Social Justice and The Church – Part II

This is a longer lecture on Social Justice and the Church, given at Living Truth Christian Fellowship in Corona. In this lecture I try and hone in on some likely philosophical and metaphysical assumptions of contemporary Social Justice movements in order to help discern secular forms of Social Justice from more biblical forms of Justice. In particular I try and answer the following questions:

  1. What are Christian metaphysics as opposed to Marxist metaphysics?
  2. What are the domains of morality on a Classical Christian worldview, and on a secular worldview?
  3. How do human beings and their cultures tend to “immanentize” Gospel truths?
  4. How is the current form of Social Justice we see presented in culture today akin to a religion?
  5. What is the difference between Marx and Nietzsche when it comes to ethics?
  6. How do secular systems of ethics that presuppose individuals own conceptions of “the good” run into problems when it comes to the distribution of Justice in society?
  7. What are the Gospel’s answers to our Social Justice ills, and how are they “the better story?”
  8. How can we take the biblical teachings on generational and corporate sin, and think about them in light of racism in the history of America?

Can We “Be” Good without God?

“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5

Can we be good without God? So it has been asked throughout the ages, or at least for a long, long time. At least since Lucretius, and probably Epicurus before him.

Very briefly, I would say “no,” we cannot be good without God. But, that is quite brief, and to say that one cannot be good, is not to say one cannot do good without God; it is only to say one cannot be good apart from God. There are, in fact, all kinds of objectively good, moral actions that a person can perform, but that alone does not make one good, not in an ontological sense, anyway.

For to be good implies more than just action in the world, it entails everything from intentions, attitudes, dispositions, even the content of one’s thoughts and imaginations. After all, would we say that a quadriplegic who is physically incapable of harming another, yet who fantasizes about torturing innocent children day and night, is good?

Obviously not. Therefore, goodness must extend beyond good or right action; it must apply to the soul of the person. It must speak to the formation of the self; to the self’s inner dispositions and desires, as well as to the body’s actions. Being good is a question of character.

But, perhaps a few examples might help clarify why good actions alone do not make us good; why they don’t change our nature, or the what we are:

  1. Objectively good actions are not always done out of objectively good motivations.

Example 1: Think of a soldier who has been trained to make certain kinds of sacrifices on the battlefield, or who lives under a highly structured system of rewards and punishments. This soldier sacrifices himself to save the life of another soldier, or maybe a civilian in a combat zone. Is his motivation for saving the other soldier or civilian done out of love and compassion? Or, is he thinking that if he pulls it off, he will get promoted, or win a medal, perhaps a very prestigious one? Or, is it because he has simply been trained to do so, and can’t really choose otherwise, his body just reacts a certain way to the circumstances. The act is loving, but is the soldier loving? At best we might say, it remains unclear.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that some soldiers don’t do heroic acts out of love, and that they themselves are not courageous or loving. It is just to show that not all loving or courageous acts are ones that exemplify a certain kind of moral virtue that itself is also objectively good. Most of us, unless you are a fan of Ayn Rand, would not think of self glorification as an objectively good motivation.1 Of course, I am simplifying this kind of scenario to make a larger point. A soldier in this kind of situation, or a police officer, or anyone really, can have a complex set of mixed emotions and intentions, to include, for example, a genuine desire to save someone and an equally genuine desire to win a medal, or gain personal favor. So, to become good seems to require something more than just the doing of good acts.

Example 2: Consider a celebrity playboy (think of one, there are a lot of them) who donates millions and millions of dollars to some inner city school project, or who frequently visits third world countries on relief missions, or who adopts a dozen orphaned African children. Yet, in his (or her) spare time, he engages in all kinds of activities that many, not just the religious among us, would consider despicable (e.g. I’m sure Harvey Weinstein gave a lot of money to charity).

Why is he doing all those good acts? Are his motives out of love…or is he trying to hide his guilty feelings from the world; making up for them by the good works he performs? Are his objectively good acts, also acts of self deception, and, in some sense, public deception? If they are, then we would have to say that they might be objectively good for others, but for the playboy himself, they are objectively bad. He is doing good on one hand, but only to alleviate his own guilt on the other. But, his public good works do not necessarily stop him from persisting in his private, yet wicked, intentions and acts. In fact, the good works act as aids to his persisting in that wickedness. (BTW, I did a lot of good works before I met Christ)!

Examples could be multiplied, but let me get to a second point.

