An Interview with Tim Nelson: Christianity and Social Justice

An Interview with Tim Nelson: Christianity and Social Justice

Occupation: Senior lecturer in sociology at Johns Hopkins University. He is also a
senior scientist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Education: B.A. from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA; Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago.

Previously: Taught at Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard College.


THD: What do you think the role of religious institutions should be in pursuing social justice, or should institutionalized religion be something that focuses strictly on doctrine and theology, whereas the individual follower should be committed to social justice?

Nelson: I guess when you say “religious institutions,” we’re talking at several different levels: congregations, denominations, para-church  organizations. I think social justice is a key component of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. It’s something that individuals should also do, but it’s certainly not something that should be relegated to the individual realm. And in terms of what that looks like: that’s an interesting question. When I was growing up in the late sixties-early seventies, the church was talking much more about issues of social justice. I have to give a lot of credit to my dad who’s a pastor. I learned a lot from what he was doing back then. He was a youth minister and also a Christian education director at several congregations, but always infused social justice, racial reconciliation, and that kind of stuff into his own work. I grew up reading Sojourners magazine and a magazine called The Other Side. These were evangelical but left-leaning. So biographically, I always kind of had that lens of thinking about social justice as a basic part of Christian life.

Now, I think one of the mistakes that churches and denominations made during that time was that–and remember this was on the heels of the civil rights movement and everything–I think they felt that what social justice meant was working only through the political arena. I think that’s a temptation for Christians to do that, and certainly, I am not saying that Christians have no place in the political arena. But I think that if you are putting your hope in that as the avenue of change, then you will be sorely disappointed. It’s really hard to stay faithful, I think, to a social justice mission in the halls of power. There was this book on my dad’s bookshelf, that really influenced me called The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. And at first, when I read it, I didn’t like at all because, you know, being young, I was all about: “Yeah! Political action and protests and speaking truth to power” and that kind of stuff. But Yoder, coming from a Mennonite tradition, talked about the politics of Jesus as not being revolutionary, at least in that sense. He wasn’t a zealot like the disciple Simon was, in terms of overthrowing the power structures, but bringing in such a radically different message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and mercy that it ended up turning everything on its head. It was revolutionary, but not through the channels that people expected him to be. I think that difference is pretty powerful. So what does working for social justice look like? I think maybe different organizations are called to different pieces of the larger mission. One thing that I think we tend to do as Christians: we think that everybody has got to do it the same way. We say, “‘A’ is the only legitimate pathway to do this.” Whereas, it seems that if you read the New Testament, people have different gifts and different callings and different expressions of the same thing, and in a way, it is the diversity of approaches that we should embrace and not try to straitjacket people into one way of doing it. “Social justice looks like this rather than this.” But definitely I think it should be at least a part of every religious organization. And, again, it’s not going to be the central focus of some organizations for that same reason. Some are called to bring a ministry of healing brokenness and relationships and things like that. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be relegated to just a fringe element of these institutions.

THD: You say that part of the weakness of the sixties and seventies was people elevating the political side of social justice maybe into their vocation. Do you think that weakness is still relevant today, or, if not, what are the primary weaknesses of the church and social justice?

TN: Yeah, so that’s interesting. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the church (and I am talking here about the church in the United States) that I don’t really pay a lot of attention to. I know that there have been a lot of movements and things that I am dimly aware of, but I don’t feel that I know enough about them to be able to say anything, really, about them. I mean, in my little corner of the world… I know my little piece of what’s going on, but I don’t really know enough about the general shape of what’s happening in the larger circles to comment on that.

THD: Have you noticed any interesting developments or a noticeable change in some perception, or have you seen students think of it differently?

TN: One thing that is relatively new among millennials, more than prior generations, I find, is more of a folding in of issues about the environment and things that we weren’t really attuned to back then, and marrying that, maybe, with environmental justice issues. Unfortunately, in the larger church there seems to be not… I am dismayed at what gets done under the name of “evangelical”. And so the fact that, in the political realm, the kind of candidates the “evangelical” crowd is supporting in places like Iowa are pretty frightening to me. And it seems to be about drawing these kinds of moral, symbolic boundaries against certain populations is what that really means. Whereas, what social justice is really about is inclusion and making sure that we are drawing the circle ever wider and wider so that people can be brought in. And so it’s a fundamentally, I think, an opposite stance and attitude than is being displayed in the standard “evangelical” morals.

THD: Bringing this deeper to the Christian faith, what is a unique characteristic the church has, in contrast to most of the NGOs out there, that it brings to social justice that other institutions maybe aren’t?

