Social Justice circa 2009

If you read some people, you might get the impression that the gospel and social justice are synonymous. But words change meanings, even if some people have trouble understanding that a reference to “race” in the 1930s is not the same as one in the 1880s or the 1980s.

Consider how only a decade ago, the Gospel Allies were talking about social justice in ways that no one could use after Michael Brown, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter. For instance, Kevin DeYoung wrote a series on social justice in Scripture that found almost no reference to race. Here is how he summarized it last year (even!):

Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.

So for simplicity sake, let’s take biblical “social justice” to mean something like “treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable.” If that’s what we mean, is social justice a gospel issue?

Even Thabiti Anyabwile seemed to be persuaded:

We seem to put social justice at odds with gospel proclamation. Many today don’t think these can easily coexist. They think that to fight for justice as the Christian church inevitably means the abandonment of the gospel. They may be correct. For since the Civil Rights Movement, the gospel has been thoroughly confused by too many in the African American church with liberation and justice itself.

To be sure, Anyabwile went on to question those who make too strong a contrast between the gospel and social justice:

to preach the gospel and have no concern and take no action in the cause of justice is as much an abandonment of the gospel as mistaken the gospel. How can a faithful gospel preacher preach the gospel before slaves and never wince at the gross barbarity of that peculiar institution? How can a man claim to live the gospel with fellow brothers in Christ and yet uphold laws that disenfranchise, marginalize, and oppress those same brothers?

Well, what exactly counts as taking action? Is it tweeting? Writing a post for a parachurch website? Calling a legislature? Standing outside an office with a placard?

What also is “upholding” laws that disenfranchise? If someone says nothing are they guilty of upholding existing laws? Or is it a case of speaking out or “taking action” against some laws but not others?

Abandonment of the gospel is a tad strong for a condition — “taking no action” — that is so arbitrary and inexact.

At the same time, once upon a time Anyabwile fully endorsed DeYoung’s point that Christians should stop using the phrase social justice:

Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!

Not even John MacArthur and fellow signers went that far.

Something changed between 2009 and 2019. It could be that history clarified all the ambiguity (even if it did not change what the Bible — a fixed set of texts — says. Or it could be people have changed their minds. If Ferguson is the turning point, it sure would help to hear some reflection on ways in which a country that has persistently practiced racism only in 2014 became so egregious that now some people had to build up word counts and twitter followers.

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Turns Out W-w Isn't Sufficient

Matt Chandler implicitly challenges the powerful work of taking every thought captive:

The challenge with white privilege is that most white people cannot see it. We assume that the experiences and opportunities afforded to us are the same afforded to others. Sadly, this simply isn’t true. Privileged people can fall into the trap of universalizing experiences and laying them across other people’s experiences as an interpretive lens. For instance, a privileged person may not understand why anyone would mistrust a public servant simply because they have never had a viable reason to mistrust a public servant. The list goes on.

What is so deceptive about white privilege is that it is different from blatant racism or bias. A privileged person’s heart may be free from racist thoughts or biased attitudes, but may still fail to see how the very privilege afforded to him or her shapes how he or she interprets and understands the situations and circumstances of people without privilege.

Well, actually, if you’ve seen any television show in the last five decades, not to mention the beloved The Wire, you have plenty of reasons for knowing about the mistrust that some people experience when encountering a public servant. Heck, if you’ve watched a single Coen Brothers’ movie, you can’t but help encounter the mixed motives that course through most people who don’t think they have had a lobotomy just because Jesus is in their heart. Double heck, if you went to Temple University and dealt with “public servants” in the Bursar’s Office, you don’t need to be black to mistrust people who work for the state.

But I do wonder why people with white privilege need to change more than to be pitied. Maybe people with white privilege are simply under bondage and can’t change. Why don’t they receive any empathy? Or why does Chandler expect some people to overcome their blinders but not others? Is it another form of white privilege to think that whites have the capacity to change or lead it?

