The word piety or pious seems at times to have a bad connotation to it, leaving that awful bitter aftertaste in the mouths of Christians and non-Christians alike. It is a thought of one who is so heavenly focused that they ain’t no earthly good. It is a view of a person who is holier-than-thou in their attitude trying to show how great they are in their humility. Sadly, this view has a good reason to exist. But that is not the piety I speak of here.
Piety is a contemplative art on the holiness of God through Jesus Christ. It is achieved through the continual practice of the spiritual disciplines–prayer, solitude, studying of Scripture, fasting, worship, seeking Godly wisdom, and the like. The focus is a true personal walk with Jesus in daily life. This is what piety is about.
And in all fairness, in my faith walk, I focus on piety and the contemplative arts of spirituality.
And then there is Christian social justice or transformationalism. I first encountered Christian social justice in 1998 when I went to Calvin College…and met Canadians for the first time (word be known, my 6th grade teacher was wrong, apparently Canada is NOT the 51st state). Social justice was something pushed by the liberal elite, a form of government and social activism that belittled people into submission (I didn’t have a high view of it since I got a lot of it crammed on me by teachers in high school and some in community college). Christian social justice was similar but different.
As I listened and tried to learn it seemed that Christian social justice stemmed from a heaping serving of a turn of the century (this was the ’90’s) Dutch theologian/politician and sprinkled with 19th century American Social Gospel. From what I gathered, the goal was to tear down oppressive systemic causes for poverty, racism, and other social ills facing society. From what I understood from listening to my brothers and sisters in Christ, that in order to truly be a follower of Christ, one must fight for justice as Jesus did, as God called the people of Israel to do. The goal was to transform the world into the Kingdom of God today.
In my pietisitc focus, that became legalism accompanied by an antagonistic anti-witness. Many of the transformationalists I met focused on this way of being a follower of Jesus. From what I witnessed and saw, in order to be a true follower of Jesus, one must be a transformationalist in every way.
Yet for me, this took away from one’s focus on the holiness and otherness of God and ones connection to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In response, those of the transformationalist persuasion stated that true incarnation ministry (that of being the presence of Jesus amongst others) needed to have hand stained in the mud of kingdom work, living amongst the poor, aiding those in need, fighting for justice of the oppressed.
That word “justice” gets tossed around a lot by transformationalistis if you ask me. The definition isn’t always nailed down but it’s used anyway.
So I began, in my own pious tradition, to study Scripture. I saw many times Jesus retreating to pray. I read how we are told by God that if we seek Him, we will find Him. I read about the call to be humble before the Lord, for He will lift you up. I read about the focus on grace being the only means of salvation. But then in my readings of the minor prophets, of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (the Torah or Law), of the letter of James, and even in the gospels, I began to see the call for a form of Biblical justice (not a social justice, but I’ve written about that before…you can read that here).
I had seen piety and transformationalism as being mutually exclusive. I’ve heard transformationalists speak of piety and transformationalism being mutually exclusive. The twain shall never meet…right?
As I have tried to seek God, to walk in the presence of Jesus and abide in Him through prayer, through solitude (which is really hard for me to do…I have to talk…even to myself), through the reading of Scripture, through fasting (which isn’t as hard as solitude for me), and through seeking wisdom, I began to see a connection between the two.
Many times we try to see the one against the other. Those who focus towards the contemplative arts of seeking holiness and piety can become so wrapped up in it that they are removed from the world around them and truly ain’t no earthly good. Yet at the same time, those who become so focused on transformation of society as one’s drive in faith, can seem to become so earthbound, the connection to the Kingdom of God they so desire to see realized in the now is forgotten about in the future.
Both have their pluses and minuses. Both have great rewards and horrible pitfalls.
I’ve come to see how a solid piety can lead to transformation in the world around us. Not by tearing down systemic oppressors but by living in such a way to lift up others in the name of Jesus because they are made in the image of God. A strong life of prayer and a devout meditation on Scripture leads to a living out of both, a life of prayer and work. Of prayer and response to grace.
Since I am not a transformationalist (nor an adherent to that Dutch theologian mentioned earlier), I struggle with the transformational view. I have begun to learn that a strong solid piety, a living out of the spiritual disciplines and contemplative arts, leads to a desire to live out the life of Jesus both helping those in need–as the Bible says, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner within our gates–but also leads to a desire to seek the face of God and of our savior more and more. Does the Christian social justice/transformationalist view reciprocate? I do not know.
As for now, I will continue to pray, to meditate on God’s word, to focus on abiding in Jesus…in being present with Him, in seeking wisdom, in personal worship, and see where the Spirit takes me.
What about you? How do these two work together or separately?