A year ago while checking my emails for work, I came across an email from Goodwill Rights Management Corp. whose subject read, "Reminder: join us for the webinar "Is Social Justice the same as Biblical Justice?" This was intriguing for someone like me, to say the least. Upon opening the email, my spirit was deeply disturbed when I discovered that the title of the webinar came from a book entitled Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis by Scott David Allen.
I was so confused and went to delete the email, but my curiosity and righteous indignation took over. My initial thought was, "The audacity!" But, I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this was some deep analysis that detailed how what we call social justice failed to live up to the life giving justice described in the Biblical scriptures. Wrong! What I came across was anything but that.
I have not nor will I ever read the book, however, in doing research on this particular author, I stumbled upon an article on the book and an interview with the author. From the interview, he is quoted as saying social justice is an "ideology" that has come into the "Bible-believing or evangelical church." This means that he identifies with what is commonly referred to as an "evangelical." I say what is commonly referred to as "evangelical" because what we commonly refer to as "evangelical" is a particular group of people all over the United States, but particularly in the Bible Belt states (combination of southeastern, southwestern, and some midwest states), that have a particular theology of the Bible and share a very conservative (and republican) political ideology. This is a perversion of what it means to be "evangelical," which is not about a certain theological and political viewpoint upheld by the interests of an overwhelmingly white and conservative republican movement. There was one line, however, that really prompted me to write a response to this uninspired, morally reprehensible, gaslighting of a book. It was when Allen says, "What I wanted to do in the book is not just critique social justice. I wanted people to understand it clearly as I could convey. This is not an academic book, it’s for lay Christians who are trying to get their heads around this. It’s so prominent in the culture. I tried to lay out what this worldview of social justice is but wanted to do it by comparing to biblical understandings of justice. I believe what you are dealing with here is a counterfeit justice."
Y'all, I can't make this stuff up!
Let's dive into it...''
One of the things that is so backwards about the author's logic begins with his definition of "justice" itself. The Author, who is honestly representing the sentiments of the "white evangelical" world (generally speaking), expresses an ignorance about the Bible and justice. He takes the term social justice and uses it to create a false divide. First things first, all justice is social. There is no such thing as justice outside of community. There would be no need for it. It wouldn't exist. The sin that is injustice can't be done in isolation. We don't sin in abstract ways. We sin by going against the will of God but the effects are experienced by others as well as ourselves.
In the interview the author says, "Social justice comes out of a school of thought that is largely theistic, it comes out of idealism. It’s a school of thought that arose in the 1700s. People are probably familiar with Hegel and Nietzsche and some of these folks. So, it has starting points from that. But biblical justice I define this way, its “conformity to God’s moral standard as revealed in the 10 commandments, in the royal law in the New Testament which says love your neighbor as yourself.” Social justice has to do with deconstructing traditional systems and structures that are deemed to be oppressive and redistributing power and resources from oppressors to their victims in the pursuit of an equality of outcome. You can see from those two simple definitions how different these two concepts are even though they use the same word: justice." He is basically arguing that what we know as social justice comes from a decidedly non-God or even anti-God perspective. This author and "evangelical" perspectives like his never address what the prophets of the OT were called by God to preach to the people. Some examples of this are below:
Micah 6:8, "He has told you human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God." (CEB)
Isaiah 1:17, "... learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow." (CEB)
Amos 5:24, "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (CEB)
Jeremiah 22:3, "The Lord proclaims: Do what is just and right; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don't exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don't spill the blood of the innocent in this place." (CEB)
I'm not trying to cherrypick scripture either. The truth is that these are just a few examples, but the scripture passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many of the other prophets are too much to just write in one blog post. And, I encourage you, as is a practice of mine, to read what comes before and what comes after to fully understand what is being said in these singular verses. Nevertheless, each of these verses comes after the prophets share God's disgust with the centers of power and the people's performance of religion and faithfulness to "Him." The festivals and offerings do not please God when the oppression of the most vulnerable people in society (i.e. widows, orphans, refugees, etc.) or the outright disregard for them as human beings is the norm.
