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?