Like Crocus in the spring, “social justice” seems to be in vogue in the broader Christian community in recent years, popping up where you least expect it. Largely a conceptual assertion confined to “progressive” or politically leftist religious circles in post-war America, the renewed interest in the catch-all concept of “social justice” has jumped the tracks and landed in the wider evangelical movement.
This was recently evident in the “Occupy” protests where a surprising number of evangelicals joined leaders of the mainline churches to lend support, even if tacitly, to the “Occupy” movement. The language of “social justice” and “justice” peppered the discussions explaining the rationale for the protests, as though there was a specific Biblical warrant which called Christians to be sympathetic to the occupier’s demands. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope gave oblique endorsement to the protests based on non-defined assessments of “justice.” (All of this in spite of the virulent anti-Semitism and organizational efforts provided by various Socialist and Marxist groups – all of which was extensively documented at the events.)
In addition to the “Occupy” protests and a number of books in recent years, the apparent ground swell of interest in “social justice” as the animating feature of “real” Christianity received a big boost within evangelical ranks with Dr. Tim Keller’s book, published last year. Dr. Keller is the hugely successful author and nationally known pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.
It is a surprising book following the other writings of Dr. Keller. The enormously engaging preacher has a large following among evangelicals (even though he is personally dismissive of them and does not identify himself as one) for his defense of Biblical authority and his preaching that tailors Biblical truth to the rough and tumble of modern community life. But in , Dr. Keller bites into the apple of politics, transporting the vagary of “social justice” to an unsuspecting, and perhaps, ill prepared audience by page 14 of his book.
, some have noted, may be a reflection of the Reformed idea of a “cultural mandate” percolating to the forefront with Dr. Keller, who taught in a Reformed seminary. Indeed, he has said that, “the primary purpose of salvation is cultural renewal, to make the world a betterplace.” In , Dr. Keller goes further, comingling the concept of unmerited salvation by Grace, with the idea that “[i]f you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith.” Identifying a single trait that confirms our faith is risky business, of course, as the Book of Galatians informs us.
Dr. Keller also asserts in that self-indulgent materialism must be replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need; in “doing justice,” and in “permanent fasting," which he explains is to “work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless.” This, he say flatly, is the real proof that you are a Christian. To others it might suggest that the assurance of our salvation is an open question.
But whatever the origins or motivations for Dr. Keller’s embrace of “social justice,” the term and its working out in society has a long, ignoble history that cannot be simply ignored, as it is in .
The amorphous concept dates to the early nineteenth century and the Catholic reform movement. However it was quickly picked up and welded to Marxist language and idioms (and has remained a fundamental precept in the radical left for over 100 years) by the Socialist International and other radical groups, because it fit the Marxist model perfectly; it was a nebulous concept by which every perceived ill of society could be corrected; and how could anyone be against something that sounds so noble and caring?
Dr. Keller follows others that have set out to “rescue” (their words) the term from the radical left, but do no better than others in the last 100 plus years to bring definition to the concept.
(Surprisingly, Dr. Keller accentuates this reality when he rewrites Psalm 33:5 in . The original text in the NIV reads; “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Dr. Keller’s version reads; “The Lord loves Social Justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” He takes a perfectly understandable sentence and renders it senseless.)
The Catholic philosopher and writer Michael Novak captured the inherent ambiguity of “social justice” this way: “This vagueness [of the concept of “social justice”] seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, ‘We need a law against that.’ In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.”
So it is for Dr. Keller. He seems to advocate both spiritual and official coercion, while employing little Biblical or real-world perspective.
It’s ironic that takes a subject about which there should be no argument, and turns it into an argument. How many of us - not being theologians or pastors - didn’t realize that there was no dichotomy between being a Christ-follower and having a deep concern for the poor, the oppressed and those who struggle with real injustice? It seems perfectly obvious in Scripture that we are to be the hands and feet of our Lord, and that clarity is why so many lay believers on those Biblical truths. It is also the reason why the charity of the believing community is unparalleled on any level.
