By Monte Sahlin
America has always prided itself in being a society unlike many places in Europe and the southern Hemisphere where there are large differences between the elite and the masses. (In fact, Europe has changed significantly over the last half century and more recently there have been emerging middle classes in Brazil, India and other developing nations.) For decades the vast majority of Americans have told surveys that they are "middle class" in proportions that quite different than household income data would indicate. Most Americans have thought of themselves as "middle class" until the emergence of "culture wars" in recent decades in which Christian activists of various kinds have had a role, but the most powerful dynamics seem to be a tension between traditional culture and "cultural creatives" that has strong economic and political correlations.
"Class warfare in America is over," points out a recent issue of Christian Century. "And the well-to-do have won. The result is that the less well-to-do are being shut out of the decision-making process. Very few working-class Americans get into government, even at the state level. Running for office is so expensive that only wealthy Americans aspire to elected office. Once in office they reflect their own class. Social safety net programs are stingier, business regulations are flimsier, and tax policies are more regressive than they would be if our politicians came from the same mix of classes as the people they represent." (Oct. 1, 2014, pp. 8-9)
Has conservative Protestant faith become captive to this traditional culture political/economic dynamic? Historically African American congregations (of all denominations) have traditionally put much energy into helping the poor and promoting education, but now some are becoming more middle class and less involved in community service. In white Evangelical congregation (of many denominations) it is common to find a significant share of the members how think that helping the poor "is not really the mission of the church" and a narrowing of focus to strictly religious activities and support for typical middle class family life.
I see/hear more and more condescending remarks by Christians labeling as "leftist, socialist" any initiative or ministry or expression seeking to address social justice. Has political philosophy and class self-interests erased or modified in the minds of these Christians (who usually read the Bible in a very literal manner) the plain statements of Jesus in a number of places in the New Testament such as Matthew 25:31-46?
This particular passage interests me because it is in the context of the "sermon" of Jesus recorded in Matthew 24-25 which is so relevant to my Adventist faith. It begins with a question from His disciples about when He will return and when will be the end of the world, and specifically focuses on how to live in an eschatological context. There are many other texts that are equally clear about the value that God places on social justice. A friend told me recently that "social justice is heresy." Is that true, or is the shaping of conservative Protestant faith by anti-social justice views the real heresy in God's eyes?