I’ve had many conversations in the last few weeks about “social justice.” Some of these conversations were brought about by the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. There are things I liked about the statement. There are things I didn’t like. I generally wonder about the purpose or effectiveness of such statements. I’ve decided to not comment directly on anything in the statement. Instead, I’m going to offer my own (brief!) list of affirmations. And instead of denials, I’ve followed up my affirmations with questions. Some of the questions you will clearly be able to guess what my answer might be. But don’t assume that I’ve worked out answers to all or even most of these questions. In offering these questions (and there are probably more that I didn’t think of), I’m simply saying that any discussion of social justice and the gospel has to be willing to take these questions seriously. These questions also reveal the fault lines in this issue. Most of the debates that are had over social justice and the gospel are really dealing with these questions.
Affirmation: The gospel has social consequences.
Did Jesus believe (and practice) social justice? Are we sure he would have understood social justice in modern categories? Did the earliest Christians practice social justice? Is this evident in Acts 2 and Acts 6? Were Christians known by their social justice?
These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes . . . Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.
Julian the Apostate, mid-fourth century
Do we complicate the issue by insisting on the phrase “social justice?” What is the relationship between the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandments? Is social justice an acceptable “end” for Christian theology? What would be the Church’s mission in places like Japan and Scandinavia which have already achieved high standards of social justice? Was Jerry Falwell Sr. correct in 1965? Why or why not?
“Believing the Bible as I do,” declared Falwell, “I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else—including fighting communism, or participating in civil rights reforms. … Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners. . .. Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals. The gospel does not clean up the outside but rather regenerates the inside.”
What is the proper balance between physical and spiritual needs in the work of the Church? What is the proper balance between addressing “systemic” and individual brokenness in the Church?
Affirmation: Injustice is real and pervasive.
Question: Causes and Strategies?
Does justice demand an equality of outcome or an equality of opportunity? Is injustice the consequence of personal choices and thus addressed by personal interventions or is it primarily the consequence of “systems of oppression” and thus addressed by systemic overhauls? Does the assumption that injustice is systemic actually encourage people to become disengaged from the work of justice? Are we guilty of understanding root causes too simplistically? To what extent have people in “majority cultures” been guilty of contributing to or neglecting to recognize issues of injustice? Is it possible to contribute to injustice without personal intent? Have we done an acceptable job of listening to different voices on the issue of injustice – or have we only been listening to those who echo our own voice? What is the relationship between the Church and the State in working toward justice? Must the only acceptable strategies for bringing about justice be from the left wing of the political spectrum? Is there such a thing as a conservative social justice? To what extent is injustice about spiritual causes and thus requiring spiritual interventions? Do we run the risk of idolatry when injustice is turned into primarily an issue of socio-economics? Are we too limited in the ways that we understand people to be experiencing injustice or oppression? Is our diagnosis of injustice too provincial, tribal, and perhaps even nationalist? Are those in Cook County, Illinois in need of social justice? What about Harlan County, Kentucky? What about those who occupy mansions in Silicon Valley? Are there categories of people who have no need for justice? Is the heightened focus on injustice creating a victimhood culture of paranoia and perpetual offense? How do we keep the appeal to justice from undermining the gospel call of self-abnegation? Does the social justice movement ever devolve into C.S. Lewis’ picture of hell in The Screwtape Letters?
We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives with the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.
Affirmation: The Bible is God’s timeless word.
Is it possible to be passionate for social justice without becoming a theological liberal? Should we heed the advice of James Cone and adopt a hermeneutic that reads scripture “from the bottom?” Does any reading that is not “from the bottom” necessarily have to be “from the top?” To what extent should the findings of the social sciences complement or influence our understanding of scripture? To what extent do we allow the assumptions of contemporary culture to influence or direct our understanding of social justice? Must other cultures (as in Africa for example) adopt Western understandings of justice (particularly in the areas of sexual ethics) in order to be truly just? Is this cultural colonialism? What are the universal principles that should guide our work of justice? From where are they to be derived other than scripture? Is it true that some assumptions are more neo-Marxist than they are New Testament? Might we be disciples of Marcuse dressed up to look like Jesus?
It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise, and that liberation of the Damned of the Earth presupposes suppression not only of their old but also of their new masters.
Is our social justice a Kingdom justice? Does it leverage tribal identities to build walls and resentments or does it promote the type of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation that characterizes the Gospel?