From "The Wire" to Ferguson

David Simon, the creator of The Wire (say that in hushed tones), wrote this before Missouri authorities revealed the identity of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. It reinforces the point that police and law enforcement professionals bear an enormous responsibility for the health of race relations in the U.S. But Simon also displays a healthy regard for the work of police, the burdens they bear, and the value to a democratic society. For the full letter go here (which is the most recent of three missives — thanks to our Hillsdale correspondent):

Understand that I am someone with a high regard for good police work. I covered a large municipal department for a dozen years and spent that time writing in detail on extraordinary efforts by professional detectives and officers, and, too, on systemic and individual failures within that same agency. I am not unsympathetic to the complex truths of practical policing.

To that effect, I’m offering no judgment as to the legitimacy of the police action in the death of Mr. Brown, nor am I critiquing your department’s militarized performance with regard to the resulting civil disturbances in your municipality. I leave the former for the more careful assessments of prosecutors and, presumably, a grand jury; the latter, I am sure, will be a subject of continued discussion within your community, in Missouri as a whole, and elsewhere in the country.

But for now, let’s simply focus on the notion that you, as head of a police department accountable to the citizens of your jurisdiction, actually seem to believe — along with local prosecutors — that it is plausible for a sworn and armed officer to kill a citizen and do so in anonymity.

Regrettably, I know that you are not alone in this astonishing breach of trust. More than a decade ago, some of our most authoritative federal agencies began a tragic retreat from basic accountability, shielding their agents from any scrutiny for their use of the most signficant power that a law officer can possess — the taking of a human life as an act of personal deliberation. Following the lead of the FBI, other large urban departments have since followed suit, or attempted to do so at points.

But the cost to our society is not abstract — and the currency in which that cost is paid is trust. Your department has shown that you do not trust the public with the basic information about who specifically has, in the performance of his or her duties, been required to take a human life in Ferguson. And that same public is now in the street demonstrating that they do not believe that Ferguson law enforcement can therefore be relied upon for anything remotely resembling justice. How could it be otherwise?

If you cannot see the contempt inherent in your policy, then you, sir, may need to reconsider both your own role and the premise of law enforcement in a democratic society. You may need to yield your position to someone who retains the basic notion that your officers, armed with the extraordinary authority of using state-sanctioned lethal force on fellow citizens, are equally burdened by a responsibility for standing by their actions in full. You, your department, and the prosecutors in your jurisdiction are now running from that responsibility. In doing so, you lose the trust and respect of your citizens, your state and the nation.

Degrees of Pain

Ligon Duncan links to a piece by Bryan Loritts on his reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown. Loritts explains why others need to hear him about his pain:

If you sense exasperation from we African-American’s over yet another news story of a black man slain at the hands of a white man, this is a wonderful opportunity to grab some coffee and seek to understand our hearts. I need my white brothers to know how I felt as I sat in the preaching classes in Bible college and seminary not once hearing examples of great African-American preachers. I need you to know how I felt when I was forced face down on the hard asphalt of Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, 1993 all because I was nineteen and driving my pastor’s Lexus, a year after the Rodney King riots. I need you to ask how I felt when I walked into a Target recently behind a white woman who took one look at me and pulled her purse tightly.

I wonder, though, if Mr. Loritts feels this death the way Michael Brown’s family and friends do. I understand that an African-American male may be able to imagine what Michael Brown experienced before being shot in ways that white Americans cannot. But I wonder if Mr. Loritts distracts us from a much deeper pain when he likens this news to his own experience. Not to sound disrespectful, but Michael Brown’s experience seems to me to be in a fundamentally different category from Mr. Loritts’. One man is dead, the other is alive. Recognizing that difference may help a lot of people on both sides of the racial divide remember the family and friends in this situation who lost a loved one. Heck, some of those family and friends may even be of European, Asian, or Latino descent.

Comments Are Open

Leon Brown wants to have a conversation about race at a blog where comments are always closed. So let me help him out — servant serving servers I am — by opening up comments at a site where even spammers get through.

Brown’s post about the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent interview with Scott Clark has me puzzled and that is why I would like to open the comments.

