Anyone who has followed my blog for any period of time knows that there are two things that I am passionate about: good theology and social justice. I have demonstrated at length how the concept of social justice has biblical foundations. At the same time, I have also written about how biblical social justice will inevitably and necessarily be a little different the world’s version of social justice at times, although there will also always be significant overlaps due to common grace.
A recent article on Christianity Today captures this sentiment well with the title “Don’t Scoff at ‘Social Justice.’ Don’t Anchor Yourself to It, Either.” In the article, Andrew Byers gives a review of the book “The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity” by Douglas Murray, a gay man and non-Christian that nevertheless offers a critical look into today’s social justice movement(s). Murray demurs what he considers “woke activism.” Although, like Byers, I do not wholly agree with Murray’s every sentiment, Byers himself gives a good take when he writes, “Today’s progressive activists have plenty in common with the biblical prophets. But some differences are too vast to ignore.”
One of the differences cited is our modern (or postmodern) culture’s tendency to conflate “race, gender, sexual orientation, and perhaps even political allegiance” as central aspects of one’s identity. As he points out, although these things are important from a Christian worldview and standpoint (especially in regards to one’s experience in the world), our ultimate identity is anchored in our creation as human beings made in the image of God. Furthermore, Byers writes, “The more radical forms of social justice [are] marked by reconfigured virtues, ideas, and practices that the Bible cannot quite accommodate.”
A second point of departure is today’s “cancel culture,” which another writer has compared to the more traditional shame-and-honor culture that are still prevalent in non-western societies. In an interesting twist, the West’s radical individualism has mixed with the East’s shame-honor culture to shame anyone that doesn’t conform to modern society’s moral standards, which is to affirm everyone’s right to radical self-determination and libertarian freedom. Anyone who departs from this norm of radical affirmation is ostracized.
The ironic part is that the concept of the individual’s inherent self-worth and dignity arose in the West due to the influence of the Judeo-Christian worldview. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that (rightly) ensures job security for LGBTQ persons, it does beg the question as to what that means for religious organizations and non-profits, and their ability to operate without compromising or sacrificing their convictions. And with the rhetoric that is often flung around in post-Christian social justice movements, it does give them cause for concern.
This is an important reminder for Christian social justice advocates (such as myself) to anchor our understanding of social justice in God’s Word. I support the growing awareness for social justice concerns in the church because it is a biblical concept, but it won’t always align with today’s various iterations of it on a neat 1:1 ratio. A good example of social justice from a uniquely Christian perspective and worldview is the book Woke Church by Eric Mason, a black pastor in Philadelphia. Pastor Mason adopts and uses the language of “wokeness” to show how concepts of social justice can be found to be scattered throughout Scripture and used within a Christian framework, and I was pleasantly satisfied at how he kept the discussion rooted in biblical concepts.
Bottom line: social justice has biblical foundations, but biblical social justice will necessarily depart from the world’s version of social justice at certain points. And yet, I would argue that Christianity can offer some unique contributions to the modern social justice movements in today’s society. This might seem counter-intuitive for the postmodern millennial that is used to seeing Christianity as inherently oppressive, or the social conservative that sees Christianity as antithetical to social justice. So, if this is the case, what can Christianity contribute to the social justice movement, especially in our pluralistic culture?
Incomplete Thoughts on Justice, Grace, and Mercy
The answer is the Sunday school answer: Jesus. Or more specifically, the example of Jesus. As many Christians have pointed out, the “black lives matter” movement is an exercise of the New Testament ethic of asking ourselves, “Who is my neighbor?” This comes from Jesus’s assertion that the greatest commandment besides loving God is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (e.g. Mark 12:31).
But Jesus goes even further and tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). This radical ethic of love is unparalleled, and is an important contribution to our social justice movements in today’s cultural climate. As the practice of “cancelling” has shown us, the only language that our culture knows is the language of outrage. It is important to express outrage at injustice. God is consistently outraged at injustice throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus embodies this outrage when he criticizes the Pharisees (e.g. Matthew 23:23) and flips over tables in the temple when Gentiles are taken advantage of. It is not antithetical of God’s love, but because of God’s love for the marginalized that he is angered at injustice. But if we only ever use the language of outrage, then our society will suffer. Instead, we must couple our outrage at societal injustice with the language of grace and mercy.
Take the recent spat with famous preacher, Louie Giglio, for example. During a discussion regarding racism with Christian rapper Lecrae and Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy, Giglio gave an ill-conceived attempt at reframing the concept of white privilege as “white blessing” (and the idea that those that are blessed, like the white community at large, should be a blessing to those less fortunate). The misnomer was rightfully denounced by both Christians and non-Christians alike, but the subsequent cascade of condemnation at his mistake was strictly unforgiving, even after he had given a genuine apology.
But Christian advocates of social justice must denounce injustice where it comes up and show the appropriate indignation at injustice, while simultaneously providing the language of grace and mercy. The contribution that this has to our present day is that as our society becomes more diverse and pluralistic (with differing and often competing truth claims and worldviews), this ethic can help us to strive toward understanding one another more genuinely.
This is important for conservatives and liberals alike. When it comes to our discussions regarding racial justice and racial reconciliation, for example, our language is imbalanced on all sides. White conservatives tend to want to have reconciliation while overlooking justice, while liberals often demand justice without moving toward reconciliation. But we need to be able to hold both in tension. The Bible (and the gospel) transcends our partisan ways of understanding sociopolitical problems, and it has the ability to convict and speak prophetically to people on both sides of the conservative-liberal divide. For example, white conservatives need to consistently be reminded that when there has been such a profound breach like as centuries of systemic racism, there can be no reconciliation without justice.
When Jesus died for us on the cross, both the justice of God and the reconciliation of man was accomplished. Although Jesus appeared to be the victim of profound injustice, what man meant for evil, God meant for good. And it was Jesus himself that prayed while hanging on the cross, “”Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
If the Church can use the language of justice along with the language of grace and mercy, then we will be a counterculture that is able to speaks prophetically into our society. And maybe we will be that “city on a hill” that Christ tells us to be.