The following is an excerpt from Love is a Verb: A one-year spiritual practice resource, written by Leo Hartshorn. The resource explores the 2017 convention theme Love is a Verb through the lens of Richard Foster’s six spiritual streams. Download the entire booklet from the Mennonite Church USA resource center.
The social justice stream
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
—Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)
These words of Jesus are set within the context of two chapters in Matthew on the end times and the day of judgment. Often in these apocalyptic scenes of judgment the empire of God triumphs over the empires of the world (e.g., Revelation), and the social status of the rich and poor are reversed (e.g., the parable of the rich man and Lazarus). The ultimate purpose of this judgment scene is not to speculate about the life hereafter. It is a visionary story used to convict, challenge and motivate the hearer to respond with compassion to the oppressed, poor and captive.
The Son of Man will come with his angels to judge all the nations of the earth. In contrast to the individualism of the West today, ancient Middle Eastern thought focused on communities and peoples. So, it is the nations who are gathered together for God’s judgment. Even as the sheep are separated from the goats (a practice in shepherding), the portrayal of those separated seems to be more collective. The people are separated for honor (God’s kingdom) or dishonor (Gehenna: a place of misery).
The key to the judgment in the next life revolves around how people responded in this life to those described as “hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger or imprisoned.” Ancient Palestine was an agrarian peasant society; 80 to 90 percent of the population lived in poverty. The elite 2 to 10 percent (for example, the ruling Roman elites) of the population lived off the work and produce of the common peasants and taxed them heavily. When debts could not be paid, their land was confiscated while they continued working for the landlords of the elite class. These peasants often dropped to the lowest rung of the desperately poor: the hungry, thirsty, naked or imprisoned. The prisoner could either be someone in debtor’s prison in Jesus’ day or a fellow believer in Matthew’s day. The stranger represents the poor, traveling foreigner or sojourner who comes into a community depending on residents to supply his or her immediate needs. Hospitality could mean the difference between life and death and was taken very seriously in ancient Middle Eastern culture.
To those who first heard these words — and to us today — the reason behind the separation and judgment of people comes rather unexpectedly. It may even be shocking! Eternal judgment, at least as it is portrayed here, is not based on a pious life, a particular doctrine of atonement, the right beliefs, living a good life or doing good deeds. The basis of the final judgment has to do with a believer’s response to the poor and marginalized of the world. Caring or not caring for the practical needs of the poor, the imprisoned and the stranger is the basis of the last judgment. The clincher in the story is Jesus’ identification with the poor and marginalized. What we do or do not do is not just an act for or against the poor. More profoundly, it is an act for or against Christ! To be part of his “flock” (Matthew 7:21), we who claim Jesus as Lord must show compassion and action for the poor here and now.
The social justice stream
Threads of the social justice tradition run throughout the Bible and church history. They are evident from the Deuteronomic laws protecting the poor, strangers and widows to the prophet Amos’ call for social justice and to the compassion of Jesus towards the poor. Luke 4:16-30 indicates that social justice was not only at the start but at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
An important distinction must be made between personal or corporate charity and social, institutional or political justice. Technically speaking, providing others with food, clothing or a home is not necessarily social justice — these acts of charity towards individuals do not necessarily address the systemic realities that create hunger and poverty. One is a soup kitchen in a black neighborhood and the other is the Black Lives Matter movement. But both acts characterized as charity and justice are included in Foster’s presentation of this stream, along with peacemaking although it can also be distinguished from social justice. Peace devoid of justice is not an authentic peace. As with charity and social justice, to be truly authentic, peacemaking and social justice must work in concert.
Within church history the social justice tradition has been embodied in St. Vincent de Paul; Sojourner Truth and the abolitionist movement; Susan B. Anthony and the suffrage movement; Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement; Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farms; Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Freedom movement; the Berrigan brothers; Fellowship of Reconciliation and the peace movement; Jim Wallis and the Sojourners community; just to name a few. Practices within this stream include charitable donations to food pantries and clothes providers, serving at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, protesting police brutality or national wars, and writing congressional representatives to support bills for clean water or to stop offshore drilling.
Strengths of the social justice stream are:
1) It calls us to live in just social relationships.
2) It enhances our understanding of the church and its relationship to culture, society and politics.
3) It interconnects the personal and the social.
4) It is Christian love socially distributed.
5) It broadens the agenda of ecological justice.
6) It points us to the vision of a redeemed heaven and earth.
Pitfalls of the social justice stream are:
1) It can become a means to its own ends.
2) It can separate us from the power of the Spirit and our grounding in a living spirituality.
3) It can become another form of legalism or works righteousness.
4) It can become too closely identified with partisan politics.
The social justice stream and the Anabaptist tradition
The contemporary Anabaptist tradition is often associated with peace and justice by many outside the tradition, to both the delight and chagrin of those inside the tradition. Both peace and justice have had peculiar historical expressions within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Historically Anabaptists have been characterized as pacifists and part of the peace church tradition, although not all 16th-century Anabaptists were pacifists. And one could make the argument that the peace tradition of the modern Mennonite Church has been slowly decaying through the influence of other traditions. The longer historical tradition of the Anabaptist peace witness has been peace understood and practiced as nonresistance or defenselessness. This was manifested in nonviolence toward others and opting out of military service, though not always the case for many Mennonites. The church considered that being a peace church within itself was a peace witness to others (although a history of church divisions calls this stance into question). Active engagement with the surrounding community and society concerning peace did not take place until much later in the tradition’s history. Only since the 1960s has the Anabaptist peace tradition included more actively and socially engaged acts beyond its own community — through nonviolent direct action, nonviolent resistance, political protests, government petitioning and global peacemaking.
Justice would probably not be an appropriate word to describe the historic Anabaptist tradition. Its teaching of separation from the world and often rural and cultural isolationism kept it from engaging in social justice beyond its own communities. Beginning with early Anabaptists, faith groups expressed their Christian faith through concrete acts of love for brothers and sisters in Christ and others in their communities. These charitable acts included relief work, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and poor, health care and mutual aid. Overt acts of social justice were not part of the tradition until the church underwent greater acculturation to society and encountered the social revolutions of the 1960s. Since then the Anabaptist tradition has included acts such as community development, nonviolent resistance and political advocacy connected to racism, sexism, injustice, poverty, social and economic inequity, and most recently and more controversial, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) advocacy.
The social justice stream and Love is a verb
Ethicist Joseph Fletcher defined justice as “love distributed.” In a similar way, Foster describes the social justice stream as “the compassionate life.” Love and compassion for others lie at the heart of the social justice stream of spirituality. The axis of love for God and neighbor runs straight through the social justice tradition. In this stream love takes on an active, socially-engaged dimension.
Love is a verb in this stream is expressed in concrete acts of compassion, charity, justice, mercy and equity.
Foster talks about social justice practiced in three arenas — personal, social and institutional on a type of continuum — but fails to highlight the important distinction between personal and corporate charity separate and in contrast to social, institutional and political justice.
 I have argued, as minister of peace and justice for Mennonite Church USA, that we could be in real danger of letting our peace witness fade. See Leo Hartshorn, “When Is a Peace Church No Longer a Peace Church,” Mennonite World Review, July 21, 2008. See http://bit.do/churchplant