Social justice is not the first thing most Americans associate with Baptist churches. Even among Baptists the connection is not a strong one.
Yet, Baptists have consistently struggled for a more just society. Baptist progenitor Roger Williams advocated for Native Americans. Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch struggled for the “social gospel.” Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement were rooted in the common life of African American Baptist congregations.
Even today Baptist theologians Ron Sider and Tony Campolo are leaders in a Christian movement for social justice that extends well beyond Baptist congregations.
Yet, in spite of this impressive history, social concern remains in many ways a Baptist orphan. It is neglected by pastors and lay leaders across North America as a priority for congregational life. Those who do work to implement new ministries of social action often find their stiffest opposition in the apathy of their own churches.
Clearly, history is not enough. Nor is the work of occasional theologians a sufficient stimulus to sustain long-term goals in the call for social justice.
Long-standing Baptist distinctives like the priesthood of all believers or the separation of church and state may not hinder social ministry, but one must also concede their failure to nurture and promote a social conscience within the church.
The call to social justice is found in the Gospel itself. In that same Gospel that stands at the heart of Baptist identity we will see a compelling foundation for this essential component of Baptist life.
Are such roots to be found? Certainly they are, and one need look no further than Scripture itself. What is truly remarkable is how anyone could experience a serious encounter with the Bible and not walk away with a deep commitment to the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the marginalized.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus inaugurated his public ministry in Nazareth by reading aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4:18f, NIV)
The plain sense of the prophet’s words has often been spiritualized. It is not the economically poor or the physically blind that Jesus has in mind, we are told, but rather those who are poor in spirit or who are blind to the truth.
Such interpretations are certainly possible and would be persuasive except for the simple fact that the ministry of Jesus neither reflected nor supported such an interpretation. Jesus showed compassion for the blind, the lame, the sick and the hungry—a compassion that was bound to the message of the Kingdom and the call for conversion. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is the Bread of Life, who also feeds the hungry.
If the ministries of the church are to reflect the Scripture on which they stand, then they should integrate evangelism with works of righteousness and discipleship. Social justice is a Baptist vision. It is a Baptist vision because it is first a biblical vision rooted in the Gospel itself.
Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.