First, I’m not sure I recognize myself as an American of European descent in Brown’s post. On the one hand, he acknowledges whiteness and says that whites should not be ashamed:

Let’s be transparent: the majority of both readership and authorship on this blog are white. Do not be ashamed that you are white. I am unashamed of this visible difference. You should be unashamed, too, and take great pride in God’s creative genius to create us visually different. Yet, simply because we are in Christ does not flatten the beauty of ethnic and cultural distinctions that we maintain. Galatians 3:27-29 provides no grounds for such a conclusion.

That’s all well and good but then Leon goes on to mention white perceptions or treatment of blacks that should make every white American very ashamed:

With these ethnic and cultural distinctions, therefore, we may see the Mike Brown proceeding through a different lens. For some of us this simply highlights what we have always known, or at least believed, to be true: young black men are unsafe in this nation. For others, perhaps some of you, especially if you have been following this event, may wonder, “Why do they (i.e., African-Americans) have to make everything about race?” Based on your observations, you have concluded that blacks, and/or other minorities, unnecessarily pull the proverbial race card. Some African-Americans, or other sub-dominant cultures, might respond, “Why do whites always dismiss the possibility that race, or ethnicity, was a motivating factor in said event?” . . .

Consider the recent and ongoing immigration debate. How has it affected you? What do you think when you see a Spanish speaking image-bearer, one who knows, or at least it is assumed, very little English? What has caused your conclusions? Do you remain unaffected by the outcry of some in the media who thrust names on them, such as, “illegal,” “unwanted immigrant,” or “wetback”? The point of the news, while to inform, is also to sway opinion, and I think we may lack transparency if we claim we are not, at least in part, somehow affected by what some branches of the media portray about immigration.

The same can be stated about African-Americans. For years in this nation, African-Americans have been, and continue to be, portrayed in shrouds of untruth. “We are lazy, good-for-nothings,” some have and do say. “We are animals,” it has been said. Or in the words of PCUS minister, Benjamin Palmer (1818-1902), “The worst foes of the black race are those who have intermeddled on their behalf. We know better than others that every attribute of their character fits them for dependence and servitude. By nature the most affectionate and loyal of all races beneath the sun, they are also the most helpless.”

I don’t deny that these attitudes exist or that they are worthy of shame. But Leon doesn’t seem to understand that whenever he (and others) bring up race in ways that shame whites, he introduces a one-way street of discomfort. Whites do and should feel uncomfortable. But Leon doesn’t seem to show any awareness that such an uncomfortable subject may shut down conversation — sort of like a wife wanting to talk to her adulterous husband about his affair; what do you say, “honey, let’s talk more about how I betrayed you”? In which case, what kind of conversation does Leon want?

One way to facilitate conversation might be for Leon to notice at least two segments of his white audience — those who are racist and those who don’t think they are (though they may harbor some residue of prejudice), don’t generally make stupid comments to black pastors, and who empathize with black frustrations and resentment. If Leon wanted to have a conversation with the second of these groups, what good does it do to bring up insensitive remarks? Doesn’t this miss the target? But if the former group, doesn’t the introduction of matters that should cause embarrassment (or require explanation of why it’s embarrassing) — again — shut the conversation down?

Another question worthy of conversation, it seems to me, is whether Leon would be interested in discussing the black church and its own lack of integration. I don’t raise this as a tit for tat. I have great admiration for African-American Protestants. Here you have a group of Americans disproportionately Protestant compared to Americans of European descent. Here’s is what a Pew survey found:

The Landscape Survey also finds that nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. In fact, even a large majority (72%) of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45%) of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16%). Indeed, on this measure, unaffiliated African-Americans more closely resemble the overall population of Catholics (56% say religion is very important) and mainline Protestants (52%).

