When Social Justice is not Gospelly but Theocratickey

Andrew Sullivan via Rod Dreher reveals the categories of liberal society and by implication shows that the Christian advocates of social justice are opposed to sorts of norms and privileges that attend the American system of law and government.

When public life means the ransacking of people’s private lives even when they were in high school, we are circling a deeply illiberal drain. A civilized society observes a distinction between public and private, and this distinction is integral to individual freedom. Such a distinction was anathema in old-school monarchies when the king could arbitrarily arrest, jail, or execute you at will, for private behavior or thoughts. These lines are also blurred in authoritarian regimes, where the power of the government knows few limits in monitoring a person’s home or private affairs or correspondence or tax returns or texts. These boundaries definitionally can’t exist in theocracies, where the state is interested as much in punishing and exposing sin, as in preventing crime. The Iranian and Saudi governments — like the early modern monarchies — seek not only to control your body, but also to look into your soul. They know that everyone has a dark side, and this dark side can be exposed in order to destroy people. All you need is an accusation.

The Founders were obsessed with this. They realized how precious privacy is, how it protects you not just from the government but from your neighbors and your peers. They carved out a private space that was sacrosanct and a public space which insisted on a strict presumption of innocence, until a speedy and fair trial. Whether you were a good husband or son or wife or daughter, whether you had a temper, or could be cruel, or had various sexual fantasies, whether you were a believer, or a sinner: this kind of thing was rendered off-limits in the public world. The family, the home, and the bedroom were, yes, safe places. If everything were fair game in public life, the logic ran, none of us would survive.

And it is the distinguishing mark of specifically totalitarian societies that this safety is eradicated altogether by design. There, the private is always emphatically public, everything is political, and ideology trumps love, family, friendship or any refuge from the glare of the party and its public. Spies are everywhere, monitoring the slightest of offenses. Friends betray you, as do lovers. Family members denounce their own mothers and fathers and siblings and sons and daughters. The cause, which is usually a permanently revolutionary one, always matters more than any individual’s possible innocence. You are, in fact, always guilty before being proven innocent. You always have to prove a negative. And no offense at any point in your life is ever forgotten or off the table.

Perhaps gay people are particularly sensitive to this danger, because our private lives have long been the target of moral absolutists, and we have learned to be vigilant about moral or sex panics. For much of history, a mere accusation could destroy a gay person’s life or career, and this power to expose private behavior for political purposes is immense.

Compare that to Timothy Cho’s use of Machen’s private correspondence:

While this is a private letter between Machen and his mother, the events and actions mentioned in the letter are anything but private. Machen’s stance on segregation is perfectly clear, and this adds an entirely new layer to the narrative about him. He was not simply a stalwart of Reformed and conservative theology, but also a vocal and public defender of segregation and thought negatively of the civil rights of an entire group of fellow image-bearers. His actions had broad institutional and systemic impacts in the seminary and beyond.

When you read Cho and Sullivan side by side, you do understand that Christian social justice advocates are not remotely liberal, not to mention that going out of your way to make someone look bad is not exactly charitable. But when you have a cause just like when you have the Spirit (think Gilbert Tennent), laws and etiquette be damned.

8 thoughts on “When Social Justice is not Gospelly but Theocratickey

  1. Are we approaching a time when the admonition common to the old Soviet block countries, in particular, will be invoked again, “Trust No One”?


  2. The problem is that the private vs. public distinction is blurred because of technology. Cho raised this issue on twitter (public). Is there a private place he could have raised this issue that would have been more appropriate?


  3. Um… some questions:
    1. What exactly do students do in doing historical theology?
    2. What are the implications when Kavanaugh’s got a publicly published high school yearbook vs. letter archives at Montgomery Library at WTS?
    3. You wrote: “…not to mention that going out of your way to make someone look bad is not exactly charitable.” Was the critique really about going out of one’s way to making Machen look bad? All critiques or reflections ever written…false equivalence? Knowing someone’s intentions…how about the 9th commandment?
    3. I thought it was striking that Cho’s last paragraph can be compared to your last paragraph here. Christians should understand clay feet, indeed:
    “Of course, the way out of these dilemmas is to rely not on heroes or celebrities but on Scripture for moral standards. From Thomas Jefferson to Charlie Rose, exemplary humans are fallen and their lives don’t prove one side or the other in any debate. But if you want to signal that you are on the right side of the cultural divide, lining up behind a social or political icon works as long as you forget that you are living in the #metoo era.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. FIrst, no implication has been shown about all Christian social justice advocates nor has one been shown about Christian social justice advocates in general.

