Jesus, Social Action, and APU's L.A. Term

by Paul Hertig, Ph.D.

Jesus made social injustice a focus of his mission. Jesus chose to come off his throne to enter this world physically and to be raised in a poor family. His mother spoke of her “humble state” (Luke 1:48), and his parents’ temple offering for him was a poor person’s offering (2:24). Jesus told his disciples to drop everything and follow him. He had “nowhere to lay his head.” He and his disciples traveled about, engaged in loving and healing activity, while dependant on the hospitality of others. In fact, Jesus’ first sermon emphasized “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), his first beatitude begins, “Blessed are you who are poor” (6:20), and his first woe with, “Woe to you who are rich” (6:24). Social justice issues often center around the haves and have-nots. Those with money and resources tend to have power, and those without money and resources tend to be powerless. Economic inequalities lie at the root of social injustices. Given this reality, there is no wonder that one in seven verses in the Gospel of Luke address money or material things. If Jesus considered social inequity such a priority, we as Christians should follow suit. However, an unfortunate attitude prevails in our world today: the rich do not have enough, while the poor have too much. The daily news stands as a testament to the upside-down values of our fallen world. The Disney CEO earns more than $10,000 an hour. This is more than some of his employees make in an entire year. One wonders what went wrong with the system that made it appropriate for CEOs to earn up to 500 times what many of their own employees receive. Serious crimes of greed also abound with indicted company executives revealing further exploitation of the working class. The all-to-familiar gap between rich and poor widens. In addressing and correcting social injustices, Jesus gravitated toward the most vulnerable people in society: widows, children, the poor, the blind, the deaf, prisoners, the demon-possessed, lepers — those suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When asked if he was the Messiah, Jesus paraphrased his first sermon, stating that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22). Notice Luke does not allow the reader to interpret Jesus metaphorically, but in terms of genuine social action, by inserting, prior to Jesus’ response, “At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses, and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind” (7:21). When Jesus drove out the sellers at a commercial banking center (the Jerusalem temple), he engaged in social action (Luke 19:45). Later, he declared that the poor widow who gave the minimum offering of two tiny copper coins “put in more than all the others,” measuring her gift not by its specific value, but by what it cost to give it. Jesus paid close attention to how people handled their pocket books — not because money was the bottom line, but because of the social injustices that arise from the misuse of money. Our L.A. Term Program encourages students to remain faithful to Jesus’ example of social action by responding compassionately to people in need in a multicultural setting. Students move about the city of Los Angeles on public transportation, bicycle, or foot. They live the entire semester cross-culturally with host families. They take four experientially based classes. Just as Jesus’ classroom was the world, so the students’ classroom is the urban setting of L.A. Each student participates in an internship with an organization that engages in social issues, including: C.L.U.E. (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), P.A.T.H. (People Assisting the Homeless), A.P.L.A. (AIDS Project L.A.), Union Rescue Mission, Downtown Women’s Center, Inner City Law Center, Central City Community Outreach, and Bresee Community Center. As a Christ-centered institution, we seek to prepare men and women to go out into the world with a spirit that protects the weak, provides for the poor, and cherishes the forgotten.

Paul Hertig, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Global Studies and Sociology and director of the L.A. Term.