  1. Even good actions, and the right motivations, are not enough to make us good.

    Even if one does act out of morally righteous motivations (love, kindness, a sense of duty, etc.), it is usually the case, because of the way the human heart is, that we who try and do morally good acts, and who even do them for the right reasons, begin to see ourselves as the source of our own goodness. But this is highly problematic, because the desire to do good, and the actualization of that virtue, often leads to the development of certain moral vices; like pride, or arrogance, or judgmentalism.

Example 1: The Pharisees. They thought they were good because of their religious status, their adherence to the law, and their moral virtue. They followed God’s commandments, and followed them to a “T.” They even followed more commandments than were required (see Mark 7)! In doing so, however, they developed certain vices, like religious pride.

Because of the way sin works, it seems that if we begin to see ourselves as good, we start becoming prideful and arrogant. If we become prideful and arrogant we tend to want to dominate others, to demean them, to shame them. Thus, the doing of virtue itself often becomes a source of vice, and can even lead to our hurting others in the process. We can actually undermine our own desire to be good. We can try and earn it ourselves. The Pharisees, in doing this, came up with a name for people who failed to do it; they called them “sinners.” The older brother did this to his younger, prodigal brother, and in both cases, the end result was a loss of the capacity to forgive.

Example 2: Satan and Adam’s desire to be good apart from God were the very first sinful acts against God. In fact, I think one could legitimately see all of Scripture as a grand story of man’s attempt to be good without relationship to God. This is done at the micro level (the individual who sees himself as “the Good one” and becomes haughty), or at the level of culture (the political system or ideology that is anointed as good, and is said will save humanity. Think Marxism, perhaps, which has oft been called a failed, Christian heresy.)

If Satan and Adam wanted to be good without relationship to God, and in doing so fell from His grace, then to think we can be good without God is like reenacting the original sin. It is eating from the tree; again, and again, and again.

3. But, what is the solution to this whole mess? What about being good?

From a historical Christian perspective, being morally good is not really the main purpose of human existence anyway; even if it is a byproduct of coming to grasp, and to live in that main purpose. What is that purpose? Well, it is our own happiness. Yes, that’s right; our own happiness. To understand and accept this is to follow in the footsteps of Augustine, not Pelagius; to follow Aquinas, not Socinus, and to realize what Luther realized during his study of Romans.

Or, for example, one could take this statement from The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in response to the question “What is the chief end of man?” Answer, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” So, actually, our ultimate goal is to enjoy God, not to act morally. Yep, enjoy Him, not be Him. But, once we start enjoying Him, an amazing thing begins to happen, we start becoming more like Him. We start becoming good, because of our joy in Christ.

Therefore, if enjoying God is the ultimate goal, then being good for that reason is what ultimately shapes us and make us good. When we have the right goal set in our hearts, then we can actually become what we desire to be: good.

In sum, I would say that men and women can do objectively good things without God, but that the primal sin is itself the very idea that we can be good without Him. That is exactly what we want as sinners, and it is exactly what the Devil want us to believe. So, no, we should never think we could be good without God, even if we are doing good things all the while.

Excursus: 10 Questions Christians Should Ask Themselves Before Engaging in Social Justice

“But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.”
– Amos 5:4

The conversation in the evangelical Church right now concerning social justice movements and intersectionality is inescapable. Thus, it seems appropriate to take a quick detour from our metaphysical exploration of the kinds of things human beings worship, to provide an excursus on how the Church might engage in social justice movements, activities, or events.

In this post, I am primarily concerned with speaking to Christians, but not necessarily everyone who calls themselves Christian, or who goes to church. Here, I am mainly addressing those Christians (evangelical, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox) who take seriously the truth claims of the Bible, and the propositional statements of the early ecumenical creeds (through the Nicene) and councils (through Chalcedon). In other words, this post will likely find little resonance with people who identify as post-modern Christians; who are theological anti-realists of some stripe; or who merely practice Christianity as a form of cultural expression– an expression that can change as easily as the culture does.

With this in mind, then, I would make the further caveat to the following questions, namely, that these questions are not meant as air-tight, logical criteria for making a decision on how, when, or with whom one should engage in Social Justice (SJ). These are pastoral suggestions, all of which I believe are biblically grounded, and that each individual can prayerfully reflect on to see if it applies to them.

