Was Jesus A Social Justice Warrior? | Commentary 


According to a University of Cambridge Dean, Jesus could have been transgender. Dr. Michael Banner, dean of hallowed Trinity College, deemed such a view “legitimate”following controversy over a November 2022 sermon by a Cambridge research student, who asserted that Christ had a “trans body.” Such proponents further argue that a quick look at the dictionary for the prefix “trans” tells us that it means “across”, “beyond”, “through”, and“changing thoroughly”, all of which are proper terms describing the person of Christ. He cuts across all boundaries. He is beyond our understanding. He is through all, and in all. He changes us thoroughly into new creations. Hence the shocking conclusion that in both his  person and his salvific actions, Jesus is truly the first and forever trans man.

As perverse as that may sound to most Christians, it does beg us to inquire about the attitude of Jesus toward the larger social questions both of his day and our own. On the one hand, it can be argued that Jesus was not at all concerned with social questions. Conversely, he has been hailed as the world’s greatest social reformer, rebel, and activist.

Which view is more accurate?

Christ’s primary pre-occupation was the soul. He taught mystical piety. He was content to leave material conditions as he found them. He deliberately refused to recognize any aspects of human life but for the spiritual. He came not to save the world as it was, but to deliver us out of it. He cared not for redress of social wrongs or social justice reform; his thoughts were on another plane entirely. This view has led certain pious Christians throughout history to divorce religion from their social ethics, with the regrettable result that Christianity sometimes displays indifference or open hostility to reform, and has even been accused of perpetuating old abuses.

This view is totally incorrect. Even a cursory examination of the Gospels shows how wide of the mark this is. Jesus came preaching a kingdom, and the very use of that idea raised profound social issues. He proclaimed a gospel of brotherhood. The Sermon on the Mount is full of social teaching. His healing miracles sprang from his passion to repair us both physically and spiritually. The hardships of poverty were never a matter of indifference to Jesus. Though he declared that “man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt 4:4), neither shall we live without any bread at all; and in the heart of the great prayer given to his disciples, he found a place for it—“Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). Man’s material wants, so far from being matters of no moment, were actually written upon the heart of God.

Indeed, the whole tendency to distinguish between sacred and secular concerns in life is thoroughly alien to the Gospels. Jesus claimed the whole of life as his province, and his religion was to invade every corner of the world. Everything was to come under the sweep of the one Spirit. Duality of that kind would always imply radical insincerity of which Christ was incapable. For there cannot ultimately be two kinds of truth; there is only one. Either Jesus is truth everywhere, and so we are to apply his religion to all of our relationships; or else we must reject Christianity altogether. There is no third option. There is only the Way.This is the whole trend of the Gospels, and is the essential claim of Christianity.

The view which regards social questions such as transgenderism as outside of Christ’s scope must therefore be abandoned. But equally wrong is the contrary view that Jesus was primarily a social justice warrior. This view holds that the first step toward a saved humanity must be a redeemed social order. This is the essence of WOKE ideology: that mankind is essentially good, so that improved social conditions alone can save us. Merely eliminate poverty, ignorance, intolerance, racism, class conflict, and gender differences and, Viola! It will be comparatively easy to prevent human suffering. This most certainly was not Christ’s attitude.

For a start, Jesus was quite explicit that the Kingdom could not be built by human effort or works; it was the act of God. Moreover, Jesus openly declared that changed conditions were futile apart from reformed hearts (Matt. 15:19-20). Hence his refusal of the shortcuts offered by the Tempter in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). We cannot be right with one another until we are first right with God. The real trouble with humanity is too deep-seated to be ameliorated by any social remedies or environmental cures; and if Jesus was a great reformer, it is because he was a Saviour first and last.

The truth lies somewhere between these two views. Christ came with a social message for his age and for all-time. But the basis of that message was religious rather than social. His transcendent influence upon world conditions stems from his revelation of God. He headed no social revolution or legislated for any contemporary social maladies; but he did impart a spirit aimed to inspire us to crusade against social injustice everywhere. It is in this ubiquity that Christ has been the driving force for all noble social service for two millennia. His Christian spirit touched the infamy of the gladiatorial shows and banished such barbarism out of existence. It worked through Lord Shaftesbury and others, touched the appalling factory conditions of the Industrial Revolution in favour of something better and more decent. He inspired the Lord Wilberforce led abolitionist movement, leading to emancipation of slaves on a global scale. Christ touched the tragedy of chronic distress and pain, so that everywhere hospitals and homes of healing sprang into existence. It has ever been through reborn men that Jesus has changed the world. Always the highest social impetus has had that religious basis.

