I find myself scratching my head as to why so many evangelical Christians committed to social justice are reacting so strongly to the recent statement on social justice.
In part it may be due to matters of style and tone; the statement, for example, is a list of bold affirmations and denials. This is not in tune with our times. While we are wont to make definitive and sweeping pronouncements on social or political matters, we’re hesitant to talk like this with when it comes to things transcendent (more on this below).
As in any statement, there is much I would want to change or tweak, but statements like this do raise fundamental concerns that deserve careful thought.
The Temptations of Social Justice
For example, I think this statement grasps some of the principal temptations of those who are called into the social justice arena. Every ministry of emphasis has its peculiar temptations (e.g., journalists are subject to cynicism among other sins), and we are wise to be aware of them—if for no other reason than to ensure that our social justice ministries remain vibrant.
One social justice temptation, for example, is to let the world determine our social justice agenda and rationale. This is how the statement, now signed by almost 7,000 people, puts it:
WE AFFIRM that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.
WE DENY that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.
Of course, evangelicals have different interpretations about how far to extend those Ten Commandments, but I would think we’d all agree that the Jim Crow era violated both the commandments against bearing false witness as well as murder.
But sometimes enthusiasts for social justice push too far. The statement puts it like this:
WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.
On a more mundane level, this temptation looks like this: You don’t have to go to many social justice gatherings to conclude that if you are not actively involved in this justice issue or that, you are contributing to the injustice: “He who is not fighting racism is implicitly supporting racist policies” and so forth. It’s dramatic rhetoric, to be sure, but in fact, there is no way any of us can be deeply involved in every social justice effort; we are finite beings, and it is not a sin to be finite. We have to pick our causes, and follow the calling of God on our lives.
The temptations abound, like they do in every ministry: There are some Christians (white, black, Asian, and Hispanic) who are more anxious about their racial or ethnic identity than they are their identity in Christ. There are some Christians who have let feminism or Marxism or deconstructionism or race theory shape their ideas more than the Bible. There are some Christians whose anger at injustice has little righteousness in it, instead driven by hate of a political leader or group. There are some Christians (left and right) who are so anxious about gaining political power to enact their social agenda that they compromise some important Christian values.
Any devout Christian who is deeply committed to social justice knows these temptations firsthand, and the honest among them acknowledge that they have not always resisted these temptations, especially the last. They never forget that the devil’s final temptation of Christ was to offer him political power.
Learning from History
Another critic, pastor John MacArthur, has expressed similar concerns, especially about evangelical engagement in justice issues. I often disagree with MacArthur, but I think his pastoral instincts should be taken into account when he said (in a blog from August):
Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of “social justice” is a significant shift—and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.
He’s not the first to note this trajectory. We witnessed this in the last century in mainline Protestant Christianity, whose social justice concern in the 1950s and 1960s was admirable in so many ways. But slowly the mainline become nothing more than the Democratic Party at prayer. Typical were the millennium goals established by the Episcopal Church in 2007. The goals were:
Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger Achieve universal primary education Promote gender equality and empower women Reduce child mortality Improve maternal health Combat HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases Ensure environmental sustainability, and Create global partnership for development with a focus on debt, aid, and trade.
Nothing wrong with the goals as such, but they were the exact same Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations in 2000. It speaks volumes that a Christian church could not imagine how to talk or prioritize its social justice agenda without simply copying those of a secular institution. One would have thought Matthew 28—taking the gospel to the four corners of the world—might have played some part in its goals for the millennium.
In this regard, evangelicals have a long history of following the culture. When hunger became an international issue in the late 20th century, that’s when evangelicals began talking about it. We didn’t focus much on race until after Ferguson and the rise of Black Lives Matter. We didn’t spend much energy on sexual abuse in church until the #metoo movement. To be clear, these are all worthy causes. But it does give one pause to realize that our gospel doesn’t seem to help us fashion a social justice agenda that is unique to our faith.