Thus, I present 10 questions that might be helpful for all who hold fast to the Lordship of Christ to carefully consider, before we engage in an event or activity that can be reasonably identified as a Social Justice one:

1. Can you protest issue “x” without making accusations against other people, businesses, groups or institutions, especially if those accusations are not grounded in substantial evidence that you yourself have examined and carefully weighed? In other words, don’t be a Shaytan who is merely out to accuse or shame others.

2. Can you protest issue “x” knowing that you, in your own personal life, are not currently engaging in a similar or comparable type of sin or injustice? In other words, is your own house in order, before you go out and tell other people they need to get their act together? Don’t be a Pharisee.

3. When you protest “x” is the cause you are advocating for compatible with God’s moral law as laid out in Scripture? In other words, can you make distinctions between social justice issues that are also issues of biblical justice (e.g. sex trafficking), versus social justice issues that are actually seeking liberation from biblical forms of justice (see pt. 5)? Don’t be unbiblical.

4. Are you currently engaged in any kind of sexual immorality in your own life, and if so, can you get that under control before you go out and support some external cause or movement? This question, I think, is particularly for the Christian men, especially those younger men. It also needs additional points of clarification.

Point 1: It is my suspicion that getting involved in very emotionally sensitive movements and events like ones that arise within the SJ context, are often used as a means for young men to meet girls. Not that meeting girls is wrong for young, Christian men, but if one has an underlying motivation to meet and maybe even sleep with women under the pretense of being a social justice warrior, then I would want to warn those young men to rethink their motivations for engaging in social justice. I cannot quantify this claim, nor do I have a study to link to, but I can admit from personal experience that I used to do this all the time when I was younger (before I was born-again). Back then, I often engaged in “noble” expressions of SJ primarily in the hopes of attracting women. It worked…a lot, and I have repented ever since. 

Point 2: More than anything, I believe that the most significant issue facing the church right now is sexual immorality (not racism, not economic inequality, not immigration laws). Sexual impurity is devastating both evangelical churches and the Catholic Church. Thus, if there is one sin habit that the Church needs to focus on breaking, it is this one. Not to mention that it also seems to me that a good number of SJ movements and their events are directly related to the sexual mistreatment of women (e.g. #metoo). Therefore, I want Christian men to be exemplars of personal, sexual discipline when they are out and about advocating for SJ causes. 

Point 3: I am also of the opinion, having studied in some detail the roots of Critical Theory, and especially one of its main proponents Herbert Marcuse, that many SJ movements are inherently movements that view the Bible, and Christianity itself, as that from which one must be liberated, especially in the area of sexuality. Thus, you may go out to protest in some SJ event that says it is concerned with racial injustice, but find yourself implicitly involved in a protest that also wants a society liberated from the norms of historical, Christian teaching on sexuality. That could be tempting to someone who is not already disciplined in his own sexual life. It would be to me.

One last thing on this point. I do see many, not all, of the SJ movement as an extension of the Sexual Revolution of the ’60s. I have reasons to believe that what many are all ultimately looking for is not liberation from external oppressors, but liberation from the guilt associated with sexual desires. This is too complicated to explain in a short post, but it has a lot to do with Freudian explanatory paradigms that, I think, are accurate in part.

5. Does the movement or cause you are joining support or promote sexual behavior that is against the clear teachings of the Scriptures? See points 3 & 4.

6. How is your family life? If you are married, are your spouse and children on board with your activity? If not, why? I’m not saying a spouse is always right, but it’s at least a conversation that needs to happen. Remember to keep your first vocation first. 

7. What are the metaphysical and epistemological commitments of those groups you are protesting alongside? What are those groups’ view of moral values and duties? I’m not saying you cannot protest some issues alongside co-religionists, or even atheists, but perhaps know a groups’ fundamental starting points (i.e. their first things) before you get involved.

8. Does the protest you are engaging in have the potential to actually speak to those who might be involved in perpetuating an injustice in such a way that they will actually come into dialogue with you, or is it purely polemical? Or, is the protest or movement itself just out to wrest political power from one group to another? In other words, is it really about reconciliation, or is it more about revenge? After all, even white supremacists need Jesus, and, sometimes, they even find Him.

9. Does the protest or movement you are engaged in also seek to defend those that are truly the weakest among us (I call this the Mother Theresa Principle)? This would include the unborn, the elderly, and the handicapped (especially the mentally handicapped). I’m not saying every SJ event has to explicitly address those issues, but it seems to me that consistency should count when it comes to claims of justice for the marginalized. 