With this in mind, let us now consider a couple of the great social relationships on which the life and teaching of Jesus have illuminated.

The first is family life. Jesus himself belonged to a people for whom the institution of family was more highly honoured than in any other nation. Various causes contributed to this high filial esteem amongst Jews. One was the conviction that family life was a divine creation; the prologue of Genesis preserved the story of its birth and showed its origin in the mind of God(Gen. 1:26; 2:18). It is thus natural to regard each separate family as a religious organism, and in a profound sense every Jewish father was a priest in his own home (Deut. 16:11). Hebrew law also played a vital role in keeping family life pristine. The law was in many respects a yoke of bondage, but it still credited with preserving Judaism from the moral decrepitude rampant throughout the rest of the ancient world. Many Hebrew mothers cherished the secret hope that one of their own sons might actually be the Messiah. Such was a favoured interpretation of certain Old Testament prophecies that obviously helped to keep family life sound and pure.

But Christ invested family life with an even greater sanctity, in three salient ways. First, he lived for most of his life in the bosom of a family. He had four brothers and at least two sisters. For thirty years, the glory of God Tabernacled in a peasant Nazarene home, so that family is forever sacred. Second, Christ regarded the family as a microcosmic kingdom of God. This is revealed in his constant use of family relationships to illustrate some of his deepest spiritual lessons. It was from the life of the family that Jesus drew his supreme conception of the divine nature: God the Father. The greatest of all parables is a story of home life. Clemency as experienced within the intimate relationships of home is a wonderful interpreter of the forgiveness of God. The human family thus becomes a representation of the heavenly kingdom.

Finally, Jesus deepened the sanctity of the family by what he did for women and children.Here it is not so much his definite teaching that we have to go upon as his total attitude. His approach to women in the Gospel has emancipated womanhood, crowning it with dignity and honour. Even the loftiest Jewish standards were surpassed here. Of marriage, Christs aid—“What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). Paul was thoroughly true to the spirit of his Master when he declared that in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). That answers the transgender question. Christ transcends gender. Children also came under his jurisdiction. There was a day when he“called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst” (Matt. 18:2); and the child life has been there ever since. The scope of this revolution is strikingly illustrated by the contents of an old papyrus letter, dating from the dawn of Christianity. It is addressed by a husband in foreign military service to his expectant wife at home, around 1 B.C.:

“Let me tell you that we are still in Alexandria. I beg you to look after the child, and as soon as we get wages I will send you something. If it is a boy, then let it alone. If it is a girl, then throw it away.”

Into a world of such unutterable callousness came Christ and, taking childhood to his heart, declared that of such was the kingdom of God (Mark 10:14).

But while Jesus thus deepened immeasurably the sanctity of family life, he was most careful to point out that in certain circumstances, the claims of home must be subordinated. For example, there came a point in his own life when Nazareth could keep him no longer, and all binding ties had to be gently put aside. Later, when his mother and brethren seek him out and beg to speak with him, he could only answer—“Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matt. 12:50) Nor did he hesitate to demand such renunciation of his disciples. On one occasion, describing the disruptive effect his challenge would have upon human society, he said “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against the mother in law” (Matt. 10:35). Great as Christ recognized the claims of home to be, he never hesitated to assert that if ever these claims and the claims of God should be at variance, the latter must come first. The practical bearings of this demand in the early days of Christianity, when the novel religion was making its way and families were persecuted over it, were patent and far reaching, as they still are in countries like China, North Korea,Iran, and increasingly, right here in Canada. When lesser loyalties conflict with larger, we must see to it that the greater prevail. As Christians, we must be ready to surrender even the call of home for the Kingdom’s sake.

Regarding wealth and poverty, the frequent allusions by Christ to money may at first blush seem surprising. Take the parables. Here is one about a wealthy landowner whose embarrassment of riches are such that he finds disposal of them to be problematic; the parable shows how he solves the problem to his own satisfaction and what God thinks of his solution (Luke 12:16). Here is another about a money lender whose apprentice, having turned out to be an indolent schemer, manages by altering certain accounts to ingratiate himself with some of his master’s influential clientele; and the parable ends with the strange saying about making “friends of the mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16:1). Here is another about a Syrian Jew, an honest, decent man in his own way, but far too busy managing his own affairs and entertaining his friends to have any thoughts for a beggar lying at his back door (Luke 16:9). Quite apart from the parables, money elsewhere enters largely into the Gospel story.

