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  • Writer's picturePage Brooks

Rehashing Hash Tags: An Evangelical Approach to Social Justice

Dr. Page Brooks

Presented at the 2018 Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Denver, CO.

What is the meaning of the term “social justice”? In contemporary society, social justice seems to be driven more by social media than it does philosophical, ethical, or religious reflection. Friedrich Hayek suggested that social justice is a mirage, a meaningless, ideological, and vicious cliche.[1] On the other side, social justice is a helpful term because of its broad application. The broad definition allows its users to apply it as an all purpose term which survives because it necessarily benefits its champions.

For evangelicals, social justice has recently become a wall that has started to represent conservative and progressive sides. Social media has done much to perpetuate these extremes, and the sides only seem to be growing further apart. Conservatives claim that contemporary social justice has Marxist and communist roots. Progressives claim that Jesus, even though He was working for the establishment of God’s kingdom, was doing “social justice.”

There is a rising middle voice claiming that one can be a “social justice advocate” and an evangelical, not having to be “liberal” in theology, but not having to be “fundamentalist” either.[2]The middle voice evangelicals hope to show how the church can engage works and issues in society without jettisoning the message of the Gospel. On the one side, some conservatives charge that social justice evangelicals do not retain the Gospel in their social justice work. On the other side, some evangelicals argue that social justice work is nearly the equivalent of the Gospel, or at least goes in tandem with the message of the Gospel. For example, Jim Wallis with Sojourners Magazine argues that the Sermon on the Mount was not just a new teaching, but inaugurating a new way of life. While some conservatives may agree, Wallis’ point is that the early Christians were known as people of a different way, not just a different message. Therefore, when Jesus emphasized bringing the message of the Gospel to the poor, in Wallis ’view, that equivocates to the modern notions such as free health care for all. Wallis states that if Christians are not ”justice people because we are Jesus people, then Christians may turn people away from Christ.”[3]

This essay argues that evangelicals can engage in social justice work without compromising message of the Gospel, especially in light of the influence of socialism. The essay will show this in several ways. First, a definition of social justice will be developed that is rooted in church history and tradition. Second, socialism and Marxism and its influence on social justice is examined. Third, a brief survey of biblical material will show a framework for understanding biblical justice, though this essay is not giving a fully developed theology of biblical justice. Last, guidelines will be offered through which evangelicals may evaluate any social justice work to ensure the Gospel remains at the center and as primary motivation.

Settling a Definition of Social Justice

The term “social justice” is one that is used often in ethical, religious, and political discourse, but is not precisely defined. For some groups, the term brings warmth and deep emotional motivation for a cause. For others, it causes concern because they believe it is rooted in socialism, Marxism, or some other “far left” agenda. Nevertheless, one must ask several questions to define social justice: To which genus does the term belong? Is it a political term? Does it refer simply to government policies? Is it a virtue or a practice? It is a religious or sociological concept? Is it all the above?

A basic idea of social justice has its roots in Aristotle and medieval thought. The ancient idea of justice flowed from understanding the times of war and exile. During such times it was hard for individuals to live sound moral lives. The general societal order broke down. The ethics of individuals is much affected by the city in which they live. The readiness of an individual to sacrifice and live for the good of the city seemed to be a virtuous character that went beyond the simple “justice” that each person should attain. The virtue pointed to a form of justice whose object was not just the good of individuals, but the good of the community and city.

A great shift occurred after the industrial revolution. In the more agricultural settings of Europe, for example, individuals and families were, for centuries leading up to the industrial revolution, at the mercy of the great landowners. Their existence, subsistence, and protection was centered around the aristocratic nobles who held the land, riches, and power. With the Industrial Revolution, and the political changes that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people started receiving more rights as citizens. No longer were they simply required to “pray, pay, and obey.” Instead, the individual was now sovereign and free. Freedom also meant responsibility that had to be learned. This was the new political economy of the Western world. Grassroot efforts and local organizing became the means of change, rather than war and revolution against the nobility.

In this sense of the new political economy, the term “social justice” is a new virtue that has to be learned and that has powerful social consequences. It may be called “social” for two reasons. First, the purpose is to improve the common good of society through the social activities of free and responsible citizens. Second, social justice is also about relational networking. This is a skill that is needed in contemporary society so that an individual can achieve more than what one person alone could achieve. Without the associating of free individuals, there is only the state left, the “Leviathan.”

