The Spirituality of Social Justice

Here’s what it feels like to be pro-social justice without actually risking anything:

Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply “preach the Gospel.” Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political.

The Bible shows believers as holding important posts in pagan governments — think of Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament. Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.

Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one. There are a number of reasons to insist on this.

One is that it gives those considering the Christian faith the strong impression that to be converted, they need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the (fill in the blank) Party. It confirms what many skeptics want to believe about religion — that it is merely one more voting bloc aiming for power.

Another reason not to align the Christian faith with one party is that most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom. This does not mean that the church can never speak on social, economic and political realities, because the Bible often does. Racism is a sin, violating the second of the two great commandments of Jesus, to “love your neighbor.” The biblical commands to lift up the poor and to defend the rights of the oppressed are moral imperatives for believers. For individual Christians to speak out against egregious violations of these moral requirements is not optional.

However, there are many possible ways to help the poor. Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between? The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.

Christians should be involved in government, but most preachers telling you that won’t be involved. Why? It violates the spirituality of the church and confuses the two kingdoms, if church officers to serve in government or testify before legislative bodies.

Churches should encourage political engagement but they won’t take a side between the parties because that would be partisan. And which policies and legislation allow for bi-partisan moderation? If you want police or prison reform you are going to have to work with real politicians who belong to real political parties.

And Christians, including ministers, should speak to matters of injustice even though the Bible doesn’t address social or political realities. “Lift up the poor” and “defend the rights of the oppressed” but don’t ask me how to do it (or also ask why I’m stressing this right now when I wasn’t preaching about this twenty-five years ago).

“Christians cannot pretend.”

Keller’s editorial is part of a pose. He can present himself as one on the side of social justice without ever having to dirty his hands with support for a specific policy or legislator. At least the PCUSA actually passed resolutions in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act. They didn’t do what J. Gresham Machen recommended, which was saying, “yes, drunkenness is a sin, but the church doesn’t have the biblical warrant for declaring federal or state policy.” Keller apparently agrees with Machen about that. He doesn’t agree with Machen’s reluctance to line up behind the crowd.

And speaking of policy, while many are sizing up (some in installments!!!) the MacArthur inspired statement on social justice, practically all the #woke evangelicals have forgotten about the Justice Declaration. That was a 2017 statement about prison reform, co-sponsored by Prison Fellowship and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. (By the way, the Justice Declaration attracted about 3,300 signatures, MacArthur’s about 9,500.)

If you want to pursue social justice, maybe you identify one issue, like prison reform, promote it, stick with it, and keep at it.

Or if you want to look like you are on the right side of social justice, you affirm it but leave the details to practically everyone else who already knows, thanks to the media, politicians, news networks, ESPN, that social justice is a problem.

What value have you added?

Why the Personal is not Political

President Obama explained why policy is such a poor instrument for addressing something as personal as race relations:

But this is always one of the challenges of politics: It can never capture all the complexity and contradictions in life. So you end up having to try to be true in a way that can be consumed for a mass audience, but you’re always missing some elements of it. You’re always leaving some things out.

And that’s part of the reason why race is such a difficult thing to deal with in politics, because the evolution of racial identity, racial relationships, institutional racism, is never similar. The trajectory, I believe, has been positive. But anything you say on the topic of race, there’s a counterargument, there’s an exception, there’s a nuance. There’s a, Wait, hold on a minute, how about that? And that’s part of the reason why, I think, it creates frustration. It’s also why it’s easy to demagogue. It’s also why situations that look ambiguous can lead to people dividing into camps very quickly.

Justice is one thing. Politeness is another.

Should Muslims Try to Legislate Their Morality?

For most residents of the United States, the idea of Sharia law establishing the standards for civil law at the state or federal level (even before 9-11) is unthinkable. But lots of Protestants and Roman Catholics in the U.S. hardly blush when someone puts the question the way the Allies recently did — Should Christians Try to Legislate Their Morality?

On the ordinary playing field of fairness and equality before the law, the notion that Muslims and Jews and Roman Catholics should not try to legislate their morality but evangelicals may is nonsensical. The only way the premise behind the Allies’ question makes sense is if you think either that only the true religion may be legislated (say hello to 1650 Europe and goodbye to 1776 Philadelphia), or that the United States belong to the people who first settled it (say hello to Peter Marshall and David Barton and goodbye to David Hackett Fischer).

To say that Christians should not try to legislate their morality (if the followers of other religions may not) is not to affirm that civil society without religion as the social glue will be easy. Current debates about marriage are indicative of the problems that the American founding set into motion. But neither was life in Christendom easy for Muslims, Jews, and Protestants. So Americans tried to separate religious considerations as much as possible from civil society in establishing a constitutional republic. That led to secular society, a novos ordo seclorum (new order for the ages). Does such a society imply disrespect for God? Perhaps. But its explicit aim was not to deny God’s dominion but to make room for people from diverse faiths (or no faith) to try to live together (and please remember that even the Puritans did not welcome Baptists or Presbyterians). Legislating one religious group’s morality upsets the original agreement. Why Christians still don’t see this hurts my head the way drinking a curry squishee too fast does.

To be fair, I did not watch the Allies’ video. I’m a text guy when it comes to blogging. But if the discussion did highlight “the question of final authority” or as the post puts it: “As Christians, how do we help people find an authority outside of themselves?”, then I’m not sure the Allies are doing justice to the diversity of the American people (or to the United States’ law for that matter). We the people are sovereign through our representatives. This constitutional republic was established as a rebuttal to “final authorities” who dominated people and abused power. I understand that finding an authority outside ourselves is a proper basis for a w-w, a good philosophical way to refute secularism, and a habitual response of Roman Catholics and neo-Calvinists to the French Revolution. But the way I read the United States, we were not a philosophical republic but a polity that adapts pragmatically for the sake of protecting the security, peace, and legal standing of all its citizens (no matter what their faith). As for those citizen’s morality, they needed to conform to the laws that their representatives enacted, and those legislators represented people of diverse faiths.

In which case, we have moral problems in the United States and advocates of Christian morality (from the Baylys to the Allies) are not helping.

Postscript: I understand that Apu is likely not a Muslim.