TN: Well, I think, that there is definitely a difference, and part of it is the motivation. I think that the fundamental message of Christianity is that we are all essentially the same. Right? We are all broken. We all need grace and mercy. I think that working for social justice is an outgrowth to what we’ve been given, and to give that to other people. And that’s why I say that this whole idea of evangelicals drawing boundaries, “It’s us and them,” is antithetical to what the Gospel is. The Gospel seeks out people who’ve been especially broken and especially persecuted and especially despised and goes into that place with them. I think that’s the key difference of Christianity: is that it’s not just, “I have resources. I am going to give resources away, and therefore you become a client, or you become my project.” But the whole birth and life of Jesus teaches this incarnational approach, “I am going to go where you are, suffer what you suffer, live the life you live, and be alongside of you, and empty myself of what I have and take on what you have.” I think that’s the ultimate expression of what it means to do this type of ministry. So you see people moving in to the inner city (and this maybe happened more in the sixties and seventies), like a Sojourner’s Community in Washington DC. When I was a kid, I used to send my newspaper-route money to a place called Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi, where a black pastor, John Perkins, was trying to build interracial congregations in the heart of the segregationist south. To me, those are the ultimate expressions of what it means to live this out. And that only can come authentically, I think, through having this really personal experience of grace and mercy for your own life, because otherwise you just become… the temptation is to be like: “Aren’t I such a good person because I am doing this kind of work?”

THD: With that uniqueness, is there any particular issue the Church should have a more necessary role in, in the sense that it’s an issue that’s problem perhaps goes deeper than simply doing good can heal?

TN: One role the church has that no other NGO has: a church is a congregation – a place where people gather together as equals and build a shared life together. That’s what’s powerful about congregations. They can bring in people very different from one another – white, black, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat – it totally goes against the grain of everything that society is trying to do to keep us segregated. Tragically the church looks all too much like these social divisions. But to consciously create a community that tries to draws all of these folks in is an incredible witness to the power of the Kingdom of God vs. all other kingdoms. I attend a church here in Baltimore called GraceCity and it meets down in a school in Federal Hill. It’s an intentionally multiracial church. It has one white pastor and one black pastor, and the church is very aware of who is up front and who is doing things behind the scenes. It’s something that we as a church talk about together. People have different experiences and perspectives. For instance, white people have a tendency to take control of everything, so it has to be kind of called out in love when that happens. Of all institutions it’s the congregation that can bear the most witness to this. It’s not a staff of professionals serving people; it’s a living breathing community that’s trying to live together.

THD: Bringing it to our own context in Baltimore, how have you seen interaction between the church and different social conditions in the city?

TN: The pastors of our church I know were very heavily involved with the aftermath of the Freddie Gray thing, they were actually on the front lines, literally between the police and the protestors trying to be a human shield. That was one window where there was a positive approach. Unfortunately there was no message from the pulpit about this about this kind of stuff – I wanted more processing of this, what it means to be in the midst of this kind of thing. What does it mean to exist in a hyper-segregated city such as Baltimore? What is our responsibility? Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor is the one who sees the need and does something about it – to prove he truly is the neighbor. I’m sure lots of churches are doing things. Though I wish I knew more about what different groups are doing. It remains that all too often these social divisions become set up in the church as well as in society. They’re hard barriers to overcome.

THD: What would you suggest to students who are thinking about these things to do?

TN: That impulse is a good one – “I see all this around me and I want to do something.” I think the first step is humility and maybe thinking, “I should first learn from someone who’s already doing something.” I studied a black church for my dissertation, and it was a great experience because I’d never put myself in a context in which I’m the extreme minority. So maybe what that looks like is putting yourself in a position to be a learner under the authority of someone who’s in there and already addressing these issues. Support what they’re already doing. I think the tendency is that everyone wants to go out and start their own NGO – “Well here’s my piece of it that I want to do.” An attitude of humility is not as glamorous and doesn’t make you feel as noble about what you’re doing, but its more effective in the long run.

THD: Is there a particular passage in scripture that you think most relates to the relationship the Christian faith has with topics of social justice?

TN: I think for me, one verse that always sticks with me, and as a sociologist this has particular relevance. It’s Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” As a sociologist I study the patterns of this world – that’s what sociology is, essentially. And the pattern of the world is to segregate, to separate, to dominate, for people to try to get as much as they can for themselves. What we need to have is this transformed mind and culture, first of all by recognizing those pressures and how they affect Christians both individuals and collectively – the kind of fear and distrust that is sown between rich/poor black white/ immigrant…part of it is constantly seeing the messages of the world and how we are being pushed into that mold. One needs to see it in order to shake those things off and resist. Think about what is that “blessed community” that Christ talks about and how am I taking steps to replicate what he’s talking about? How are our minds being transformed? Really it’s a work of the Holy Spirit – it’s not how many books you can read – but to be open to let the Holy Spirit shape you and teach you through events and circumstances. It all involves taking risks. If you’re not taking risks, then that’s not faith, that’s just belief. Faith will call for people to do things that others think are crazy or that people feel they are not adequately resourced for. But that’s exactly where and how the Kingdom takes shape.


Christianity and Social JusticeImage by Melanie Chan – UC Berkeley’s To An Unknown God. Spring 2013.

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