One must also consider that this definition of social justice may be practiced by both those on the “left” and those on the “right.” Each side has their own way of imagining what is the “good” of a society. For example, not all who claim to act for social justice may actually be furthering the work of social justice. One must also look at motivations, knowledge of all relevant facts, and methods of implementation. For example, neo-nazi groups, while organizing at a grass-roots level, may not be considered to be doing social justice.

Admittedly, social justice can be somewhat of a nebulous concept to define even in recent history. Much of the criteria for the definition involves context, parties in the discussion, and the overall hermeneutics of the terms. Catholic theologian and Boston University Professor Ernest Fortin is one who points out the confusion of the term “social justice” and also provides a helpful historical survey from a theological perspective:

As nearly as I can make out, social justice, in contradistinction to either legal or distributive justice, does not refer to any special disposition of the soul and hence cannot properly be regarded as a virtue. Its subject is not the individual human being but a mysterious “X” named society, which is said to be unintentionally responsible for the condition of its members and in particular for the lot of the poor among them.[4]

Fortin explains how the concept makes sense only within the context of the new political theories of the 1600s. Enlightenment political theories move attention away from virtue to newly imagined social structures that centered around the individual. Up until this time, political theories emphasized the individual’s role as a virtuous person as a member of the society. Social justice uses the language of natural rights theories, but stops short of the fullness of those theories, to “equalize social conditions” between individuals and parties.[5] The issue is that equalizing conditions necessarily diminishes personal responsibility and character.

Fortin goes on to note that Rousseau (1712-1778) essentially reformulated the human problem in terms of the distinction between nature and history, though historically such problems had been couched in terms of body and soul. Fortin reasons that the consequences for this reformulation are thus: “If society and its accidental structures are the primary cause of the corruption of human beings and the evils attendant upon it, they must be changed. Social reform takes precedence over personal reform; it constitutes the first and perhaps the only moral imperative.”[6]

Fortin believes that the first use of the term “social justice,” used in its modern sense, was by an Italian Jesuit named Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio in a work entitled Theoretical Essay on Natural Right from an Historical Standpoint (1840-1843). Taparelli attempts to import the Enlightenment term “natural rights” into Catholic social theology by linking it to a new concept that he terms “social justice.”

Other scholars and church theologians have offered mixed definitions of social justice. For example, theologian Johannes Messner explains that social justice is a mixing of economic and social welfare terms in the sense of the “economically cooperating state.”[7] Cardinal Joseph Hoffner believes that social justice is a late-medieval “legal justice” that should perhaps now be called “common-good justice” in that it is a virtue that is exercised in its current form by governmental authorities, the professional class of working people, and the Church.[8] Jean-Yves Calvez and J. Perrin define the term in the sense that social justice is actually a general justice “applied to the economic as distinct from the political society.”[9]

While the above historical summary may be cursory, it demonstrates thus: defining social justice may be much like nailing jello to the wall. Nevertheless, Normand Paulhus notes that three tracks may be observed concerning the term “social justice.” The first track was perhaps the individual against the social. The second was the social against the state. The third track was the reasoned, law-abiding social aspirations against the passionate and self-interested passions. In the milieu of swirling social and political agendas, social justice has had no reliable definition on which to rest its foundation.[10]

The church had various responses to the rising challenge of socialism. The Roman Catholic Church saw socialism, as well as capitalism, as a threat to families. Protestants took a combined approach by coalescing politics and religion in the response to socialism.

The Catholic Response to the Rise of Socialism

As he been alluded to in the summary above, socialism was also on the rise during a time when various definitions of social justice were being examined by the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII started examining the term “social justice” during a great shift in human history. The end of the agrarian age had been met by industrialization and urban growth. Families no longer depended upon a plot of land (which they probably inherited) to grow their food. Now they were dependent upon urban life to provide for them.

At the same time, two different social ideologies were growing: the socialism of Marx and the individualism of John Stuart Mill. While England was influenced by Mill, there was still a politeness that was exhibited in English culture. The continent, however, leaned toward the influence of Marx. It was in the environment of the continent that Pope Leo had the most concern. Mill propagated the ideas of liberalism (meaning in the political sense the liberty of individuals and free markets).

Leo saw that new institutions and new structures were being erected and this called for a new statement of virtues. On the one side he feared the socialist state and the false idea of equality created by the socialist state. On the other side, he also feared rampant individualism that he felt would push the undefended individual into the arms of the Leviathan.

