In the previous essay, we considered the tendency of some well-meaning Christians to accept as compelling the social analysis and ethical vision of progressive humanism while continuing to confess the central Christian doctrines. Progressive humanism’s program of social justice becomes in the hands of believers the social justice gospel, a message of social reform that except for the surrounding patina of Christian language differs little from its secular counterpart. This essay continues the meticulous process of disentangling the genuine Christian elements within this “gospel” from secular and pagan ones.
The social justice gospel (SJG) divides the human world into overlapping sets of identity types: classes, genders, and races. Each of these classic identity types is characterized by internal divisions and oppositions, which lie at the root of social conflicts. The most abstract and fundamental opposition is “same versus other.” Human beings tend to misunderstand, distrust, dislike, fear, and sometimes hate those whom they deem “other,” “weird,” or “strange.” They feel greater levels of comfort and trust in the company of those like them than they feel when with those unlike them. The dynamic tension of “same and other” comes into play in other more specific oppositions: wealthy versus poor, owners versus workers, powerful versus powerless, and cultured versus common. But in the latter oppositions, more is at work than mere subjective discomfort. In them, we also find unequal access to the coveted goods of money, social power, and honor. These inequalities occasion feelings of condescension, resentment, envy, pride, shame, or arrogance from the opposing sides. And these attitudes, then, lead to social conflict.
The Line Between Good and Evil
As a description of the contemporary social world, I cannot find anything terribly wrong with the above account. However, as the SJG moves from description of social phenomena to moral and theological analysis and from there to practical action, I find much to which to object. First, instead of seeking a deeper solidarity between the oppositions described, the SJG tends to heighten them by transforming the social distinctions within the identity types of class, gender, race into moral oppositions: guilty versus innocent, exploiter versus exploited, oppressor versus oppressed, and hater versus hated. Once this judgment has been ventured, the SJG makes the easy case that justice demands that Christians take the side of the innocent, oppressed, exploited, and hated group against the guilty, oppressor, exploiter, and hater group. Whenever Christians accept SJG’s description and moral analysis of the social situation and consent to take the side of the “innocent” against the “guilty,” they tend to rationalize their decision in religious terms: the just God demands that we do justice.
Coercion: Always the Final Solution
Second, the SJG concerns itself with society-wide social conflicts that arise from differences among and within identity groups—class, gender, and race. Progressive humanism sees these problems as amenable only to political solutions. Because the SJG presents itself as a Christian movement, it views social problems as fundamentally moral and religious in nature. If it can persuade the oppressors, exploiters, and haters to change through argument and prophetic calls for repentance, it will do this. But in practice the SJG often joins secular progressive social justice activists in using protest and cancellation to achieve its ends, if persuasion does not work. Ultimately, because oppressors, exploiters, and haters rarely give up power willingly, preachers of the SJG are tempted to seek the desired change through political action and state power. Those Christians, then, who come to see pursuit of social justice (understood as diversity, equity, and inclusion) as the primary message and work of the church in the world tend, almost without realizing what they are doing, to adopt the coercive methods of the secular progressive social justice movement. In doing so, they end up thinking and behaving in the name of Christianity much like the people they oppose.
I do not believe that the moral and theological analysis of the SJG measures up to the Christian understanding of the human condition. Whereas general society is in fact divided by class, race, and gender and the subdivisions within them, Christianity points to a deeper solidarity that embraces all of them. All human beings have been created by God in the image and likeness of God, and everyone sins and fails to live up to the glorious calling of God. And all are invited to be reconciled to God and each other through faith and obedience to Christ. Christianity encourages humility born of the consciousness of our sin and love even for enemies engendered by knowledge of God’s forgiveness. In contrast, the SJG fosters a spirit of self-righteousness among the “innocent” and justifies hatred of the “guilty.” But according to Christianity, self-righteousness is just as sinful as unrighteousness and hatred of the “oppressor” is just as bad as hatred of the “oppressed.” The SJG does not because it cannot overcome the hostility among and within class, race, and gender. It merely takes a different side in the wrong battle, fought with the wrong weapons, over the wrong prize.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:10-12).
More to come…