Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Individual Prosperity or Social Justice?

Harold Dean Trulear


August 12, 2011
by Harold Dean Trulear

Several years ago, the rap song “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp” focused on prostitution as a means for making money, ignoring the obvious sexual immorality and injustice.  Reducing sex to a commodity, the rapper reflects on the hazards of his “business world” and his ability to negotiate the obstacles necessary to overcome poverty, reflecting a general cultural consensus regarding poverty alleviation.

Cultural consensus? Yes, because our current approach to poverty focuses on providing individuals with the opportunity to overcome poverty, rather than addressing its root causes.  In so doing, we fail to commit ourselves to a just society.  Even the church buys into this consensus when its message eschews social justice for “self help,” which reduces the gospel to what works for the individual rather than what is true for the common good.  A gospel which preaches “efficacy” over “eternality” reflects a compromise with the world of consumerism and self interest.  It is a “pimp” gospel that says, in the words of one of the early prosperity preachers, “the best thing you can do for the poor is to not be one of them.”

Even those messages which do not seem to be prosperity-oriented demonstrate our cultural captivity to the ethics of individual striving.  For every prosperity preacher on television, there is a parallel media messenger offering biblical instructions on personal problem solving and daily living that, to quote one of their numbers, calls us to “rescue the fish, not clean the fishbowl.”

This focus on individual faith without its implications for public witness even extends to social ministry and engagement.  When I teach my senior seminary class, called “Prophetic Ministry” (a requirement, by the way, for the Master of Divinity degree at our school), we begin with an exercise in which course participants are presented with several ministry scenarios.  Each involves a person with a specific problem such as a teenager failing school, a single mother with an addiction, a person returning from incarceration without employment.  The class breaks into groups to prepare congregational responses to each situation.

Normally, the teenager receives a tutor, the addict gets referred to treatment or becomes part of a support group and the church mobilizes its resources to find the returning citizen a job. Each of these noble responses contain one fundamental flaw—they provide an individual solution to an individual problem without giving any thought to the systemic injustices surrounding each situation.  The teen may very well need tutoring, but to offer such a service without a parallel engagement with a failing school system implies that it is just the youth who needs to be fixed, and not the system around him.  When the addict receives treatment, little if any thought is given to the ways in which insurance companies resist paying for substance abuse treatment, making good programs inaccessible.  A returning citizen needs a job, but the collateral sanctions which bar many of them from gainful employment in a host of fields and limit educational opportunities for others goes unexamined.  Indeed, the cultural consensus around individual fulfillment (what some TV preachers call “destiny”) truncates our view of true biblical spirituality, which calls for public justice not as a balance to personal piety, but as a dimension of it.

King David sinned with Bathsheba in committing adultery. But the prophet Nathan focuses on the cultural context of injustice—David’s misuse of political power to accomplish the deed.  There is no bifurcation, but rather, a spiritual continuum which refuses even to argue for holding personal and social witness in tension.  Christianity is a seamless garment which affirms the Lordship of Christ over all things and bids us contemplate our place in their midst.

Yes, it is hard for a “pimp”—a Prophet Invested in Making Peace—to resist the tendency to either reduce faith to personal holiness and achievement or separate personal and public witness.  When John Wesley was asked to “choose” between the two, he wisely put them in context, stating that his call was to do whatever the love of God demanded in the situation.  Neither either/or or both/and, but all of a holistic piece.

—Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”