To this end, Leo published several reasons why Socialism would eventually fail. He first reason relates to the issue of the natural right of a person to own property. If an individual is not able to own his or her own property, this incites envy among citizens, and expands the functions of the state without clear boundaries. He writes:

It is only too evident what an upset and disturbance there would be in all classes, and to how intolerable and hateful a slavery citizens would be subjected. The door would be thrown open to envy, to mutual invective, and to discord; the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation. Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, is one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.[11]

Leo also proposes that socialism diminishes any hope that an individual may have to improve his or her life. He writes, “Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”[12]This also means that the fruit of all labor is owned by the state, socialism also allows one person’s labor to be enjoyed by another person without the laborer’s consent.

At the root of the evil of socialism is forced equality, according to Leo. He believed that great mistake of socialism is built on the false metaphysic of conflict and enmity and that one class is naturally hostile to another class. Rather, the opposite is true. Leo writes, “Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State it is ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each need the other...Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict produces confusion and savage barbarity.”[13]

Leo argues that each person may contribute to the common good, but do so in their own individual giftedness, talents, and capacities, but not everyone should be expected to contribute in exactly the same way. How could persons best use their giftedness and talents? By free associations of persons for causes such as labor and the common good. While Leo was critical of socialism, he did not give a free pass to capitalism (or liberalism, as he called it). He believed that both utilitarianism and individualism did not place enough emphasis on community. Leo rooted much of this political view in the parables of Jesus Christ:

As for riches and the other things which men called good and desirable, whether we have them in abundance, or are lacking in makes no difference; the only important thing is to use them aright. Jesus Christ, when He redeemed us with plentiful redemption, took not away the pains and sorrows which in such large proportion are woven together in the web of our mortal life. He transformed them into motives of virtue and occasions of merit and no man can hope for eternal reward unless he follow the blood-stained footprints of his Saviour.[14]

Protestantism, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Socialism

Nietzche famously declared (or at least culturally observed) that “God is dead.” By declaring the statement, Nietzche also warned that reason would die. No longer was there one Intelligence that was infusing meaning into every aspect of life or creation. Everything became disconnected and impersonal. There was no longer a divine Logos that was filling the cosmos with comprehension and beauty. Now there was a new isolation, a loss of the sacred, and a pointlessness to life. The sexual revolution and other cultural movements rushed to fill the void.

Reinhold Niebuhr responded to such cultural movements by acknowledging the pervasiveness of sin in society. Coming from a Midwest family with Lutheran and Evangelical roots, he wrote about humanity’s capacity for sinfulness is evident in social systems, as exemplified in his famous quote from his book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[15]

Niebuhr’s helpful critique of the Marxist utopianism is helpful in understanding the weaknesses of a Marxism-based social justice. Utopianism pictures a perfect world without self-seeking powers and ultimately a world without sin. The Nazis’ propaganda taught that the Third Reich would last for a millenium and that arrogance and greed would be extinguished once and for all. Underneath such utopian dreams were the realities of a harsh and heavy-handed government that marginalized groups based upon racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Neibuhr’s critique of socialism and embrace of liberal democracy would eventually separate him from some of those whom he had influenced. Students of Niebuhr, such as George Kennan, and John Foster Dulles, would become major players in United States foreign policy, enacting a “realist” stance against communist forces in the rest of the world. To be a Christian would mean that one believed in democracy and in the United States. To be a communist meant one was an atheist and a denier of individual freedom.

In one of his later books, The Irony of American History, Neibuhr protested that his ideas were being used to justify the type of self-righteousness that he opposed. He pointed out that the United States, in claiming to rid the world of sin, acted in sinful ways. In order to protect the free world, the United States would often act in unjustified ways toward other states. He would eventually go on to criticize the Vietnam War as being an example of the best intentions of the United States gone wrong.

Contemporary Expressions of Socialism in Social Justice

While both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians tried to address socialism, the question must be asked if socialism is still present today in the social justice movement.