There is also inherent in the “social justice” movement a perspective which is somewhat juvenile in outlook. For example, Dr. Keller talks about “practical” things a congregation can do; such as pressuring police to “do justice” to the poor, as they do to the rich, and to demand regulations for high cost loans in poor communities. But what does this mean? There is no actual context to the recommendations. Policing in one community with one set of values and citizen cooperation can be very different from another community. A police officer’s life can be at great risk in one, and not in another. Likewise, is a lender taking the same risk of non-repayment with one economic group than another? And if further regulation drives lenders out of a poorer community, who suffers? The very people Dr. Keller wants us to help.
Also implicit in Dr. Keller’s book is the sense that America and the American experiment as a ConstitutionalRepublic is no more worthy than any other culture or government. Perhaps this is unintentional, but it’s such a pervasive critique of the left, that it’s hard to think it isn’t his belief. The only problem with this thinking, of course, is that everything Dr. Keller writes about in is made possible in the modern world by the God-ordained concept of liberty and individual responsibility. The American economy has not only enriched the average citizen beyond any in the world, it has literally fed the world, saved the world at least three times from totalitarianism, and financed the spreading of the Gospel around the world. The world without American leadership would be a dark place; and immeasurably poorer both spiritually and financially.
Finally, and most importantly, does the new home for “social justice” in the evangelical church have room for the orthodox Gospel of Jesus Christ? While the case for good works and fundamental justice is simply a plain reading of Scripture, the call from Christ is for a personal, individual and life-changing perspective change – from us to Him; with charity of heart and a charity of acts. If the church takes its collective eye off the Risen One; if it does not hold the Cross of Christ high for all to see and proclaim the only Way, then does any amount of good works or justice matter?
If Christians are to take the throttle of political power, as seems intrinsic in what Dr. Keller and others of the “social justice” mindset propose, does that suggest a top-down, authoritarian state that defines what is best for the poor, or disadvantaged? Perhaps this explains why there is such an affinity for Socialism and Marxism in the church. What does that do to liberty, which in the end is the great gift of Grace from the Holy One?
[Michael Giere lives in Northern Virginia and has been widely published on politics, public policy, and foreign affairs. He served in both the Reagan and Bush Administrations and is a member of The Falls Church (Anglican) in Falls Church, VA.]
... written by bill marvel , January 03, 2012
Rather, the question is, does the gospel of Jesus Christ have room for social justice? I think that Gospel demands social justice. But maybe that's my misreading of the Gospel. Further muddled by my reading of Augustine and Aquinas.
... written by Ken Dickson , January 03, 2012
Salvation is avasilable only through Christ, not a bunch of atuff from a bunch of Godless wonders who do not want to work in society! "Truth & the Light" comes only through Jesus to reach God, not a bunch of words from social screwwballs who have been around 2000 years!
... written by Mark Nordstrom , January 08, 2012
I think Mr. Giere, whom I don't think I know personally, is rightly concerned that Evangelicals will get co-opted by the leftist/Marxist ideology behind "Social Justice" - the transfer of wealth from the productive class to the non productive. Evangelicals are right to be cautious about the Social Justice movement. For the record, no one can deny that conservative Christians give more of their time and wealth to the poor. I don't have time to document this, but it should be self evident that the liberal Social Justice proponents give a fraction of their own time and money to the poor. They'd rather demand that others give THEIR money to the poor, through the agency of government-run programs. Let's be about helping the poor, but steer away from the solution that we'll bring the Kingdom of God to earth through more government taxation and spending.
Once the government agencies gain access to our income through taxation they will use it for their purposes, not ours. Just look what has happened recently to the Roman Catholic Church - they've been isolated from providing adoption services and help to women being used in the sex trade, all because of their objection to abortion and gay marriage. And the proponents of Social Justice in the current administration are the ones who have discriminated against the Church.
That's my view.
... written by bill marvel , January 08, 2012
I find this aggressive identification of the Gospel with right-wing free-market capitalism bizarre, to say the least. The obligation to distribute wealth fairly and to care for the the poor, which goes way beyond passing out alms, is levied not just on individual Christians but upon the entire community. St. Paul is very clear on that point. Anything else strikes me as the gospel of Ayn Rand, not that of Jesus Christ. Comments here seem to confuse liberation theology - which is hardly theology and no liberation at all -- with social justice -- sometimes called distributive justice -- an ancient Christian moral principle.
