11 - 3:33pm
    I kind of agree with Robert that one persons justice is another persons theft. We live in a morally ambiguous world. Yet as christians we can't stop there. Even though we can't escape the ambiguity and pretend that we know the right and wrong of everything, we do believe that there is a right and wrong. We do believe that someone can judge who was doing the justice and who was doing the thieving. Jesus Christ.
    We may have the luxury of throwing up our hands in a morally ambiguous world and saying 'justice is too hard to figure out', but our political leaders don't. In fact, their sole purpose is bring justice, (and they will be judged on their performance).
    So, do we, as people who know Jesus Christ, who have got an imperfect glimpse of his kingdom, simply say to our leaders "we have nothing to say to you", or do we carefully help them to act in ways that are in line with the just kingdom?
    Now, they may well say to us "That is just too hard, if we did what you said we would be crucified"
    and at that point we can say "pick up your cross and follow the King".
  • Michael Wells
    November 30, 11 - 3:40pm
    @ Sandy, I agree with you about disciple-making, but often this seems to be reduced to a very privatised, individualistic, tiny segment of peoples actual lives.

    I wonder whether it is easier to address whole people in societies that haven't lost a sense of 'vocation'. In our culture it seems like whole swathes of my actions are no longer considered part of 'me', and so don't need to be 'discipled'
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 30, 11 - 4:40pm
    I remain of the view that Knox is right: charity is the Christian duty, not a vague socialism. Perhaps the Social Justice advocates here can answer me the following:

    (1) what is the measure of social justice? How do we know when we are done? Are we all socially just, reconciled, converted, "included", etc when we we all have exactly the same income and home?

    (2) what is the authority for imposing social justice? Parliament? A redistribution committee headed by some worthy person or persons?

    (3) who is the referee for social justice disputes? When my BMW is confiscated, for which I have worked reasonably hard, to be given to people who work not at all, who do I appeal to? Or does social justice mean I should happily hand over the keys? In which case, what do social justice policies do to encourage hard work and innovation, if wealth is to be confiscated.

    It is easy to be in favour of a vague 'justice' but these vague ideas, to be meaningful, have to be implemented. How is this to be done?

  • Michael Wells
    November 30, 11 - 4:59pm
    Hi Robert,
    I have a hunch that we are working with different definitions of social justice, but it is good to talk about it

    1. I would think God's coming kingdom is the measure of social justice, so yes, justice is something we will always be striving towards. (I guess underlying this is the question, are we treating all people as they truly are, made in the image of God?)
    This doesn't necessarily mean a static equal distribution of goods, though it probably does mean a dynamic flow of material fellowship. I think this even looks different in different social structures. We currently live in a meritocracy (based on education mostly), so for us it means valuing and caring for people even if they aren't as well trained.
    It also means an outward looking society that isn't completely caught up with it's own problems, but can learn from and care for other societies. I guess it is a society that is somewhat self critical and aware of it's own idolatries.
    All this isn't a call for socialism (and is distinct from the bland 'human rights'), it is a call for society to be like the church. (I'm stealing most of this from Oliver O'Donovans 'Ways of Judgement')
    So, the measure is human flourishing, as it is shown to us in Jesus and the Scriptures.

    2. I guess whoever has the authority for it right now. Governments and judges

    3. See above.
    Wealth confiscation wouldn't be social justice. But neither is viewing wealth in purely individual terms either. We tie wealth to merit (not to work
  • Michael Wells
    November 30, 11 - 5:03pm
    (not to work). This is idolatrous. Wealth comes to us from God, and we should thank him for it. But doing so means we must also acknowledge that wealth has a purpose, part of which is a social (love included) obligation. Indeed Paul says we owe each other nothing but the debt of love. We are given gifts for the common good (another thing the church can teach society!)
    This is already the case with taxes.
    The issue then, is who they are used for, the powerful? or the weak?
  • Michael Wells
    November 30, 11 - 5:08pm
    As for your Beemer, (and my lifestyle too!) we would do well to heed James 5:3. Perhaps you would be better off if someone took the car!
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 30, 11 - 5:15pm
    I am joking about the BMW, which runs well enough but costs when it comes to repairs.

    I could understand the true zeal for Social Justice if we were living in the 1890s or the 1930s. However one of our problems is not poverty per se but is idleness, boganism and the belief that everyone has an entitlement to a life of ease without working for it. One of the better aspects of Protestantism is its belief in hard work and the dignity of work, whatever that work is, and the right of the worker to have his 'keep' and use it to build a home and an inheritance for his kith and kin. I am not sure we have advanced the Christian idea far when workers are taxed to pay for a growing class of the idle.
  • Robert James Elliott
    November 30, 11 - 5:33pm
    I think Social Justice has to take notice of unintended consequences -- by making life easier for some for the best possible reasons, you may also be making life harder for others who have worked hard and also endured their own hardships. Again, I am for charity to those who are having a hard go of it but I am deeply sceptical of Christian socialist ideals to build new Jerusalems and the like, which when tried in Britain almost bankrupted the country and left it with whole estates of ferals where no one has held a job for decades.