10. Can you honestly say to yourself that you are not joining this movement out of a personal desire for popularity, prestige, power, affirmation, acceptance or financial gain? Watch for the Devil in Do-Goodery!

I think, if one carefully prays through each of these and can provide a good, reasoned answer to each, this will at least act as a constraint on our natural desire for justice; a constraint that would hopefully lead to discernment, and, with discernment, ultimately to a legitimate, Christian response to the real instances of injustice that do exist in a society stained with original sin.

For more on this topic, and on Critical Theory, I would strongly recommend Neil Shenvi’s website at: https://shenviapologetics.wordpress.com/social-justice-critical-theory-and-consistency/

Not against Flesh and Blood – Part III: Democracy in Afghanistan and the Human Heart

Democracy and Afghanistan

In my two previous posts in this series, here and here, I wrote indirectly about the idea of just action during war (Jus in bello) and just cause leading up to war (Jus ad bellum). First, I implied that as a Christian soldier, prayer for our enemies is one means to acting justly within the context of war. Prayer for our enemies allows us to distance the person, who is made in the image of God, from the false beliefs or immoral behavior they might hold or display, even if those beliefs are seriously disparate from Christian ones, or if the behavior is especially malevolent.

Then I argued that the Iraq war was a just war, even if it was handled poorly. It is important to make the distinction between the intent of the Bush and Blair administrations (which was good) from the execution of that intent (which was, in some crucial ways, poor). Thus, soldiers who have fought in Iraq can and should feel at peace about the war they fought in, regardless of certain strategic-level attitudes and decisions that spawned overly optimistic narratives which never came to fruition, and that may have contributed to a sense of the war as appearing “meaningless.” Regardless of failures to establish western-style democracy, it is still important to know that Saddam Hussein very likely would have continued to cause great amounts of human suffering had he not been stopped through the use of force.

In this post, however, I want to turn back to Afghanistan and take a microscopic look at that kind of overly optimistic attitude of the West that might have contributed to the sense of us (the United States) being able to somehow convert the culture and people of Afghanistan to our way of thinking, and that through military and political intervention. When I say “our way of thinking” I am referencing the kind of post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment view of personal freedom and individual liberty that is most clearly formulated in the Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights.

For, while I do think the Constitution enshrines for us a unique view of liberty, I do not think that the exceptionality of the Constitution as a founding document is sufficient to compel anyone or any culture to embrace Western democracy or values. Rather, the only way to get to a true appreciation of the Constitution and the freedoms it enshrines, is through the biblical worldview, and the Judeo-Christian theological traditions that ground it. Thus, an individual, or a nation, must first embrace the Bible and the Judeo-Christian worldview, if it is to embrace something like the US Constitution and the values it endorses. Obviously, Afghanistan was not in a historical position to do this.

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Afghan Democracy: The Shura of Elders

A Personal Illustration: Changing The Human Heart

Dom, a fellow believer, was sent to our part of Afghanistan to work with local government officials and police chiefs to try and train them in the basics (and I mean the very basics) of Democracy. His role was to teach simple strategies of interpersonal communication, project planning, and problem solving. In other words he was trying to teach western-style managerial methods to men, who were accustomed to a lifestyle where literally “the strongman rules” and when he rules, he does so with an authoritative fist. Not only that, but a culture where deception and guile are valued as legitimate means to ends, and where blood is far thicker than any degree of individual merit or aptitude.1Please note, I am not saying that deception and guile are not practiced in our own democratic process, I am just arguing that they are not considered values to be treasured or promoted. So, the managerial, communication, and problem-solving methods of Western democracy that Dom was trying to train local Afghan leaders in, presupposed certain evaluations about human nature and governance that are not necessarily shared by Afghans. This much should be obvious.

Safe to say, Dom became frustrated rather quickly with the lack of progress being made. He was, after all, there to do this job, and to do it well. And he was a good government worker, bright and diligent. At some point I felt the need to encourage Dom in his vocation. I made an almost simplistic point, saying, “You’re not called to change these people’s hearts, your job is just to given them what has been given you. What they do with it, that’s ultimately up to them. Do your job well, but don’t count on results.” Perhaps it is also worth saying I was not totally convinced that what Dom was required to train these men in is what they really needed anyway. But, I didn’t want to discourage the man from his task (and neither did I have any authority to do so).