This motif seems odd until we remember how inextricably the whole question of money gets mixed up with the lives and experiences of ordinary men and women today, even against their will. It is even entangled with fine, spiritual things—like the love of parents for their children, or the compassion of a Good Samaritan for the distress of his neighbour, or the offering we make to God. Now Jesus was no fanciful dreamer with his head in the clouds; he was a realist. He did not say that possessions of any kind were necessarily and intrinsically bad. Among his own followers he numbered at least one rich man, Joseph of Arimathaea, and his circle included important people such as Nicodemus. The moral of the tale of the rich man and Lazarus, as Jesus told it, was certainly not that the rich are damned by wealth and the poor man saved by poverty. When Jesus demands of the rich young ruler that he sell everything and strip himself bare of all possessions, he was not laying down a categorical imperative. He was instead striking at the particular thing which in this case happened to block a soul’s road to salvation. Despite what modern progressives say, Jesus did not hold that all possessions are intrinsically evil.

Nor did Christ teach that poverty is necessarily blessed or virtuous. Certainly Jesus was poor himself (Luke 9:58). He had to borrow the coin he used for an illustration (Matt. 22:19). He died leaving no possessions but for his robe, and he was even laid to rest in another man’s tomb (Matt. 27:60). But Christ’s impecuniosity, like that of Francis of Assisi, was an ennobling, liberating thing, fully of the beauty of the songs of birds, and the flowers, and the billowing clouds, and the open road, and the Grace of God. This is distinct from the crippling, dehumanizing poverty of an industrial civilization with all of its sordid misery and squalor. No glorification of this is found in Scripture. The spirit of Jesus is at work in the world to end such suffering and to secure for all the opportunity to experience the full flourishing of life. While Jesus stood apart from economic controversy, his constant insistence upon love and motherhood implies a demand that God’s gifts, though possessed by humanity, ought to be distributed so that all can share in the privilege of a life that is free and fulfilled. This demand is plainly involved in the very nature of the Gospel and is an inescapable part of Christ’s meaning for the temporal world.

Jesus also taught however that possessions must always be regarded as a sacred trust.Everyone is accountable to God for the uses we make of property, since all that we have comes from God (Matt. 5:45). We are thus all God’s stewards. Nothing is more certain to bring God’s judgment and condemnation than a selfish approach to the good things of this world (Matt 25:41). Jesus insists that if our possessions begin to injure the soul, then drastic sacrifice is necessary. Better to cut off our right hand than to quench the Spirit; to enter into the kingdom of heaven a pauper than to die rich with a beggared soul (Mark 8:36).

Jesus held that it was easier to be a Christian when we are dispossessed. Wealth is lawful, but it is still dangerous. Riches might be nobly and charitably applied, but it takes a special measure of Grace to achieve that. It is here that we discover the main emphasis of Christ’s teaching about money. Repeatedly, it is the peril of the thing that is stressed. Wealth gives us a false sense of security. It indisposes us to acceptance of a sacrificial life. It can degrade our moral standards and blunt the edge of conscience. It might become a master passion, a idol we bow down to and worship, thus usurping the place of God himself in our hearts. Riches are thus not intrinsically evil, but they are terrible temptation:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24)

Finally, Jesus always reminds us that the best things in life cannot be purchased, sold, or even bartered. Our lives—the basic secret of existence, the radiant, throbbing splendour that God intends for us—consists not in the abundance of the things we possess (Luke 12:15). We cannot buy love or a quiet conscience or the laughter of playing children or the care of our Heavenly Father. The worthy things that make life cannot be bought; they are priceless. But they do have everything to do with our surrender to God and acceptance of the yoke of Christ.

Regarding the state and politics, there is the story of the Pharisees’ challenge to Christ upon the question of tribute money, leading up to the memorable declaration about Caesar’s rights and God’s (Matt. 22:15). The issue is of course framed as entrapment. The scheme was to drive Jesus into an obvious contradiction in order to publicly discredit him. This is not much different than how cancel culture works today. The Pharisees were oblivious to truth; their sole aim was to take down their opponent, just like the modern Twitter mob. The task must have seemed easy enough at the time. After all, what was Jesus to them but an ignorant peasant? It would be a simple matter to lead him out of his own depth, and so they baited thetrap with idle flattery:

“Master, we know that thou art true, and teachers the way of God in truth...is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”

In other words, ought they to pay the state tax? The snare was cleverly devised. It seemed that, whatever answer Jesus might make, they had him caught. Sort of like asking someone whether they still beat their wife. If Jesus answers in the affirmative, then loyal Jews suffering under oppressive Roman taxes and reparations would immediately disavow their allegiance to him. Conversely, if he replies in the negative, he could face a charge of sedition against the Roman state and suffer prosecution. If he kept silent, his followers would naturally infer that he did not know the right answer and was thus a false prophet. If he hesitated or asked for time to consider the matter, that too would have undermined his credibility and influence.