The book entitled Race, Class, and Gender has become a standard textbook concerning various social justice topics in colleges and universities in the early 1990s.[16] The book is a compilation of essays, book chapters, and journal articles on a wide variety of topics. What binds the sources together in this one volume is an approach known as “Critical Theory.” Critical Theory grew out of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of the 1930s. The theory was defined by Max Horkheimer in the 1930s as a social theory designed to critique and change society through a neo-Marxism that examined society as a whole in its specific historical settings. Critical Theory drew from the major sciences including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, and psychology, among others.[17]

Several points may be made concerning Critical Theory in general, and then concerning its socialist roots in particular. First, Critical Theory is based first upon experience over reasoned argumentation. Several of the chapters recount experiences by the authors from various backgrounds, but the authors base their conclusions from their experiences and situations. Second, Critical Theory lends itself to having conclusions rooted in story rather than argumentation. Many of the authors told stories and longer narratives to prove their points, rather than citing argumentation, statistics, or facts. Third, and probably the most concerning issue, is that Critical Theory categorizes people into groups of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” The stories show that solidarity is built on groups organizing together to overcome oppression by overthrowing and in some cases even denying rights or privileges to other groups who do the oppressing.

While the editors of the book have published several editions, one of the first editions in 1992, featured an article by sociologist Edna Bonacich. Concerning racism and socialism, she wrote, “The racism of this society is linked to capitalism, so long as we retain a capitalist system, we will not be able to eliminate racial oppression.” She then goes on to extol some of the virtues of socialism though admitting that racism can persist even in socialism. She then wrote, “I am not suggesting its elimination would be easily achieved within socialism, but it is impossible under capitalism.”[18] In another article, Bonacich admits that she was influenced by Marxism, “My work draws heavily on the critical tradition in sociology, especially Marxism, but also on the tradition that criticizes racism, following W.E.B. DuBois and many others. I see my work as deeply rooted in the critical tradition, which informs my choice of research projects, my method of research, and my interpretation of findings. All of my work is focused on questions of social inequality, and how to fight against it.”[19] While such a project is certainly noble, Bonacich is but one example of many authors in the anthology that draw from the errant worldview of Marxism. While Bocachi may be correct in her assessment about the problem (certain economic systems continue racism), she is not necessarily correct in her solution (socialism).

Race, Class, and Gender shows that Evangelicals must be careful when drawing from secular sources concerning social justice. One must always ask the question of what worldview if motivating the conclusions. Insights may certainly be drawn from other fields, and this is probably one of the greatest contributions of Critical Theory. However, the beginnings do not necessarily justify the means, nor the ends.

An Evangelical Approach to Social Justice

An Evangelical approach to social justice needs to be rooted in the Scripture and Tradition of the Church. While certain truths may be drawn from secular sources, social justice must have a worldview that is informed by the character of God and scripture.

In a conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in October, 2018, the well known evangelical civil rights leader John Perkins was asked the question, “How can we keep the balance with evangelism and social justice without abandoning the Gospel?” Perkins simply replied, “If you don’t see both in the Bible, then you are reading it the wrong way!”

Pentecostal scholar Murray Dempster summarizes three Old Testament arguments as a basis for an approach to biblical social justice. First, a Christian social ethic must be grounded in the self-revelation of God and His character. God reveals himself throughout the Old Testament as a being concerned for the needs of the poor and powerless. God may even be viewed giving a preferential slant for the poor against the rich. Second, the imago dei calls believers to view all humans as created in the image of God. An Evangelical social ethic flows from the desire to treat all people with respect and dignity. Third, the unilateral covenant given by God at Mt. Sinai shows that God was not only concerned about their salvation, but also about the well-being of creation. Dempster explains that the Ten Commandments show God’s concern not only for a right relationship with Him, but for His people to have a right relationship with others. The ministry of the prophets was a reminder to God’s people that they should live according to His character. Israel’s social ethic was to demonstrate God’s nature, who He is, and what He does. God explicitly expressed concern for the poor and how they were treated (Ex 22:21-24; Deut 10:17-18; 15:13-15).

The New Testament continues the theme of care of justice. In the Gospels, Luke is perhaps the most explicit author that mentions themes of social justice. The kingdom mission of Jesus, of everything that Jesus taught and did, is then transferred to the Spirit-empowered community at Pentecost. The kingdom ethic that Jesus did and pointed to in His earthly ministry is then carried out by the Spirit-filled community in the book of Acts. Luke is showing how the New Covenant Community in the book of Acts becomes the moral foundation for the life of the church (Acts 2:32-25). Paul continues this theme in his writings as well (Gal. 2:10 and 6:10). James emphasizes good works to show the fruit of faith (James 2:17). And finally John explicitly states if believers do not have a social ethic that moves them to action, the love of God is not in the person (1 John 3:17-18).[20]

A Stronger Evangelical Approach to Social Justice

How can Evangelicals develop a stronger approach to social justice? Four areas need to be addressed.

