Social Justice: the Spirit of the Age?

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you. – Deuteronomy 16:20

Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. – Jeremiah 22:3

I was listening recently to Ancient Faith Ministries’ The Areopagus podcast, the episode about politics from last November. The episode is extremely thoughtful and even-handed. Father Andrew Stephen Damick, Pastor Michael Landsman, and Dr. Cyril Gary Jenkins focus more on the general role that politics should play in the lives of Christians, and on how the Scriptures and the Early Fathers teach us to approach politics, than on any specific, contemporary political issue. At one point, one of the podcasters (Father Andrew Stephen, I believe) discusses the demonic forces that animate much of contemporary political discourse, and observed that many Christians seem to wish that the demons on “their side” would defeat the demons on the “other side,” instead of realizing that the demons are all working together on the same side. This is certainly the mindset that seems prevalent at the Jericho March two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol (the event was strictly BYOS: bring your own shofar). Overall, I’d recommend the Areopagus episode on politics to Christians who are struggling to understand the political passions of the age.

As a left-wing guy, of course, I managed to pick out every hint of right-wing sympathy in the episode. One in particular stood out to me. One of the hosts (I’m not sure who it was, exactly) observed that the concept of “justice” seems to have become an idol these days, a substitute for God. I was struck by this (very brief) aside. Anything that is pursued for its own sake becomes an idol, and I suppose that “justice,” when idolized, is as dangerous as anything else. But the concept of justice is so pervasive throughout the Scriptures, it is emphasized and valorized so much, that to decry society’s worship of “justice” is almost akin to decrying society’s worship of “love” or “hope.”

What does it mean to say that justice has become an idol? And is the spirit of our age a demonic preoccupation with justice?

Naturally, we all know what he meant when he said “justice” has become an idol: he was referring to social justice. And when we say “social justice,” we refer to a number of different things: the Black Lives Matter movement, contemporary feminism, Critical Race Theory, critiques of systemic or institutional oppression, democratic socialist policies, et al. In short, social justice is a view of justice that preoccupies the left wing of American and (to a lesser extent) European politics today. Whenever a politician or academic or activist critiques broad, societal disparities between racial or gender or class groups, they’re talking social justice.

This post is sort of a preamble to my dive into Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies. Over the course of these posts, I will generally argue two things: first, that politically conservative Christians frequently infuse contemporary and local political issues with broad, transhistorical importance. Thus, conservative economic stances on taxation and fiscal liberty are described as “biblical”; social justice and redistribution are described as “unbiblical.” Various political stances that aren’t essential to Christian faith, worship, or practice—and that haven’t been essential to Christian faith, worship, and practice throughout the centuries—suddenly come to seem essentially Christian or anti-Christian. Second, I will argue that conservative Christians generally amplify or exaggerate the pervasiveness of those contemporary and local political issues that they view as fundamentally anti-Christian. As a consequence, they have developed a persecution complex—even a persecution fetish. Behind every bush and shrub, they see a lion waiting to devour them, and they seem all too eager to jump into its jaws. The result is that, in a period of unprecedented freedom of religion and religious expression, you get videos by prominent YouTube commentators like this:

His beard keeps getting bigger: is he going Orthodox?

A cursory YouTube search of “social justice” and “Christianity” or “the Gospel” reveals scores of videos in which Christian commentators frame “social justice” in the darkest imaginable terms. Throughout the Evangelical and Catholic worlds, pastors and commentators fret over the sympathies many Christians show toward movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo. Samuel C. Smith, a professor at Liberty University, recently said that “[t]he infusion of social justice into the gospel may well be the most dangerous problem facing the church today” (emphasis mine). Or, as Dr. Thaddeus Williams said in a 2018 interview:

The problem is not with the quest for justice. The problem is what happens when that quest is undertaken from a framework that is not compatible with the Bible. And this is a very real problem, because the extent to which we unwittingly allow unbiblical worldview assumptions to shape our approach to justice is the extent to which we are inadvertently hurting the very people we seek to help. Take Marxism for example. It claimed to be about justice and compassion. Where a biblical worldview built orphanages and hospitals to help the marginalized and broken, Marxism gave us the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Where the Gospel led to the abolishing of the human dumps of the Roman Empire and brought society’s unwanted into loving community, Marxism endorsed the systematic termination of society’s unwanted. Where biblical Christianity set slaves free, Marxism sent millions to the gulags. Where Christianity inspired the Oxfords and Cambridges into existence to pursue knowledge to the glory of God, Marxism inspired thought-policing. Where Jesus transformed deep racial tensions into a new, beautiful, reconciled community, Marxism helped spawn identity politics and all the divisiveness, suspicion, and racial stereotyping that go with it.