Though the trap was subtly prepared, it was even more deftly disarmed. “Shew me the tribute money”, he demands. “Whose is this image and superscription?”he asks. “Caesars”was the answer. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” In other words, give the state what belongs to it, but give to God what belongs to Him. This immortal phrase has suffered many strange interpretations.Some have founded upon it a theory of the divine right of kings. At the opposite extreme, it is argued that the state has no authority at all over the truly religious individual. Missing the point entirely, still others have treated this as mere evasion.

So what is the correct interpretation?

It is abundantly clear that Christ refuses to give a one dimensional answer in a debate on party politics. To have become a combatant in that arena would almost certainly have made his essential message seem partisan, thus obscuring the basic revelation of his ministry.Moreover, the political situation of his age, as of every age, was transient and ephemeral, whereas Christ’s purpose was set in the salt and light of eternally valid laws. Guiding principles rather than detailed instructions were Christ’s concern and method. His presence among us had a loftier aim than just ending a political debate or finalizing economic programs. Christ came to impart to us a spirit by the power of which we would settle our own debates and develop our own programs. For Christians, this is a call to action on political, economic, and social levels of existence.

Though Christ resisted the temptation to be drawn into political debates, his answer to the Pharisee’s question does imply that privilege always carries with it a corresponding duty. If one is indebted to the state, then there is a moral obligation to honour that debt, just as we would any other. The very fact that the Pharisees used Caesar’s coin suggests that they were availing themselves of Roman state services; hence, they were bound to accept the responsibility to repay Caesar what was owed to him. Privileges of citizenship thus have corresponding obligations that cannot be ethically declined. In short, the issues at stake here cease to be purely political and are seen by Christ to be both moral and religious. Duty, wherever it arises, is a sacred thing and must be treated as such. Caesar’s image was on the coin; but God’s image from the dawn of time is upon the soul, because we are made in His image. However worn, blurred, battered, and even defaced the human coin becomes in the world’s currency, the image of the God to whom we belong remains—untarnished.

Though Christians are in this world, we are not of it. We are therefore not to be conformed to it but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Our perspective of the world should always be from an eternal perspective and we are charged to always look up so that we are not overcome by the affairs of carnal life. With a stayed mind on Christ, we remain focused on his mission. With this approach, it is virtually impossible to become engulfed in fighting battles for social justice. It is just as incongruous to desire and fight for a Utopian existence here on earth when Christ says that perfection is on the other side of mortality. Christians focused on social justice are often quick to spring into action and may even mean well when they speak, but what they do and say actually impairs the cause of Christianity. Despite their best intentions, social justice warriors are mindful of things of humanity, rather than of God.They may be sincerely zealous for Christ and abhor legitimate injustices, but they are still ruled by their flesh and emotions rather than the discernment which comes from God. They may take up certain social justice causes that seem right to them, fervently believing that they are doing good. But in truth, they are a hindrance to the will of God. Either they take up a worthy cause and push it with great zeal while neglecting to share the Gospel, or they support a position which utterly contradicts scripture, believing that they are being compassionate like Jesus. In either scenario, there is spiritual immaturity, compromise, and sinful pride at work.

Jesus was no social justice warrior, nor can he be claimed as a member of any such camp. His influence cannot be so constrained or misconstrued. Christ instead stands at the cross-roads of class, of race, of gender, of politics, and of religion, where all of the ages meet. The world’s literature, music, art, architecture, philosophy, and politics have for 2000 years been haunted by Jesus, haunted by his bleeding hands and feet, by his burning eyes, and by His eternally powerful message. Thus, throughout all of the tangle and undergrowth of the vexed social and political turmoil of his day, and of every day, Christ cuts down to the eternal Truth. He brings everything back to the question of personal surrender. We belong to God, he says.Our bodies, our souls, our minds, our affections—they are all stamped with His divine image. Now, and forever, Amen.

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