A Personal View of American Social Justice

I was raised in a very liberal Protestant tradition which, contrary to public opinion, has a long, complicated theological and social history. It has a lot to be proud of, and it equally has a lot of negatives to ponder. I believe, however, there are a lot of people in the outside world, including people who are religious and those who are atheists, who do no fully understand the tradition in which I was raised, so that tradition is either ridiculed or dismissed as equally dangerous and misguided.

My first practical experiences with social justice began in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. I lived in an all white neighborhood in the Midwest. (It was so white, neighbors would report to each other if they had seen a black man anywhere within two miles of our neighborhood riding a bus or shopping at a store.  Not out of any racial bias, mind you — more from amazement.) The ministers of our church understood the disparities in American culture, and wanted to do something about it. A famous quote from that era was, “America is never more segregated than at high noon on Sunday.” When I was ten, in 1965, one of our ministers arranged to have a black group of children come to our church so children like me could actually see a black person in the flesh.

But, of course, in 1965 some church members did not want these children in our church. I saw men and woman walk out of the church over the next five years in the middle of sermons when the ministers told us we should invite black people to our homes for meals. And, of course, matters only got worse when the discussions turned to the imperialist evils of the Vietnam War. I can still remember when I was fifteen I was walking to school in the morning and a neighbor lady gave me a ride. Her car radio blared news about the Vietnam War, and she began complaining about how it was a “bloody, ugly mess.” She could have been one of my ministers, except she did not talk about St. Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Moses, Jesus, or Mother Mary. She was in tears over the dead sons of women like her. I never said a word the entire time I was in the car, since I did not matter; she would have probably done the same screaming if the car had been empty. My being there just made her feel less crazy for wanting to rant, knowing full well her ranting would not change a thing that had happened or was going to happen.

If there had been a button on her dashboard that would have allowed her to blow up the entire world she would have gladly pushed it. A world that could invent napalm, Agent Orange, and then allow the sons of the well-to-do stay home and smoke dope at college while the poor and uneducated had to be mutilated and murdered in a faraway jungle was a world she would have gladly blown to bits. This was the first time I had seen the horrifying effect a government can have on an ordinary citizen. The government all too often seems remote, removed from reality, as if somehow we can all live our lives and if we ignore what it does by some magical process we will not be affected by it.

To this day I think about her, and wonder if she ever recovered from her pain, a pain that I have no doubt resulted from the fact that she had lost someone she loved in the jungles of Vietnam. In her heart she did not believe she would ever see her loved one again in another world. She was alone, without him, fully aware that the one thing the world did not contain was justice. The politicians who ran the wars, the companies that made the planes and the bombs, they would do just fine. It was a person like her who would do the suffering.

To make matters as simple as possible, Christianity has two vast traditions that address the question of social justice, most notably represented in the New Testament by John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. John the Baptist preaches the end times. The justice of God is on its way. Repent or you will be condemned. In today’s world, there are Christians anticipating the return of Jesus when He will judge the world. This outlook has a tendency to make the justice of the world an act of God. A Christian’s job is to make himself or herself prepared for the day of judgment.

The other side of this is Jesus, representing–not always but a lot of the time–the sapient view, the outlook that is derived from the long, brilliant wisdom and literature of the Old Testament. The idea is to bring the Kingdom of God to the earth by applying the wisdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not some remote, other worldly place; It can be in the here and now, even in the streets of Los Angeles or New York or the jungles of Cambodia. This is the tradition in which I was raised. We did not wait for Jesus to return. We were told the object of life was to bring the love of God to the human race–that means everyone–by doing the very best we can to love it, too. Humans need to act, not wait.

It is, of course, with this notion of love, that this whole outlook fails in America. If there is anything in the world that capitalism finds nauseating on any given day, it is love. Love and business do not mix. Recent history has shown this problem in the current debate over health care. Hospitals are always advertising how compassionate they are, but if they were truly compassionate they would not charge three thousand dollars per day for a bed alone, not to mention the additional costs for care while you’re in it.

Love makes us want to feed the poor.  Love makes us want to shelter the homeless.  Love makes us want to heal the children. But love has limits. The point is, social justice is the Christian replacement for many Americans of “utopianism.” America’s Right has discussed the problems with utopian thinking a great length, but this form of utopian thinking has theological roots, not Marxist roots. In a utopian society, we are told, no human being should have to pay millions to stay alive.

