Social Justice and The Great-Cause Fallacy

It seems that everyone who’s anyone these days has attached themselves to some great cause. In introducing yourself to another person you give your name, where you work, and the cause that drives you into the streets. You’re nobody if you’ve not founded a nonprofit organization or haven’t been arrested for chaining yourself to the White House fence or at least have “Activist” printed on your business card. You’ve gotta fight for something—for social justice for the oppressed, for the homeless, for the poor, for the trees, for open spaces, for endangered species, for the climate, for gun rights, for gun control, for children’s rights, parents’ rights, for women’s rights…for somebody’s rights! It’s “Up with…” or “Down with…” or “Out with… or “In with….”

No one presents their cause as evil. No one protests, “Down with justice, up with injustice!” Have you ever seen anyone carrying a sign that says, “Tax the Poor!”? No group occupies the halls of state capitols chanting, “Trash the environment!” No. We adopt causes we think are good, noble, and great; or at least causes we can present as good, noble, and great. Perhaps it should not escape our notice that by adopting a good and just cause I demonstrate to myself and others that I am a good and just person. I present myself as a defender of the defenseless and a champion of the oppressed. I set myself in opposition to the oppressors and polluters, the privileged, the greedy, and the selfish. I manifest my love for the beneficiaries of my zeal for whom I sacrifice an evening a week and a weekend a month. And I am righteously outraged at the evil doers who exploit those I love so much, and I am disgusted by those who turn a blind eye to such injustice. If such a self-presentation were a prayer it would go like this:

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other people—greedy, racist, unpatriotic, or lazy! I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I drive a Prius. I stand for the National Anthem and pay my dues to the NRA” (See Luke 18:9-12).

Am I being judgmental? Then let me bring in a witness. What about the great-cause activists’ claim to love those for whom they fight? The letter we know as 1 John has much to say about loving others and loving God:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Many great-cause activists resonate with John’s critique of the religious hypocrite who claims to love God but doesn’t love other human beings. But the reverse principle is just as true. If you claim to love people but do not love God, you are a liar. If you claim to love some people but do not love all, you are a liar. If you claim to love some of the time but do not love always, you are a liar. 1 Corinthians 13 lists many great causes one could adopt and noble actions one could perform without loving God or human beings:

13 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3; NASB).

Identifying with a great and good cause for which one is willing to give up everything is no sure sign that one loves, that one is a good and just person. In his profoundly insightful book, Søren Kierkegaard reminds us of something we should keep in mind always:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

In our relationship with other human beings, with God’s creation, and with ourselves, God is the “middle term,” that is, we must never try to love anything other than God directly. Nothing can be loved in the right way unless it is loved within the act of loving God and because we love God. If you think you are loving people by championing their rights and fighting against their oppressors but are not helping them to love God, you are self-deceived. You do not love them at all. Indeed you may be making them seven times worse off. If you think you can love yourself by asserting your rights and your dignity directly apart from loving God, you are dressing pride in clothing of justice. The greatest cause is learning to love God. The greatest act of love you can do for others is to help them love God, and the most loving thing anyone will ever do for you is to help you love God.

So, you are looking for a great cause? Be sure that your desire to serve a great cause is not secretly a desire to become great by associating with a great cause. We might begin by learning to pray the prayer of tax collector instead of that of the Pharisee:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13).

4 thoughts on “Social Justice and The Great-Cause Fallacy

  1. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    As I have mentioned to you before (privately) this is indeed about that ultimate question: love?
    What you have said is very true. How to proceed? Though? Have a quich think about the following.
    If we are starting out all Greco-Pauline, which is a good place to start. Then upon our tree of fruit, there might be nine such relevent attributes. Most if not all folks start by hitting at those bottom fruits with a stick. Gentleness has been immediately lost, along with self-control! How can faithfulness (or any of those delicious fruits) follow you ask? They or it cannot. Does this sound a bit like the fallacy of great causes? Hitting with a stick?
    We need a box to stand upon. That box varies in size and nature, but however we think we know it, it is called forgiveness.Yes faith comes through the gift of grace (Eph 2:8), and therefore we should preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the hope that we can understand Christ more readily by imitation (being Christ-like)… But since that points us at repentance (redemption) and forgiveness (St.Luke) – may I respectfully adhere that no one can properly love themselves as you so vitally request, until they have learned what forgiveness actually is. And I do not mean the Divine Forgiveness of sins. Have you simply forgiven yourself lately (or do you bear emotional grudges against yourself which spill out towards others? If not, how can you begin to understand forgiveness from God and more importantly, thank Him in your prayers for something you don’t know? And don’t pretend that you think that God will understand your lack of insight, and therefore it is all OK. As the critic in the New York Times mentioned about the film “the Shack”, regarding the Lady in the Cave ; was she intended to be Faith or forgiveness? If a lack of holy love (in fact any proper love) is a modern affliction, then lacking forgiveness is the disease.
    Have we come full circle? Not quite. The gospel requires a speaker, and a helper, and I believe that that comforter is the Holy Spirit. And not just for any reason does St. Paul place love at the top of his tree of fruits. The humble shall be exalted, and the exalted shall be humbled. Perhaps starting not just as the tax collector parable implies “beating our chests”, but on your metaphysical knees begging for an understanding of forgiveness…? Try it. Pray now.
    Thanks for the lead in message towards “giving” as a prerequisite to forgiving. We do need to examine our giving very carefully. Lest we become like those NT you mentioned, who thought that they were giving plentifully and dutifully, and we all know what Jesus said to them! “I never knew you”. Now please, forgive me if I have wasted your time.


  2. nokareon

    One meditation that has been laid on my heart for the past year and a half—if the social reform cause one fights for, no matter how noble, leads you to hate those who stand in your way, then the disease is worse than the cure.

    If campaigning to end human trafficking leads to hating traffickers and those who hold human slaves…
    If #MeToo results in hating men—even those who rapaciously abuse power and position…
    If Black Lives Matter results in denial to white lives…
    If gun reform in the wake of recent tragedies entails hating the NRA…
    If pro-life picketing (or pro-choice picketing, for that matter) becomes sabotage or harm directed at the other…
    If advocating for minorities of gender, sexual orientation, or race means refusing those opposed an equal voice in the public dialogue…

    …then these great causes are for naught.

    In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., only the way of love can spark true change. This is the tightrope we walk—the delicate act of bringing about the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven.


  3. Kevin Linderman

    Marty sent me this blog… I really appreciate this reflection (and your other posts on justice). Thank you for writing!



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