Additionally, several measures illustrate the distinctiveness of the black community when it comes to religious practices and beliefs. More than half of African-Americans (53%) report attending religious services at least once a week, more than three-in-four (76%) say they pray on at least a daily basis and nearly nine-in-ten (88%) indicate they are absolutely certain that God exists. On each of these measures, African-Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation. Even those African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious group pray nearly as often as the overall population of mainline Protestants (48% of unaffiliated African-Americans pray daily vs. 53% of all mainline Protestants). And unaffiliated African-Americans are about as likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (70%) as are mainline Protestants (73%) and Catholics (72%) overall.

These same African-Americans profess the faith (though in separate communions) that their former masters and oppressors used against them. It would make more sense to me if I were African-American to be a Muslim than to be a Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal. Why have anything to do with the religion that white Protestants used to justify slavery and segregation? But for some reason, African-Americans remain a devout people.

The strength and institutional significance of the black church means that establishing mixed race churches as Leon wants to do may be akin to integrating Major League Baseball. With Jackie Robinson’s joining the Dodgers also came the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues. No offense to Leon, but I doubt his efforts will bring an end to the black church. But the idea of attracting African-Americans to white churches does raise a few additional questions for the desired conversation.

Do the African-Americans who come to Presbyterians churches leave black churches or are they converts? In other words, how much sheep stealing may be involved in trying to integrate white churches? And if some respond that we want African-American Baptists and Holiness folks to leave the churches and come to the best expression of Christianity (Reformed Protestantism), then can we lay off the Machen’s-warrior-children put down of confessional Presbyterians who raise questions about whether Baptists or evangelicals are Reformed? I for one welcome support for the Reformed cause. But to be militant about Reformed Protestantism in discussions about race relations can raise another delicate subject — namely, whether the black church is good enough. It may not be (from the perspective of the Reformed confessions), but what white Protestant who does not want to insult fellow Americans or professing Christians wants to argue that black churches need to be more like white Reformed ones?

A final question that deserves comment is why Leon decided to make further remarks about race in the highly charged context of the Michael Brown slaying. Since his post was personal let me be as well. The news of apparent police brutality carried out again against a black young man was deeply discouraging. Leon uses the word, “unfortunate.” I’ll use “tragic.” I cannot imagine the grief to his parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and neighbors, nor the fear of living with police that appear to be capable of such actions, nor the resentment that a minority people that has taken lots of hits now having to endure another. But this incident also sent me looking for news about the St. Louis neighborhood, Mark Brown himself, and even church life in Ferguson. Well, aren’t I special. But why didn’t Leon try to present more information about the incident and aftermath? Why did this piece remind him to remind us that American Protestants are still divided by race?

For that reason the piece about Ferguson that American Conservative posted might have been more instructive and even hopeful than Leon’s post:

Adam Weinstein put it more bluntly at Gawker. “The U.S. armed forces exercise more discipline and compassion than these cops.” He cites the first page of the Army’s field manual on civil disturbances, which emphasizes proportional, nuanced responses. “Inciting a crowd to violence or a greater intensity of violence by using severe enforcement tactics must be avoided.” The manual also notes that “highly emotional social and economic issues” inform such disturbances, and that “it takes a small (seemingly minor) incident” to set off violence “if community relations with authorities are strained.”

Unlike the military, who are trained in nonviolent options for conflict resolution, the police often lack such knowledge. Bonnie Kristian expounded this failure and reasons behind systematic police brutality earlier this summer, noting also that cops are rarely held accountable for abuse. “Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that.”

The entrenched racial injustice behind Michael Brown’s death will be difficult to root out, as it has been over centuries of American history. But the decades of policy that allowed for police abuse of Brown, and his town’s peaceful protesters, could be reversed—and if the public outcry over Ferguson is anything to judge by, Americans will be keeping a closer eye on the police in the coming years.

Let me be direct: Leon, some of us white American Presbyterians (vinegary though we be) want to know what to do. We want to be good neighbors and good fellow presbyters. As the American Conservative piece indicates, racial injustice and racial prejudice are hard to transform. But trying to curtail police abuse sure seems like a policy and social good. That might not help with planting mixed race churches. But churches may be beside the point in instances like this, or if they are part of the point, American Protestantism is a whole lot more complicated than churches separated along racial lines.