Two things stuck with me from this interaction with Dom, our expert from the State Department. First, you cannot get someone to really appreciate certain Western democratic norms, to really believe they are better than any other particular set of cultural norms, if they do not know about or to some degree appreciate the biblical worldview that anchors them. That is not to say there isn’t some overlap between the Afghan worldview (well, this particular version of it) and the biblical one. Certainly there is commonality to be found between those two world views, and certainly there are areas of overlap between Afghan Islam and Christianity, areas where perhaps Western Secularism and Christianity are at odds. But, where there is difference, and I mean theological difference, it is stark. Those theological differences are the seedbed for the kind of political ideology that many thought could simply take root in Afghanistan. They erred.

The second thing that stuck with me was this: that the only thing that can really change what an individual human being appreciates, what he truly loves, is a change of heart. But, the only thing that really changes human hearts is the God who created the heart, and the God who came into the world to rescue it. Therefore, I came to believe, that no number of soldiers in the world, nor all the military might, nor all the political machinations, nor all the good intentions, nor any amount of technology or any degree of scholarly analysis, no diplomatic sophistication or any threat of overwhelming violence can change the heart of one, single human being. That job is reserved for Christ alone, and alone through Christ can we be changed.

In this series of posts I have tried to show that all war, even physical combat, is not a war against flesh and blood as the Apostle Paul tell us, but a war against spiritual darkness: a darkness that manifests itself in false beliefs and evil actions. People are and will remain forever sacred, but falsehood and evil must be eliminated if justice is to reign.

Not against Flesh and Blood- Part I

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“Ritter, Tod und Teufel” by Albrecht Dürrer- Who’s the real enemy?

– “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark  world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

The Taliban in the area of Afghanistan where I was deployed in 2012 did not behave well. They planted IEDs in roads that indiscriminately killed not only our soldiers, but also local villagers. They “hired” local village boys to plant IEDs or other kinds of explosive devices, and, often times, those young boys failed to properly implant the mines, subsequently blowing off a hand or two. They usually wound up at our COP (Combat Outpost) in need of immediate medical attention. Moreover, many of the Taliban in our area severely bullied and oppressed the local villagers and farmers. For example, after we had brought the local governor back into the district after a year-long absence, and began to issue government IDs to locals, our intelligence collectors began to hear reports of the Taliban busting into peoples’ homes, who they suspected of having “colluded with the Afghan government and the US.” Further reports suggested that the Taliban would behead those they found with government IDs and stuff the paper IDs into their severed heads. And so on, and so on it. Safe to say, the Taliban behaved badly. I think we would all agree on that.

Still, for a small group of us, all Christian brothers fighting together in this district, we made it a daily practice to get up early and pray before our patrols went out. We prayed for the safety of our fellow comrades, we prayed the blood of Jesus over our base, the district and that entire blood-stained land. Most of all, however, we chose to pray for our enemies. We prayed for the Taliban we were called to face in combat. We prayed they would lay down their weapons, before we found them. We prayed they would turn themselves in, before we captured them, and that they would find peace before peace was made for them. We prayed to Jesus that He would show himself to anyone who was planning to shoot at us, to RPG us, or who was trying right at that very moment to embed or hook up an IED. We prayed they would convert and that their hearts would turn to Jesus. Then, before we went out on patrols, we would pray that we would win, that our bullets would strike first, and that we would be victorious in battle. After all, we were not stupid, and we were there as Christian “soldiers” not just as missionaries. 

I think that by praying for such a ruthless enemy, we were able to dignify that enemy at the same time. Through our prayers we were able to recognize that these were still men, men who, in spite of their immoral activity, their horrendous behavior, were still image-bearers of the God who made them. So, I imagine if one can, at least to some degree, show honor to an enemy like the Taliban, that we here in our own country could find it within us to honor men and women with whom we disagree on things like politics or social issues. If we cannot, and if we cannot pray for each other, then I am afraid our country and the social fabric that holds it together may not last. One verse that I memorized while in Afghanistan and that really hit home for me, especially in my efforts to love my enemy, was Ephesians 6:12, where Paul tells us clearly that we are not, we are not at war with flesh and blood, but rather we are at war with cosmic powers and principalities, and against the spiritual forces in the heavenly places. Our war is not with the flesh and blood person in front of us, it is with false beliefs, bad ideologies, and, ultimately, with the Father of lies, who is always sowing seeds of discontent. That said, it’s my prayer that we keep the real enemy in our crosshairs, and not each other.