Williams is certainly correct in his critique of Communism, which was brutal—brutal on a level unprecedented in human history, really. But he is too quick, later in the interview, to link the history of twentieth-century Communist regimes with Marx’s own structural analysis of the nineteenth century economy (which was deeply flawed, in my view) and the movements that take some of Marx’s premises as their own. In the interview, he said:

There are a bunch of ideologies inspiring much of what is called “social justice” today—Neo-Marxism, Critical Race Theory, Postmodern Deconstructionism, Queer Critical Theory, and Gender Theory, to name a few. … A biblical worldview sees evil not only in “systems,” where we ought to seek justice, but also within the twisted hearts of those who make those systems unjust. Because evil resides in every human heart, all the external activism in the world won’t bring about any lasting justice if we downplay our need for the regenerating, love-infusing work of God through the Gospel.

If a view of justice deconstructs relationships in terms of “power-differentials” and argues that all such hierarchies are evil and must be abolished in the name of “equality” then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview totally opposes the sinful abuse of power, but sees many hierarchies, like the parent-child, rabbi-disciple, elders-congregation, teacher-student relationships, as part of God’s good design for human flourishing.

If a view of justice interprets all truth, reason, and logic as mere constructs of the oppressive class, if it encourages us to dismiss someone’s viewpoint on the basis of their skin tone or gender, then it is not biblical justice. The Greatest Commandment calls people from every ethnicity and gender to love God with our whole minds, which includes the truth-seeking, reasonable, and logical parts of our God-given minds. A mind that loves the Father assesses ideas based on their biblical fidelity, truth-value, and evidence, not the group identity of those articulating it.

This long quote contains a number of maneuvers I find troubling. In the first paragraph, it links activist movements and schools of thought in the modern humanities and social sciences to Marxism. Which…pretty much all of the modern humanities and social sciences can be linked back to Marx (and nineteenth-century German philosophy more generally). If anything influenced by Marx contains the taint of the gulag, then I’ve got bad news for you about the field of sociology (of course, many critics would be happy to do away with that altogether, too). If disciplines and practices associated with Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Max Weber, Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, and (yes) the Frankfurt School are all fundamentally anti-Christian and unbiblical, I’ve got bad news for you about the foundations of pretty much all modern ideology.

And yes, of course it’s absolutely fundamental for the Christian mindset to oppose the ideology of society, the “spirit of the age.” All those German and French guys are, I suppose, anti-Christian in many ways. But I’d argue that the spirit of our age, in the Anglosphere in A.D. 2021, is not especially anti-Christian and unbiblical, at least not more than the spirit of the age in A.D. 1221, or A.D. 221, or A.D. 21.

Another maneuver Williams makes is to generalize about all these disparate movements (e.g., they all oppose hierarchies), then defend the principle about which he generalizes (e.g., arguing that hierarchies are actually good), and then conflate the principle with Christianity (e.g., hierarchies are essential to a Christian worldview). This is the Jordan Peterson technique. Which…first, nobody is arguing that all hierarchies are inherently bad and unnatural. That’s a straw man, as I see it. And just because many hierarchies are good does not mean that all hierarchies are good. And even if all hierarchies are good, what makes that an especially Christian or biblical principle? Yes, the Bible and Tradition defend many hierarchies, as Williams points out—not the least of which is between God and us. But if you read the Gospels, follow Tradition, and go to church each Sunday and come away from it all thinking, “Hierarchy is an absolutely central tenet of my faith,” I’d say you possess a very confused, even distorted, sense of Christianity.

In the third paragraph, Williams posits that “truth” is under attack from “social justice.” Which, yes, there are postmodern philosophers who come very close to the fabled statement, “Truth doesn’t exist.” (Except for the truth that, uh, truth doesn’t…exist.) But these statements are rare and usually highly qualified, and they’re most common among the postmodernists (e.g., Jean Baudrillard) who have the least to say about social justice issues related to race, gender, &c. Williams seems to be referring to the notion of “lived experience,” the idea that a person of color’s testimony of racism should go unchallenged because of their “lived experience.” Which…fair enough, we should be willing to admit that a person of color, or a woman, can lie about being persecuted. But if a white dude with little experience of racism hears that a black woman feels racially attacked, shouldn’t her testimony count for something, given that she probably has more experience with racism than the white dude? This is a whole can of worms I don’t want to open in this (already too long) post. All this to say: I don’t think BLM protestors are out there seeking to unravel Western conceptions of objectivity and truth. These are also many of the same people who carry those obnoxious “ScIeNcE iS rEaL” placards.

I want to make a couple things clear in closing. First, I believe there are some contemporary, local political issues that are absolutely vital to Christian practice, worship, and faith. Questions of religious freedom come immediately to mind, as do questions of the value of human life and the practical roles of diet, sex, marriage, family, and work in religious life. I might disagree with some pro-lifers about their priorities and tactics, but I don’t believe they are off-base when they say that the value of human life is central to their faith. (I would argue that the concept of justice is actually pretty central to Christian faith, too.)

