Reader AK said: I and others are still unclear on the “woke dogmas” or the unifying convictions of this “Christian justice movement”
This is a somewhat challenging question, because as with many decentralized movements, different people are going to answer this question in diverse ways. But as someone who participated avidly in the secular version of this movement for many years and has observed it in the church for several years, here is my effort.
My goal is to fairly present a number of views common to the “social justice” movement within conservative evangelicalism in the US, even as I acknowledge that the list is neither comprehensive, nor necessarily universal to every individual “social justice” advocate.
- Certain groups have been marginalized and oppressed throughout American history. These groups include, but are not limited to, ethnic minorities and women.
- This oppression, especially when amplified over many years—and in certain cases, many generations—has resulted in negative effects that have real impacts to this very day.
- This problem is botha historical and a current one, in that vestiges of the historical problems persist systemically within existing structures today.
- Moreover, the current inequities are so vast that to apply a “clean slate” or “equality of opportunity” paradigm alone would be neither sufficient nor just.
- Accordingly, as a matter of fundamental justice, existing inequities ought to be addressed by eliminating systemic problems and tangibly assisting those who have been oppressed.
- Because these inequities resulted from societal structures benefiting those with power and privilege, any costs associated with #5 should be borne primarily by society and the privileged.
I believe the above six concepts could likely be true of either a secular or a Christian “social justice” advocate. The below six concepts will attempt to focus in on the Christian perspective.
- Christians ought to be deeply concerned about these inequities, because we are called to love our neighbors, to love even our enemies, and to help the “least of these” as the example of the Good Samaritan clearly lays out.
- Any failure or even lack of enthusiasm to put into action this call to love our neighbors and help the least of these is a sin, or at the very least a detriment to our Christian witness, and thus individual repentance in these areas is appropriate.
- The church has a role to play as well, initially in the casting off and corporate repentance of any overt past or present sins relating to oppressed groups (see, e.g., the Southern Baptist Convention and slavery).
- As part of the repentance in #9, or at least as part of the compassionate sensitivity associated with #7, the church should actively disciple its members to love our neighbors, and examine itself to see if it is placing even unintentional barriers to fellowship for oppressed groups.
- One way these barriers to fellowship for oppressed groups could be discerned is examining the ethnic makeup of one’s local body and comparing it to the ethnic makeup of the surrounding community.
- Some would argue that corporate repentance by the church should include measures such as reparations and/or proactive hiring/ordination of pastors/elders from oppressed groups, in a type of affirmative action. Others (often amillennial and post-millennial believers) would argue that an overt role of the church should be to actively work toward social change and improvement.
Subject to my earlier qualifications, I think that’s enough for a basic sketch. And now that I’ve laid out what I hope is a fair summary, I’m going to respond with a brief set of conceptual rebuttals.
- No question there have been past injustices. Indeed, as we move back in history, we see a wretched and at times horrifying catalogue of evils and wrongs, and no single people group has a monopoly on this, as either victim or perpetrator. And delving into this issue begs the question of how broadly do you go, how far back do you go? Happily, we have answers from Scripture, because Ezekiel 18:20, Jeremiah 31:30, Deuteronomy 24:16, Galatians 6:4-5, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:6, and other verse are crystal clear that each man is responsible for his own sins, and not the sins of his ancestors or other people.
- Additionally, to say it plainly, there is a fact-based debate over how prevalent and dire the sin of partiality vis-à-vis oppressed groups is in the US right now. I neither need nor desire to dispute personal experiences of ill treatment—and indeed, I could share several of my own—in order to observe that accusations of systemic problems in a nation of over 325 million people require more than proof-by-anecdote. Hard data are far more persuasive, and in that regard, there are many competing studies out there. And having reviewed dozens of them, my own view is that the best data are multivariate analyses which demonstrate the reality that complex issues, such as reasons for inequality, defy simple univariate answers (e.g., “it’s all the fault of discrimination”). Meanwhile, the worst data tend to be studies from highly liberal/leftist humanities professors which contain clear methodological limitations, or even engage in question-begging, to assume the ideologically desired conclusions.
- Moreover, I’ve also seen a tendency among “social justice” advocates to ignore or minimize positive news and data, such as the increase in approval of interracial marriages from 4% in 1958 to 87% in 2013, representing “one of the largest shifts of public opinion in Gallup history”. Or the reality that the US did indeed elect—twice!—an ethnic minority to the highest and most powerful position in the land. This does not mean the sin of partiality has disappeared, of course, but it does indicate progress. The reality is, it is and always will be impossible to eliminate the sin of partiality this side of glory, because the Scriptures are clear that we are all sinners, as Romans 3:9-10 and many other verses declare. We don’t need to be fatalistic about this, of course, but it is more than appropriate to consider concepts such as magnitude, urgency, and even diminishing returns as we examine the sweep of stewardship of all that is set before us.