We evangelical Christians would be naïve to deny that we are not subject to the same forces that have so compromised the Christian integrity of the mainline. This does not mean that evangelical social justice will inevitably abandon the gospel. Hardly. There are many examples of social justice advocates who remain deeply committed to Christ and the gospel—I think of many leaders in the black church in particular. But social activists more than most are wise to note how the transcendent dimension of social justice can get marginalized.
The Immanent Frame
Anyone involved in social justice ministries is subject to the loss of the transcendent. As Charles Taylor so effectively argued in A Secular Age, we live today in a time that is defined by what he calls “the immanent frame.” At the risk of oversimplifying, this means living as if this world is all there is. This world is reality; the world beyond it is a matter of personal opinion or speculation. In other ages, the world beyond this—the supernatural, the spiritual, the transcendent—was simply assumed and was clearly believed to be the most real.
This is one reason many Christians are more confident making definitive pronouncements about social concerns (the “immanent") and hesitate to speak boldly about theological concerns (the transcendent). We live in an era dominated by the immanent framing of things, and it takes concerted effort to remember that, as important and vital as our world is, it is but a shadow of the reality beyond us and the reality we will enjoy in the kingdom of heaven.
Social justice activism by its very nature lives day to day within the immanent frame. It is concerned about the horizontal: how states and institutions treat people and how people treat one another. The Christian might be initially motivated by uniquely Christian ideals to engage in social justice efforts, as well she should, but as history shows, it doesn’t take much before the immanent frame starts to frame everything.
So what exactly is the transcendent dimension of social justice for the evangelical Christian? This is something we’ve been arguing about as a movement for some decades. But I would put it this way: The ultimate goal of social justice is the same as the ultimate goal of all our activity for Jesus—whether that be encouraging Bible reading and prayer, loving our next door neighbor, practicing business as mission, or a hundred other things—that all might come to know and love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. If our social justice doesn’t have this end in view, I believe we will soon become nothing but the Democratic or Republican parties at prayer.
It is right and good, for example, that we seek to alleviate extreme poverty. As an act of neighbor love, we want to do what we can—from simple charity to social reform—to help the poor. If we help the poor rise out of poverty and into the middle class, we have done a wonderful thing. But if that’s all we do, we will be guilty of committing the greatest injustice of all.
For reasons we cannot fathom, God has shown us the mystery of faith: that Christ had died for the forgiveness of sins, that we might become reconciled to God and enjoy him forever with others in a kingdom of love and joy. There is no greater blessing than to know and love God, who is the Desire of all desires, who is the Ultimate Fulfillment of all we long for. We have heard that message and have believed.
Now we constitute, if you will, a privileged spiritual class. It’s not something we take credit for. In being born again, we have been born into a special, elect people—a spiritual aristocracy, who enjoy unimaginable spiritual riches.
Like the materially wealthy, we are called to help those who are spiritually impoverished so they might believe and then enjoy these spiritual riches. And the way we do that is not complicated:
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ ” (Rom. 10:14–15).
To put it starkly: If we fail to share the greatest riches we enjoy, if we keep this great news to ourselves, we are no better than the materially privileged who refuse to share their goods and work to alleviate poverty. We are, in short, practicing a type of injustice.
To not put too fine a point on it: Evangelism is our greatest work of social justice.
Be Quick to Listen
As noted above, we’ve been debating the exact relationship between the gospel and politics, between evangelism and social efforts, for many decades now. The fact that we continue to debate suggests that there are no easy solutions for how to integrate them. Every solution is fraught with temptation, to be sure.
But precisely because this issue is complex, we are wise to listen to brothers and sisters who come at things differently, even when their criticisms are pointed—especially if they ground their arguments in Scripture and the evangelical tradition of interpreting Scripture. If we want evangelical social justice ministries to remain effective and vibrant for decades to come, we are wise to be alert to issues that can inadvertently undermine our love for others in the public square.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.