The Roots of Christian Social Action

A recent article by a former editor of the Straits Times in Singapore caused some interest related to the spike of Covid-19 infections, especially those related to the B1.617 variant.

Of interest to Christians is the author’s reference to thymos or thumos, a Greek word used by ancient Greek philosophers. As it is also found in the Bible, it would be useful to reflect on how the Bible uses the word.

 Thumos and Orgē

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines the word as “passion, angry, heat, anger, forthwith boiling up and soon subsiding again; glow, ardor, the wine of passion, inflaming wine (which either drives the drinker mad or kills him with its strength.”

An example of how the word is used in the Bible is: “When they heard this, the people in the synagogue were furious” (Lk 4:28). The ESV Bible translates the word as “wrath”.

There is another Greek word in the Bible that is translated as wrath—the word orgē. This word appears in what John the Baptist says in Mt 3:7: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

Sometimes both thumos and orgē appear together. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage [thumos] and anger [orgē], brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Eph 4:31).

What, then, can we learn from the way the Bible uses these words?

First, these emotions can easily go out of control and lead us to sin. If we harbour them within us, we can begin to play god and take things into our own hands. The Bible generally sees these emotions negatively. It is for this reason that the church fathers considered passion to be a dangerous thing, something that would easily lead us to sin.

Second, only God can handle anger on His own; His wrath arises from His character and is always just and merciful. “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury [thumos] of the wrath [orgē] of God Almighty” (Rev 19:15).

The key lesson for us is this: We should handle our anger (even if we consider it to be just and righteous) with care, for it can easily mislead us if not properly grounded. On our own, without any significant reference to God, we are bound to become angry in a sinful way (Eph 4:26).

 Lessons from Micah 6:8

It is increasingly common to quote Micah 6:8 as a battle cry among Christians to rise up to fight for social justice. Even those who are not practising Christians use this verse to rally the troops.

The context of this verse is God’s charge against Israel’s unfaithfulness. The prophet chimed in by pointing out that without faithful obedience, all the ritualistic temple sacrifices were of no use. Then, he summarised what God actually required of Israel. The people were to act justly and mercifully as they walked humbly with God.

All three parts of the verse must be strongly held together, especially our humble walk with God, without which the other two will fall into disarray. We can see this in Psalm 82. There is a strong call to defend those who are oppressed and help those who are needy (vv. 3-4). But this is truly possible only because God is presiding over everything: “God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the ‘gods’” (v. 1). The psalm ends with an appeal to God to rise up to judge the earth (v. 8). The call to practise justice and mercy is bookmarked by references to God as the ultimate judge, one who has perfect justice and mercy.

In his book, The Magna Carta of Humanity, Christian thinker Os Guinness argues that there is a difference between the freedom conceived by the founding documents of America in 1776 and that conceived by the French Revolution in 1789.

He traces the roots of 1776 to the Hebraic-Christian tradition connected to Mt Sinai and argues that the vision of freedom in 1789 was based on an angry uprising that was epitomised by French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot’s statement, “We will never be free until we strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.”

The French Revolution thus sought to overthrow both state and church as oppressive institutions, and freedom was measured in terms of the degree of rejection of these institutions. Guinness traces many of the current calls to freedom to the sentiments connected with the French Revolution and its Enlightenment foundations.

Guinness notes that “post-modernism, political correctness, identity politics, the sexual revolution, and all that stuff, right down to critical theory, they are all the heirs of 1789, not 1776. And as you know well, they come out badly. Revolutions in that side never succeed and the oppressions never end, and yet, many Americans have become bewitched by ideas from the radical left.”

If Guinness is right, then Christians who are actively involved in the Micah 6:8 agenda of justice must examine whether the roots of their premises and actions are biblical or whether they are from secular notions of rights and freedoms, disconnected from God (think “woke culture” and neo-Marxism).

When Jesus criticised the Pharisees for their legalistic religion, he referred to “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Mt 23:23), an obvious reference to Micah 6:8. To walk humbly with God is to be faithful to Him, to learn to be humble under God’s mighty hand (1 Pet 5:6).

It is good that Christians are paying more attention to justice issues, but we must be careful that we have proper roots for Christian action—faithful obedience to God and a deep humility.

Cultural theologian Andrew Sandlin has argued that cultural Marxism is “the preeminent social vision of our time” and describes its wide and deep influence in society through the activism of an influential minority (“A Primer on Cultural Marxism,” Journal of Christian Legal Thought, 8:2 [2018]).

This is also being seen in the church. Sandlin asserts: “Professing and practicing Biblical Faith, in all of its glorious and gracious hierarchies, is the victorious alternative to Cultural Marxism.”

It is right to get upset with the bad things that can be found around us in the world. After all, the prophet Isaiah saw in God’s presence that he lived among “a people of unclean lips”. But first he realised that he himself was “a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). If there is anger within us about sin around us, we must first turn it inwards, because we, as individuals and members of various groups, are also guilty of sin.

It is out of that humility, in God’s just, holy and merciful presence, that we can then serve God in Christ by seeking justice and mercy and bringing some good in this world.

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