... written by David VanBenschoten , January 11, 2012
I fear many of our Christian brothers and sisters would be extremely disappointed with Jesus if he walked the earth today. Jesus was far too liberal for many 2012 versions of Christians. Jesus did not preach on fiscal personal responsibility, or the merits of the invisible hand, or the most important of all values, freedom. To make matters worse he believed in mercy that bordered on criminal misconduct as a leader of the time. Love your enemy? That must have been a misprint, he meant hate them, stereotype them, and hope they die (maybe even bomb them) or at most hope to have nothing to do with them. I'm sure there were no homosexuals when in Jesus time, but I'm sad to say I'm not sure he would have properly condemmed them if there had been. Brothers and sisters wake up. Jesus was nor would not be a Republican or a Democrate. Why? His Kingdom is not of this world and it never has been. I know it is fun (and coincidentally self serving) to pretend that Republican beliefs are Godly and the Democrat's beliefs are evil. They are both wrong because we are wrong. We are greedy and self serving. All of us. Further, God's Kingdom is neither a Democracy or a Republic. God's in charge, end of story. Let's stop pretending the evil Democrates are trying to usher in a new, evil, "socialist" America. We are and always have been evil (treatment of native Americans, slavery, racism, bigotry, greed, sexism, etc). If you are not a Christian I'm sorry you had to read this, it's intended as an internal memo. If you are a Christian snap out of it. We have a far more important fight than entitlement reform, universal healthcare (sorry you know it as Obamacare), or the evils of the practically satanic EPA or NAACP. Our fight is to advance God's kingdom and in case you haven't noticed we aren't doing that well. You want a Godly country, be Godly and watch as others begin to join you. The opinion peice makes me sad. Either Mr. Greire did too much skimming, was simply unable to follow, or wrote that critique not as a concerned believer but as a pundit with an agenda. Dr. Keller was very clear and detailed throughout. Odd that Mr. Greire failed to mention the reason why (and a reason was clearly presented) Dr. Keller inserted "social justice" into Psalms 33:5. Instead Mr. Greire included it out of context so as to discredit Pastor Keller. Throughout Mr. Greire's writing he whites just enough to belittle pastor Keller's points while frequently going out of his way to avoid the point or detail that Pastor Keller usses to tie the (often profound) thought together. Stick to writing things to belittle other political figures. Solid believers don't need to be criticized by your attempts to attack a thorn in the parties side. What a joke! Being critical of a pastor writing about the need for Christians to see themselves as members of the community who will work selflessly dedicating their time and resources for the healing and renewal of their community. And Mr. Greire is concerned about whether the Gospel can survive the social justice "fad". Mr. Greire the Gospel of Jesus Chist will be just fine. I'm sadly much less confident about my Christian brothers and sisters who are being distracted by our modern day Pharisees. God help our country and those who are lost.
... written by Radical? , January 20, 2012
Giere's assumption that most Christians live open handedly with hearts open to the message of social justice is strange. Perhaps he grew up in a Christian tradition that cared for the poor and talked about issues concerning social justice, but it certainly was not in the Bible belt. He never stops to ponder why the idea of generous justice, or books like radical, by Platt, seem so revolutionary to Christians today. My assumption (and that is all it is) is that the message of "love thy neighbor" got lost in many (not all) evangelical circles. Generous Justice does not introduce NEW ideas, rather it introduces OLD ideas, Gospel, Orthodox, Christian ideas to a generation that never heard them. What's wrong with that? Secondly, Giere's misreading of Keller is a bit alarming. Keller's whole point in generous justice is that the Gospel produces in us humility. We see that Jesus died for us when we are at our worst,absorbing God's just wrath, which should have been poured out on our deserving heads. This reality makes us realize that we are not great, but God is great. Our salvation is not our own, it is Gods. Our money is not our own, it is Gods, our lives are not our own...etc. Then we we see widows or the poor (two groups we are comanded to care for in the Bible) we are free to bestow Gods message of salvation and offer them discipleship and help for the troubles of this world. All this stuff about Marxism and the left makes one wonder if Giere has let politics influence his religion a bit too much. It should be the other way around, no?