Why social justice is up to us.
Published: April 17, 2012
Walter Rauschenbusch—theologian, Baptist minister, key figure in the Social Gospel movement, and major influence on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—dedicated his life to the practice of a prophetic Christian theology that could change American society.
He believed, quite simply, that a just society should reflect moral values and promote “justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates.”
Rauschenbusch lived and preached a gospel with no religious restrictions. Tenets of social justice can be found in the Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and other faiths. It is the holistic idea that equality and solidarity should serve as the fundamental core of societies, institutions, communities, and lifestyles. Social justice emphasizes the value of human rights and recognizes the dignity of every human being.
How can we fulfill Walter Rauschenbusch’s call for “justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates” in the troubling 21st century? In these times of increasing scarcity when we can find little hope, there is a desperate need to resurrect social justice. We need leaders in the prophetic Christian tradition, like Rauschenbusch, King, and Gandhi. They must stoke the embers of righteous indignation into an almighty, inextinguishable blaze.
Here now we wish to ask the central question raised by the Reverend Dr. Mark Taylor: “Whatever happened to the notion of love in our public discourse?” We should perhaps define what we mean when we use the slippery term “love.”
Love for us means everyone is worthy of a life of dignity and decency—just because. Not because of where they were born, who they know, where they live, where they were educated, where they work, or what the size of their annual income is. The sheer humanity of each and every one of us warrants our steadfast commitment to the well-being of each other.
This is what Dr. King had in mind when he suggested that justice is what love looks like in public.
This is what John Coltrane had in mind when he composed “A Love Supreme.”
This is what Toni Morrison had in mind when she wrote Beloved.
This is what Nelson Mandela had in mind when he opted for justice over revenge.
This is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had in mind when he spoke of the compassion of the Hebrew prophets.
This is what Mahmoud Mohamed Taha had in mind when he preached of the mercy of Allah.
This is what Mahatma Gandhi had in mind when he lived the loving soul force he talked about.
This is what that first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus had in mind when he commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Lest we mislead you, this is not only about a loving heart; rather, it is also about finding loving social (structural and institutional) alternatives to the nightmare of poverty that can be the dawning of a new day for poor people everywhere. This new day must begin with a fresh imagination, a decision to discover some hard answers to some hard questions. Namely, what kind of person do we really want to be?
Cowardly and complacent or courageous and compassionate? What kind of country do we really want to be? Cold-hearted and callous or caring and considerate?
The choice is ours.
From his celebrated conversations with world figures . . . to his work to inspire the next generation of leaders . . . broadcaster, author, advocate, and philanthropist Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change.
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University.