The theological basis has to do with a rejection of mysticism. Not all, but many of the social justice people I knew denied that a Holy Ghost divine presence guides the world. The emphasis was on the moral capacity of humanity. What divides humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom is its ability to be moral, to rule the world in such a way that goodness can preside, and evil can be extinguished. It is assumed that this morality would be the responsibility of each individual man, but morality can be imposed. This is also where modern critics bash social justice. It has the all the characteristics of collectivism. When many conservatives think of social justice, they think of the communist Mao Tse Tung ordering millions of Chinese to ride bicycles. This is true when justice is used to create “equality.”

The argument against this is obvious. Without social protest even to the point of war, would slavery have ever been abolished? Will any society face its injustices unless it is forced to do so? Gross injustice exists in most cases because it is in the interest of the rulers to allow it to exist. Leaders are complacent with their power if citizens allow them to wield power as they wish. In my lifetime this confrontation against the powers that be were fully present in the March on Washington in 1963 and the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. Americans actually saw its citizens so alienated from its government that it felt no recourse but to take to the streets in organized, sometimes violent protest.

I fully understand why social justice is not trusted. Socialism in the name of God is still socialism. However, there are moments in time when there are individuals who cannot ignore the structural inequality of a given society. It is important for the citizens of a nation to take the time to distinguish whether God would believe the things the social justice advocates are saying, or whether these advocates are on the wrong side. It is a fact of life that when you hear a spiritual voice, you need to be able to discern whether it is from heaven or hell.

I was not kidding about the enormous complexity of Christian theology concerning this issue. It has to do with Biblical interpretation and social history. I hope I have given at least a small amount of guidance on this issue in a clear fashion.  Before taking my leave, however, perhaps a relevant anecdote is in order:

A doctor said he attended a meeting at one of the hospitals in which he worked, a meeting in which the moderator wanted to talk about God and God’s relationship to caring for the sick. The moderator asked the nurses and doctors present to define God. He recalled that the American doctors and nurses said over and over again that God is love, that God is compassion, that God wants us to help and to heal.  One man, however, sitting in the last desk toward the back of the room, had another opinion.

“God,” he said, “is vengeance.”

People were shocked.

“Why would you say that?” the moderator asked.

“Because,” he said, “If God loves everyone without judgment, that love is meaningless.”

The doctor said the man was absolutely correct. Do you agree?

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Comments

  1. Michael Pigg says:

    Ronald,

    I would say God is both love and just. He takes vengeance but is not “vengeance”.

  2. TNelson says:

    Bravo Ronald, bravo! Very well done. Thank you.

  3. Gail B. says:

    That’s deep, Ronald, but it makes us think.

    No, I do not agree with the man at the back of the room who declared, “God is vengeance.”

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3:16-17

    And, where is the justice when a government seeks to control its citizenry as much as possible? This regime is attempting to make slaves of every one of us.

  4. Robert Wallace says:

    Ronald-

    I really appreciate your thoughtful article, but I’ve got to chime in with a couple of dissenting comments.

    “If there is anything in the world that capitalism finds nauseating on any given day, it is love. Love and business do not mix.”

    We have to be clear about something here. It’s a lot easier to denigrate “capitalism” then to denigrate “liberty”, but capitalism is in fact nothing but liberty. Capitalism is just as vital to the principles of this American nation as religious freedom. They are both parts of human liberty.

    This human liberty is not an earthly invention. It’s not something that derives from kings, or from governments, or from the will of the people. Liberty is God’s gift to humanity so that we could choose this day whom we would serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. We *choose* to do so.

    You could easily say that the gift of liberty is God’s most expensive gift. It cost Him His Son’s life. Jesus Christ didn’t have to die. If God had not given us liberty none of us could have chosen to sin and there would be no need for Christ to die. But God so loved us that he gave us both liberty and the life of His Son so that we would not drown in our own sins.

    I agree that in the past there have been two aspects of Christianity: God’s Kingdom to come and God’s Kingdom here. But there’s no reason not to believe in both, and that’s what I believe. More importantly, however, we cannot excuse attacks on liberty because we think that if only we try to take away God’s most precious gift that somehow the world will be a better place.

    I don’t doubt the intentions of social justice / progressive Christians. I don’t doubt that they sincerely want to make the world a better place, and I will join with them in their efforts right up to the point where they begin to attack sacred liberty. That is the point past which I cannot go, because to attack liberty is to reject God’s plan. To attack liberty is to pridefully assert that there is a better way than God’s way, and I don’t believe that is the case.