  • Michael Canaris
    November 30, 11 - 6:49pm
    I don't think a completely rigid nexus between work and reward is ideal. Many of the finer things in life came through the avocations of those with time (and money) to spare, after all. With that said, Robert, I concur on the dubiousness of much "Social Justice" talk.
  • Michael Wells
    November 30, 11 - 9:31pm
    I think we probably agree on this one, at least regarding wealth distribution in a ridiculously wealthy nation. There are other ways, however, in which we should speak up regarding the shape of our society, like pokies, prison conditions, corruption etc.

    Job participation I would see as part of social justice too. There is no justice in making people dependent on welfare.

    If we took social justice more seriously globally however, I think it would have to shape (curtail) the living standards of the wealthy.
    Would we be talking on this forum? Probably not so cheaply. Look at the suicide rates in the foxcon factories that make our processors
  • Stephen Davis
    December 1, 11 - 8:41am
    I like your #19 & #20 post Rob, you are spot on mate!
  • Andrew Mackinnon
    December 1, 11 - 9:33am
    Social justice is not exclusively about wealth distribution, irrespective of how much the term has been hijacked. Social justice is about truth and falsehood. Wealth distribution is a subset of social justice. The church can measure its commitment to social justice against the following litmus tests:

    > Does the church condemn the official story surrounding 9/11 as a lie and a fraud?

    > Does the church condemn the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as unjustified, criminally-motivated and as war crimes?

    > Does the church condemn progressive income taxation rates (that increase as income increases) as immoral and obscene for the way in which they penalise people for working harder and earning more money for themselves and their families?

    > Does the church condemn the lie of carbon dioxide-driven climate change as a fraud?

    > Does the church speak out against the aluminium and barium being sprayed over all western countries over the past ten years (know as “chemtrails”) which have been proven not to be contrails (ie. water vapour trails)?

    > Does the church condemn the invasion of Libya as a war crime?

    > Does the church care about innocent people being murdered during wars and does it raise its voice to attempt to stop such wars or does the church resign itself to the carnage involved in these wars because it doesn’t understand or acknowledge, through ignorance or apathy, its ability to shift public opinion in the direction of truth?
  • Michael Canaris
    December 1, 11 - 9:46am
    I didn't expect this thread to jump the shark so quickly.
  • Michael Jensen
    December 1, 11 - 9:50am
    Yep, I think we just had a version of Godwin's law come into play.
  • Robert James Elliott
    December 1, 11 - 9:50am
    Me either. To go so quickly from Social Justice and charity to the 9/11 Truthers is pretty impressive.

    I cannot remember the Church of my life time being war-mongering. Hard to picture Rowan Williams singing Onward Christian Soldiers.
  • Robert James Elliott
    December 1, 11 - 3:20pm
    I would be very wary of considering Daniel Mannix as typical of any official Catholic position as opposed to giving a voice to his own Fenian prejudices. Apparently the Vatican was so upset by Mannix's politicking that the Pope at the time (Pius XII) determined that Mannix would never be a Cardinal.
  • Michael Canaris
    December 1, 11 - 3:41pm
    Hard to picture Rowan Williams singing Onward Christian Soldiers.

    Now there's a great Sullivan hymn-tune I haven't heard for a while!

    Perhaps a revamped version of it could go along the following lines:
    Onward muesli eaters
    Shuffling around fêtes;
    With a plastic placard
    Advertising cakes.
    Mumble incoherently,
    Yet try not to bore:
    "Avoid excessive brandy
    After Lobster Thermidor..."
  • Robert James Elliott
    December 1, 11 - 4:16pm
    I have never understood why muesli is associated with hippies and/or Greens voters. I am very partial to muesli myself and would never vote for Bob Brown in a green fit.
  • Andrew Stratford
    December 7, 11 - 11:59am
    Before we waste too much more time on this largely academic argument it might be worth us all having another read of the Book of James. I can't see any reason for bible believing Christians to invent terms like "social justice" to somehow compartmentalise or divide our Faith. The bible is absolutely clear on our responsibilities through our "not dead" faith to the orphans, widows, sick and the poor.
  • Jim Wackett
    December 7, 11 - 1:25pm
    Great point Andrew at #31. My great fear is that the Christian debate over (the very real problems with) the concept of 'social justice' can also end up becoming an excuse to simply do nothing, much like the the example in James 2:14-17.
    John Piper in one of his books quotes the 4th century Roman Emperor Julian who tried in vain to counter the growth of Christianity by reforming pagan worship: "...Julian... regretted the progress of Christianity because it pulled people away from the Roman gods. He said, 'Atheism [i.e. the Christian faith!] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”
    Our works of practical mercy can challenge and change our culture, but most of all help provide an environment in which gospel can be further proclaimed in word.
  • Philip Coller
    December 9, 11 - 3:38pm
    Excellent point Andrew @31. The discussion hear reminds me of the story of the fellow who was drowning after falling off a boat. The crew started discussing the best way to save the man. One said, turn the boat around, another said throw him a life jacket, another said to lower the life raft. Another questioned whether or not the main was drowning while the captain said it's the mans fault he fell overboard so use the cheapest option.

    In the meantime the man drowned. I simply prefer to love my neighbor.
  • Robert James Elliott
    December 12, 11 - 8:36am
    Andrew @ 31: I thought most Sydney Anglicans had problems with James 2:24 "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone". I thought Luther wanted to remove James from the Canon?