Today, we mostly think of social justice as a secular movement sometimes associated with progressive causes that are fighting the “Christian right” and other conservative groups. But many of the original “social justice warriors” in the United States were themselves deeply rooted in their Christian faith and drew inspiration from the Bible and such passages as Matthew 25.
Even the highly secularized term “social justice” was originally coined by a Jesuit priest. There’s a rich history of social justice within the Catholic Church, including both official church documents like Pope Leo XIII’s Return Novarum in 1891 and grassroots Catholic activism that includes when Dorothy Day started the Catholic Worker Movement in 1932.
For Protestants, Walter Rauschenbusch was the foremost theologian of the Social Gospel movement, which fought to advance both economic and social justice. Focusing on issues of poverty, alcoholism, racism, the environment, child labor, labor unions, and public education. A Baptist minister in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, Rauschenbusch saw firsthand the terrible living conditions of the urban poor. He identified following Jesus with transforming society to make it more equitable and just. “(The kingdom of God) is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.” Rauschenbusch wrote in his highly influential 1907 book Christianity and Social Crisis. This tagline of the progressive Christian movement runs through every issue we advocate for whether it’s environmental protection, anti-racism work, public health advocacy, or anything else.
“The better we know Jesus, the more social do his thoughts and aims become,” Rauschenbusch wrote. “Whoever uncouples the religious and social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.”
Rauschenbusch and his fellow Social Gospelers paved the way for the social justice movement as we understand it today.
From “Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity” by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons – Broadleaf Books