    Using words like “capitalism” instead of “liberty” and like “social justice” instead of “tyranny” may make the whole plan more palatable, but it’s just a sugar-coating over a bitter pill. In the end the truth remains the same. God knew that we could not handle free will, but he gave it to us anyway and then His Son sacrificed his life for us. But social justice / progressive Christians believe that instead we should take free will away.

    That’s not God’s plan.

    So who’s is it?

  5. Jericho says:

    Gail,

    They best ready a FEMA camp for me, I will be a slave to no man, or government.
    Obama, let my people go.

  6. Lisa in TX says:

    Ronald: I second Robert’s comments. I would also like to simplify the debate a bit:

    Capitalism itself is not evil…it is a neutral mechanism. But SOME capitalists ARE evil and greedy and selfish. There is a huge difference between some “capitalist” whose god is greed and my 9 year old son running a lemonade stand. Both are capitalistic endeavors…the difference is in the PERSON behind the business. And I know many, many very wealthy capitalists who, ONLY BECAUSE OF their great wealth, have been able to do very loving and generous things to help so many.

    Social justice is also a vehicle. Yet it is truly a concept that can only properly be implemented through people of faith, NOT through governmental bureaucracies! The humanistic, and sometimes atheistic, progressive movement has co-opted this term just as they did the term “liberal”. Social justice to progressives is merely the vehicle they use to try and amass more power and control. I’m sure you don’t need me to provide examples of how this is constantly born out in history.

    The problem, as I see it, is that the seminaries were infiltrated by the progressives and were brainwashed into believing that government would be the most effective applier of social justice.

    What’s more is that when governments implement “social justice”, we get things like eugenics, abortion, and the welfare state. How is it JUST to kill the “undesirables” and keep people in a state of dependent slavery?

    The bottom line is that the world is not perfect and bad people will always do bad things. But to label capitalism as “unloving” is quite a mischaracterization.

    When churches see that the government increasingly becomes the perceived vehicle of “social justice”, they seem to lose the incentive and ownership to participate in helping people. The church needs to say to the government, “Back off and let us take care of justice. We’ve been doing it very well for centuries!” And if the community of faith is primarily responsible for bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, then the recipients of this justice will most definitely experience a much more life-changing, personalized form of help.

    I hope you will keep in mind that the “social justice” you are thinking about is NOT AT ALL what the progressives mean.

  7. Michelle Zhang says:

    “Because,” he said, “If God loves everyone without judgment, that love is meaningless.”

    I would argue that it is more meaningful. Anyone can love those they judge are doing “good” or doing “the right thing” or “doing that which I agree with” It’s a much harder and deeper love to love someone who is “evil” who “doesn’t do the right thing” or those “who I do not agree with”

  8. Randy Wills says:

    The part of AR that I enjoy most is the opportunity to get visibility into others’ perspective on important issues. This most recent article by Ronald Glenn and the subsequent comments in no exception.

    I find that I agree with Ronald that the most culpable persons in the creation of the “whiteness” that I expounded on in my previous article were those who professed to be “believers” but failed to translate their professed belief into compassion for ALL of God’s people. If fact, I believe that the only hope we have for a reversal of today’s bitter conflict between ideologies is for Christians to either “fish or cut bait” regarding the words of Jesus Christ, the chief “social justice” AND “personal responsibility” advocate in history.

    At the same time, I find not one word of Robert’s rebuttle that I would disagree with, and I certainly wouldn’t agree that capitalism and love are mutually exclusive, but greed and love are. I guess it all comes down to the fact that we can’t fake belief. We either do or we don’t (“have the mind of Christ within us”).

    Randy

  9. J.B. says:

    I thought I would add my wisdom to the article by Ronald, to clarify the discussion a bit, but Robert and Lisa have very well put my thoughts into words. Thanks.

  10. Michael Pigg says:

    I second J.B. Robert and Lisa did a great job. The one thing I would add is that preaching the Gospel and winning hearts and minds is the answer to most of the problems we think are isolated issues, but are really symptoms of a Godless society. Once conformed or in process of conforming to Jesus Christ, you strive to never offend our Father again.

    Michael

  11. Ian R Thorpe says:

    Ronald,
    Are you familiar with William Blake’s poem Jerusalem(later turned into a hymn).

    Apart from it’s being very English (but just substitute any homeland) I think you will appreciate it’s message.
    Jerusalem

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