    Second, privacy does protect us from our neighbor especially when unacceptable thoughts and feelings that harm no are hidden from them. But what about those thoughts and feelings that have then been converted to actions? At that point, privacy doesn’t protect our neighbor like accountability does.

    We should certainly use Machen’s belief in segregation as part of the context for his theology. Authoritarian apologists for Machen are afraid of allowing that part to be included in the context of his writings. That is because for authoritarians, truth is determined more by the credentials of the source than by facts and logic employed by one’s statements and arguments. Thus, those with authoritarian personality types perhaps have a conflict of interest when advocating privacy So rather than trying to extend privacy to criminal acts of abuse because of the age of the perpetrator, why not try to reduce the degree to which people embrace an authoritarian personality type? That why not is a good question especially for those who appeal to those with authoritarian personality types to persuade them.



    Liked by 1 person

  5. Chris, Um, some answers.

    What does dorm policy have to do with the history of theology?

    The implications seem to be that you can destroy someone’s reputation.

    Since Cho reduced Machen’s theology to race (white theology because of the archival record), I’d say that’s worse that what Feinstein did to Kavanaugh.

    I don’t have any sense that Cho is aware of how clay his feet are.


  6. I’ve been thinking about Timothy Cho’s submission for a while, and actually, have thought on these issues practically all of my life, especially since becoming a Christian, growing up with and living with the black race, whom I love. I have always been troubled by racism, whether in my own heart, or witnessing it in others by their words or actions. I was brought to Christ, and grew up in Christ, in a segregated environment for the most part relating to church, but my friendships with my black friends and brothers and sisters in Christ yielded many blessings and invaluable returns, even while social mores were in place, or there was awkwardness when races mixed, or tried to cross over – which is still an aspect of our society even today, though in many respects, much improved, but obviously a work in progress.

    Still, I learned from, worked for, was blessed by, and discipled by those who struggled with racism – maybe not in an openly hostile way, but in a confidental, obscure way, for the most part. I do know that I was truly blessed by what I received and learned of Christ, and always thought kindly, and compassionately toward my mentors, knowing that they came from a generation steeped in segregation, and that they knew that they shouldn’t feel the way they did, but did not know how to resolve their dilemma. Most of these people were kind to blacks, and practiced neighborliness and love to them, but did not interact much with them socially in terms of going to church together, etc. Today’s younger generation, such as Cho, see the fault lines, but do not understand the context.

    By contrast, in those days, it was easy to distinguish a blatant racist from the aforementioned because there was always a sharp resentment and disparagement of the black race in both speech and actions, and NO interaction at all. For certain, these were very likely the members of the Klan, or eligible candidates for same. Even so, I remember God using even these people to help me, others, despite their extreme prejudice, which was not focused on the black race alone, but on other races, and beyond. In some of these people, one could, like Luke Skywalker sensing vestigial goodness in his father, detect some desire to change, to love, though only a spark or flicker of a flame.

    All of this being said, my question to Cho is along this wise: given that Machen was a product of the same culture and social mores of his time as presented above, does that disqualify him from being Christ’s servant and minister of the Gospel to his generation – and to us? Let me also present a higher case; why should we accept the Apostle Paul, given his background of obvious racism, persecution, and murdering of Christians? Was God working through the Apostle when he wrote the divinely-inspired Epistle to Titus, warning about the Cretans and their character? Or through Luther, even with his struggles with the Jews of his day? Calvin and Servetus? Not to excuse or gloss over the shortcomings, but the whole of the Bible is filled with examples of men and women that God used despite their faults, even sins. I don’t want to be uncharitable to Cho, but if one looks hard enough at any one person/teacher of respectable-faultless character, it won’t take long to find the sin/defects in their lives. The question would seem to be, is what the person is teaching consistent with scripture, despite their shortcomings? That should give us all a hope……


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