On Wednesday this past week, a theology professor at Fuller Seminary tweeted the following: “I tried organized religion… too preachy/ too conformist/ too much ‘us vs them‘…” Yet instead of pasty white middle-aged men with tucked in, button-down shirts and women with dresses down to their ankles, the picture below featured an angry mob of “protesters” aggressively surrounding a woman at a restaurant table, demanding she swear allegiance to their cause and conform to their standards. This tongue-in-cheek tweet was meant to be a commentary on our cultural moment
Back in 1905, sociologist Max Weber theorized that the “work ethic” that supposedly gave birth to capitalism resulted from Protestants translating their religious anxieties into their labor: work and vocation filled the void of assurance left by the Catholic Church, which is why work is treated so religiously and zealously in capitalist societies like the United States to this day. Work and capitalism became something of a religion.
Well some are beginning to suspect that a similar phenomenon is accompanying some of the modern social justice movements today. As western society becomes more and more secular, social justice fills a particular void and longing left in the human heart. It gives people a sense of meaning and purpose, a righteous cause to give ourselves to and live for, and a particular narrative to make sense of our lives. This has led at least one writer to refer to it as “our flawed new religion,” suggesting that it has all the trappings and markers of a religious movement. Friedrich Nietzsche once asked how western society planned replace the Judeo-Christian God that we have effectively “killed,” and ‘social justice’ has been given as a tentative (and frankly incomplete) option.
Anyone who has followed my blog for any period of time knows that I support many modern social justice efforts and believe that there is a biblical basis for social justice (although biblical social justice will also inevitably look a little different than the rest of the world’s version at times and at crucial points).
But although social justice is a biblical mandate for Christians, it also makes for an awful god. Here’s why.
I started this blog in the fallout of the 2016 election, when I began to notice two concerning trends. On the one hand, I noticed “conservative” evangelicals (mostly white–the 81% that supposedly voted for Donald Trump) dig their heels viciously into the ground by equating political conservativism with theological conservativism and effectively dismissing the need for social justice, or what Jesus might call “the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23). On the other hand, I also noticed many in my generation (millennials) abandon their faith in favor of social justice, thereby effectively throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Michael Emerson has made similar observations. Emerson, a Christian sociologist, co-authored the groundbreaking book “Divided by Faith” with Christian Smith, which details the stark disconnect between white evangelicals and minority Christians (especially black Christians) on issues of social/racial justice (see my post, How Evangelicals Can Understand Systemic Racism). Emerson knows more than most about the need to speak up for racial/social justice. And yet, he recognizes (as I do) that social justice makes a bad substitute for God.
In a guest post in Christianity Today, Emerson gives two brief anecdotes of people he knows who have left Christianity to pursue social justice (as if the two were mutually exclusive). One is a white pastor “who came to understand the depth of racial inequity…in our society.” Emerson writes,
As he moved more toward a focus on justice, I saw other changes—his language got saltier, laced with what the Bible calls unwholesome words. …His countenance changed. He became increasingly angry and outwardly bitter.
What happened to this young man? Emerson knows: he made social justice into his god. He made social justice into his idol that demands his worship.
Christian thinkers throughout church history–from St. Augustine to Tim Keller–have recognized that idolatry is not necessarily loving bad things, but loving good things in place of God. In other words, idolatry is turning good things into ultimate things. For example, sex is a good thing, but can become an idol. Money and career are good things, but can become an idol. Family is a good thing, but can become an idol. Capitalism and the free market (at least, I would argue) is a good thing, but can become an idol. And social justice is a good thing, but can become an idol. Social justice is of God, but it is not god. And yet like ducklings that see a dog after they hatch and mistake it for their mother, we can mistake genuinely good things (like social justice) as god.
When it becomes a god, it can become unforgiving and unmerciful to both its opponents and followers. It can give adherents a false sense of righteousness and superiority, or despair when one considers their complicity in systems or can’t live up to its demands. Social justice will never love you back. Social justice never died for you. Social justice can never absolve you or forgive you of your sins, no matter how many acts of penance you do for its placation and satisfaction. And as we have seen, it can turn someone just as bitter, angry, and unpleasant as the right-wing fanatics that he or she abhors. That’s what happens when you make anything, social justice or free markets, into an idol.
St. Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We should love social justice because God loves social justice. But we will be restless wanderers until we subordinate our passion for social justice to God. Nothing else can bear the weight and burden of our expectation. Nothing else can fill the void of our heart and give it the sense of meaning and purpose that it seeks after.
What Faith in Christ Gives Us
At this point, I can practically feel the unease of fellow social justice advocates who may fear that leaving it there might inspire nothing but complacency and inaction on behalf of evangelical Christians. Never fear. I have written elsewhere about the things that Christianity can constructively contribute to the social justice conversation and movement(s) (even while critiquing it).
But here I want to specifically propose that the best way that Christians can contribute to social justice is precisely by refusing to make it into an idol. Here’s are two things things it gives:
“A love that enables you to love others freely.” The best way that you can love your family or friends is by loving God first. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. If you turn anyone else into an idol, you will suck the life out of him or her, because you will seek from them the love and affirmation that only God can give. In the same way, you might turn to social justice to find the sense of meaning and purpose that only God is capable of giving. And just like with any idol, you will be sorely disappointed when those expectations aren’t fulfilled. Why do you think that Emerson’s pastor friend became as embittered and consumed as he did? It was in part because when his expectations were not met, there was nothing left to give him a sense of wholeness, completion, peace, or love–things that all human beings were made for and need. For the record, I do believe that we should get angry at injustice in the world (God is, after all). But when it becomes an all-consuming bitterness and obsession, it drains us of love until only anger is left. Yet when you remember that there is an infinite God that loves you enough to become a finite human and die for you, and when you are secure in that and rest in that truth, it enables you to love others freely without demanding the impossible from them. After all, you cannot give what you do not have yourself, and in God you can find an infinite source of life and love that will never dissipate. You can become someone who is overflowing with the love that you receive from an infinite God. And you will become a more effective agent for social change and justice in the world: one that does not give in to bitterness or hopelessness, which leads to the next thing that faith in Christ can give.
“A hope that this world cannot take away.“ The famous opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism is, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, to which the response is, “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Another reason that Emerson’s pastor-friend became a bitter and angry person was because he put all his hope in social justice efforts, and when people didn’t deliver, it ate at him and consumed him from the inside. Putting your hope in people who continue to disappoint (or anything in this world, for that matter) is a shaky foundation to build your hope on. But putting your hope in God is a firm foundation. Our ultimate hope as Christians is that one day Jesus will return and make everything new (Revelation 21), and his resurrection was the first sign of that. Far from making us complacent, we are also reminded as Christians that the church is called to live out the reality of that coming kingdom in the present, by the way that we love others. This “now-and-not-yet” kingdom protects us from despair, and yet also spurs us to advocate for social change as a sign of the kingdom coming.
This last point is crucial not just for ourselves as individuals, but for the world that we live in . Emerson writes that justice without Jesus is “just us,” and “that will never be enough.” He’s right. The world needs more hope than that. The world needs to know that there is a hope that transcends all the ugliness, corruption and fickleness in humanity. Psalm 146:3 says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.”
Carl Henry, one of the originators of the modern evangelical movement in the twentieth century, understood this. Henry was caught between conservatives that wanted to “just preach the gospel” while overlooking its social implications and liberals that cared about social justice but discarded the gospel altogether (an approach that was referred to as the “social gospel”). In contrast to both, Henry wrote in 1947 that a Christian should “give unlimited expression to his condemnation of all social evils, coupled with an insistence that a self-sustaining solution can be found only on a redemptive foundation.”
A transcendent, enduring, durable hope is what Christianity has to offer. The unique contribution that Christianity can have to the modern social justice movements is simply being Christian: by anchoring ourselves in a biblical worldview, and specifically, in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, it ceases to be unique. It becomes just another voice indistinguishable from the clamor of the mob, and will be drowned out by the rest of the cacophony.
I love social justice because I believe God loves social justice. But it can never replace God. And only when we remember that can we be the best agents of change and justice in the world.