Second, I have my own qualms with social justice. Like Williams, I have some issues with the primacy given to “lived experience.” I have some issue with the concept of “cultural appropriation.” I have some issues with the way social justice activists and theorists sometimes value the community so much more than the individual. I have some issues with the logic of indigeneity. I do actually have some issues with the social justice movement’s reliance on Marxist paradigms and its (often lazy) critique of capitalism. More than anything, I have issues with the term itself: why social justice and not simply justice? If the term “social justice” is necessary to describe the kind of systemic, widespread injustices that have embedded themselves into the very fabric of our society, doesn’t the concept of “justice” itself, divorced from the adjective “social,” promise tangible, concrete redress?

There’s a good reason why Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t necessarily argue for reparations for slavery itself, which spawned a million systemic wrongs against African-Americans over the course of four centuries, creating a kind of Gordian Knot of injustice at the heart of U.S. culture and society. Unraveling that knot would be almost impossible. Coates instead usually argues for reparations for specific injustices that occurred in living memory: reparations for victims of redlining and their families, for victims of Jim Crow and their families, &c. Whether you agree with Coates about reparations or not, you can’t deny that his vision for reparations is more concrete, and more rooted in solid notions of justice, than simply, “Give Black folks money in exchange for racism.”

In short, I feel that conversations about social justice tend too much toward the abstract, the general, the systemic. It’s not for nothing that intelligent conservative commentators accuse leftists of being unable to define what they mean by “social justice,” and that makes intelligent conservatives suspect that they mean something nefarious. Conversations about justice should be concrete, specific, and local.

I want to offer you a few TEDx videos (eye-roll, I know) that have helped me understand what I mean when I talk about justice. The first is from a defender of social justice who finds the term useful; I disagree with him about the usefulness of the term, but because it’s the term we (society) seem to have settled on, I guess I’ll continue to use it. The second two videos deal more with the word justice itself and its concrete implications. Each video is roughly twenty minutes long.

Thank you for reading to the end. As I said above, this post is meant to offer a framework, a preamble, for my discussion of Live Not By Lies. I’ve said here many of the things I’d want to say before talking to Rod Dreher, if I ever had the chance to meet and talk with him. I wrote this long post so that I could get all this off my chest, so I won’t repeat the same points over and over when I actually dig into the substance of his book.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for this. I am not “philosophically inclined” as a thinker and have a hard time expressing my thoughts/feelings accurately on things like this. I think you have summed up my inners for the most part. I enjoy reading your stuff.

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  2. Thank you for your blog post. I am an Orthodox Christian, above all else, and I have little allegiance to any political system, as they are all at risk of being abused. After the debacle of the Trump presidency, I would have hoped we learned some valuable lessons–we obviously didn’t. I can’t tell you how refreshing this post is for me to read, because it’s an island of thoughtfulness in a sea of insanity. For the past several months, I have been monitoring a lot of the Orthodox thinkers-du-jour (and their ilk): Jonathan Pageau, Jordan Peterson, Rod Dreher (all favorites of Fr. A.S. Damick and Co., who have control of the content on AFR). I was a College Republican, steeped in the anti-communism of my childhood (80s), as my parents had been (50s). It took me years of life experience to see the “idols” we Americans have made of our “values”. The fundamentalists in the Protestant world use “natural law” a lot. The current rhetoric of Pageau (check out the most recent podcast of Areopagus) simply replaced “law” with “order”. Pageau presents himself as a philosopher, but that is not his training. Those of us who studied philosophy can see the flaws in some of his arguments, for example, about the parasitic storytelling cycle. Because he is artistic and intelligent, he has successfully shrouded his anti-social justice, anti-equity views in a lot of rhetoric about post-modernism and the ultimate destruction of societies. There are less extreme examples of this thinking as well. Though I value the Western classical studies model, I believe that this is another “idol” trap that many Orthodox are falling into. Aesthetics seem to be a common thread–“Beauty before Truth” (Tim Patitsas). And the gender discussion always devolves into men are “above” in the hierarchy, or some false dichotomy, such as men are “kings” women are “prophets,” etc. (On a sidenote, isn’t it so telling that I can’t think of one episode of a show that Damick has done where there has been a woman guest?)
    At the end of the day, these folks are dominating the airwaves with this pseudo-Orthodoxy and are in their own echo chamber. This brand of Orthodox “intellectualism” has done nothing by way of reeling in those Orthodox who fell off the deep end during the pandemic, with their rants about returning to the catacombs and being the new martyrs. I should say that there are some on AFR who do not carry this torch. Steve Christoforou and Christian Gonzalez come to mind. Back to your post: You’ve done an excellent job of pointing out some critical issues. I hope that you continue this much-needed writing work–especially, re: Dreher, as he is unfortunately
    very influential. People like this cannot seems to distinguish between conservative politics and Christianity. This is why they have failed in the “culture wars”. Keep doing the great work your doing, and I look forward to reading more. Madeleine

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