First, in secular social justice, redistribution is motivated by a righting of wrongs. Often this righting is executed by a higher authority, normally the state. Marxism and socialism are motivated by a redistribution that forcibly takes from those who have and gives to those who have not. A biblical approach, especially as seen in the books of Acts, is motivated from a social ethic based upon kingdom virtues, in other words a voluntary willingness to give and share. There may be times when the state may step in, but the end result must be a redistribution not based upon a “right” of having something but rather to give opportunity to underserved populations and groups.

Second, secular social justice appears to be motivated by the equation of power: who has more or less power, and how can that power be leveled or reversed? Such an equation of power can be seen in the reading of texts like Race, Gender, and Class where much of the narrative is about overcoming oppression from various groups and a redistribution of resources. A kingdom social ethic is not motivated by power, but rather reconciliation, which ultimately comes from the Gospel. A kingdom reconciliation is motivated first and foremost about personal reconciliation between God and then people. One may use the imagery of the Lord’s Supper table. Jesus makes room at the table for all those who come to Him; people do not have to elbow their way to the table to get the resources they want or need. Believers are then called by the kingdom social ethic to share freely so that “none has any need” (echoing Acts 2:42-47).

Third, it may be useful to think about the relationship between the Gospel and social justice in terms of the ordering of implications. Social justice is not the Gospel, but is a first-order implication. From the Old Testament examples to the Spirit-empowered New Covenant community, one observes that the reality of the way of life for Christians is always based upon what God has done. In the same way, social justice is a first-order implication of the Gospel. The Gospel is simply that God saves sinners, but because He does, Christians can work toward reconciliation and correctly wrongs felt in society.

Last, a kingdom social justice is rooted in the character of God and his self-revelation. Most secular approaches to social justice are based upon an ever-changing situation and experience, as seen in the methodology of Critical Theory. Kingdom social justice must be rooted in the never-changing character and virtue of God. One must always be careful to ensure that one is interpreting the revelation of God correctly, as many in church history have done harmful things to other people, especially non-believers, “in the name of God.” One must always discern the beginnings, means, and ends of a worldview to observe how it measures up to biblical revelation and tradition.

Perkins’ assessment must become our prayer that we will “read the Bible correctly” and see there is no duality between social justice and the Gospel. To be Christian means we are socially engaged to point people to the kingdom to come.

[1]Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice, vol. 2 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1976. [2]Quote marks are used in such contexts as this sentence to show the terms are somewhat used flexibly at this point in the paper, until further definitions are given. [3]MohlerandWallisDebateonJusticeandtheChhurch,avilablefrom [4]Ernest Fortin, “Natural Law and Social Science,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 30, no.1 (1985): 1-20. [5]Ibid. [6]Fortin, Classical Christianity and the Political Order: Reflections on the Theologico-Political Problem (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996, 235. [7]Messner, Social Ethics, 320-21. [8]Cardinal Joseph Hoffner, Christian Social Teaching (Cologne: Ordo Socialis, 1983), 71. [9] Jean-Yves Calvez and J. Perrin, The Church and Social justice: Social Teaching of the Popes from Lep XIII to Pius XII, trans. J.R. Kirwan (London: Burns and Oates, 1961), 153. [10]Normand Joseph Paulhus, “The Theological and Political Ideals of the Fribourg Union,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston College, 1983. [11]Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, section 15. [12] Ibid., section 5. [13] Ibid., section 19. [14] Ibid., section 21. [15] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), xx. [16]Margaret Anderson and Patricia Collins, eds. Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 9th ed. (Independence, KY: Cengage Learning, 2015). [17]Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1968), 244. [18]Edna Bonacich, “Inequality in America: The Failure of the American System for People of Color” in Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 3rd ed., Margaret Anderson and Patricia Collins, eds. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1992), 103. [19]Edna Bonacich, “Working with the Labor Movement: A Personal Journey in Organic Public Sociology,” The American SociologistFall/Winter 2005: 106. [20]For a helpful and well-developed survey of biblical social justice themes, see the edited volume by Cynthia Westfall and Bryan Long, The Bible and Social Justice (Eugene: Pickwick, 2016).

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