- This begs a fundamental question . . . how do we opt to prioritize “social justice” within the grid of many hundreds of Christian commands? There are, after all, “things of first importance” described in Scripture, and there are commands we are to be doing at all times, such as rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. (And I will note that in contrast, we are never called in Scripture to always be mourning, protesting, or expressing grievances.) Given a spare hour, should you spend it reading the Word, praying, doing street evangelism, serving your spouse via housework, or playing with your children? The answer is one of Christian liberty and stewardship, and ultimately each one of us will give an account to God for that hour per Romans 14:12. For anyone else to insist that you need to spend your time, money, or resources in a specific way, or to prioritize their heartfelt cause over your own, amounts to a treacherous path toward legalistic conscience-binding.
- Even when it comes to loving our neighbor, caring for the least of these, or doing justice, that remains an issue of liberty and stewardship. It might surprise you to hear that even with all of the constant media uproar about police shootings, the left-of-center Washington Post and the liberal The Guardian reported that 68 unarmed people (of all ethnicities) in 2017 and 170 unarmed people (again, of all ethnicities) in 2016, respectively, were killed by police in the US. Each of those people carried the Imago Dei, and regardless of the nature or justifiability of the shooting, I don’t doubt that they each had loved ones who mourned their deaths. I can think of a dear friend who lost a loved one to a police shooting, and I mourned and still mourn with her. But in terms of relative commonality, more people (189) died of constipation in the US in 2016 . . . which, to be fair, sounds like a pretty awful way to die as well. In contrast, the horror of abortion murdered an estimated 926,200 unborn babies in 2014, a disproportionately high number of which were ethnic minorities, by the way. In that light, are those of us who believe the issue of abortion is, say, at least 5,000 times more important than the issue of unarmed people killed by police being somehow unfair or unreasonable?
- When it comes to repenting of the failure to love my neighbor, I am personally far more convicted and motivated with respect to sharing the Gospel with those around me, than I am of the sin of partiality as it pertains to ethnicity. In complete candor, for a variety of reasons, I am not currently convicted of the sin of partiality as it pertains to ethnicity. This is not to say that I am perfect in this area, of course, nor to say that the Holy Spirit won’t someday convict me in this area, perhaps even deeply. But Christians are capable of maintaining a clear conscience in certain areas or toward certain people, as the Scriptures plainly state in Acts 23:1, Acts 24:16, Romans 9:1, 1 Corinthians 4:4, 2 Corinthians 1:12, 1 Timothy 1:19, 2 Timothy 1:3, and 1 Peter 3:16. Self-examination in these areas can be helpful and profitable, but it crosses into presumption and trying to be the Holy Spirit in another’s life when certain “social justice” advocates insist that people are or should feel guilty of this or that particular sin. At the end of the day, 1 Corinthians 4:5 tells us that hidden things and the purposes of the heart are for the Lord to reveal and disclose, not for others to assume or believe the worst.
- Regarding the issue of privilege, there is no question that certain people are born with greater privileges than others. I joked recently that I was outraged that I was born without white privilege, tall privilege, attractive privilege, born-to-wealthy-parents privilege, firstborn privilege, and especially in our Reformed-ish circles, able-to-grow-beards privilege. At the end of the day, it is the Lord alone who in His sovereignty ordains the privileges and challenges associated with our birth, so why should we have either pride or shame in those circumstances, with which we had absolutely nothing to do? Moreover, as Christians, to the extent we are granted privileges, we praise Him, and to the extent we are granted challenges, still we praise Him as James 1:2, Romans 5:3, 1 Peter 1:6, and other verses make very clear.
I will close for now by saying that the biggest concern that I and numerous others have about the “social justice” movement in the church is that turning our attention toward social concerns necessarily increases their relative priority, and thus necessarily decreases the relative priority of Gospel proclamation. Again, just to speak plainly, I am far more concerned about the furtherance of the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth, than I am about certain marginal improvements with respect to, say, living standards in our own abundantly blessed first-world country.
Church history is filled with the wreckage of denominations and organizations which became distracted by social issues, and then over the course of time, abandoned their Gospel priorities and even their doctrinal fidelity. We Christians in America are already so apt to being distracted by the shiny things of the world, some of which might even be good or neutral things, in and of themselves. My prayer is that we will refuse to be diverted from the beauty and simplicity of the perfect Word of God and His Gospel by an unnecessary focus on anything peripheral to that, whether it is “social justice” or worldly politics—often two sides of the very same distracting coin.