He goes on to say, "So, when social justice folks use the word equality. Typically, they will use the word equity and that is kind of an equal distribution. So, one of the big issues right now for example with people that are concerned about social justice is prison reform. They will look at prison populations and say, “well there is not an equal distribution based on percentage populations of people in the prisons so that must prove positive of injustice.” So, any kind of disparity about them you might think of. There are so many examples, a famous one came out of google a few years ago where they realized “wow we have a lot more male computer scientists and programmers than female that disparity must be proof of a kind of sexism in this case and injustice.” So, they are looking for that kind of equality of outcome that is very explicit. Whereas that notion in the Bible really doesn’t exist. There can be a variety of different outcomes largely dependent upon circumstance, including personal behavior and personal choices. Those things are very much ignored by advocates of social justice."
He says this after talking about the equality that we as human beings have coming from the Biblical understanding of being made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), not an equality of outcomes. It's very ironic that the author highlights that social justice advocates ignore personal behavior and personal choices, while at the same time he disregards racism in the criminal justice system (from policing, jails, jury trials, imprisonment) and even life after imprisonment and disregards well documented sexism in the workplace (hiring practices, workplace environments, unequal pay, etc.). None of these things seem to matter to the author, or, worse, he believes they are not real. So, what the author is really saying about "Biblical justice" comes down to an overemphasis on personal sins and not enough emphasis on the sins of communities and societies, which negatively impact the lives of people disproportionately, that the Biblical prophets, Jesus Himself, and the New Testament church addressed.
Oh, speaking of Jesus. . .
The name Jesus literally does not come up in this interview. There is a reference quoted above to "loving your neighbor as yourself," but that is it. Maybe Jesus was mentioned in the actual book, but it's still so weird that the one who Christians get their name from Jesus the Christ was not mentioned in the interview at all. The reason for that is actually very simple. The author and "evangelical," specifically white evangelical, perspectives like his can't mention Jesus. They can't really do it. They'll only mention Jesus if it is Baby Jesus during the December Advent season and Christmas, or Jesus who was resurrected. They willingly ignore the 33 years of life, 3 years of revolutionary ministry in between, and even his unjust arrest, trial, and graphic public execution (lynching). In short, Jesus presents a problem for them. Jesus critiqued economic exploitation and discrimination, subverted religious and cultural systems that kept people in bondage and didn't lead to freedom, and embraced the undesirable. These things led to the religious elite and the state conspiring to lynch him, thinking that this would put an end to his ideas and scare those who might have embraced Him and His ideas.
Jesus the person was from the hood (John 1:45-46) and spent time as a refugee (Matthew 2:13-23). At the beginning of his ministry Jesus quotes Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (CEB). He claims that he is the fulfillment of the scripture. He goes on to preach, which holds a mirror directly up to the people and culture, and it is nothing short of revolutionary spiritually, religiously, culturally, and politically. You would think that everyone would embrace Him, especially since He is in His hometown, but not quite. They try to throw him off a cliff! That wasn't the only time Jesus was in hot water with the religious elite or the people in general. Mark 11:15-18 says, "They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.” The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching" (CEB).
To make a long story less long, Jesus was fed up and sought to disrupt the system that was going on. People coming from everywhere who were seeking to buy doves or animals to sacrifice for sins could only use temple currency. The money changers inflated the exchange rate to make big money, so to speak. Likewise, the merchants selling the animals inflated the prices so they too could take advantage. And all of this was happening in the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only place in the temple non-Jews (Gentiles) could worship. This was literally disrupting their ability to worship. And for those who couldn't afford the animals available to purchase, their sins were essentially viewed as not being forgiven. Now, they were marked as a sinner for being too poor to afford the sacrificial animal. Jesus sees this economic exploitation and discrimination taking place and rightly identifies it as wrong and a barrier to people experiencing the fullness of God. Anything that prevents people from experiencing the presence of God must be confronted, and in the case of the Temple in Jerusalem on this fateful day, it was an unjust system.
Following Jesus's more radical confrontation, the early Christian Church confronted an issue of systemic/structural discrimination. Acts 6:1-7 tells us, "About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service. The Twelve called a meeting of all the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables. Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you. They must be well-respected and endowed by the Spirit with exceptional wisdom. We will put them in charge of this concern. As for us, we will devote ourselves to prayer and the service of proclaiming the word.” This proposal pleased the entire community. They selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. The community presented these seven to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith" (CEB). I highlighted this story because it offers the biggest critique I have of the author's purposes behind this book. In this interview, the author seems to suggest that systemic issues don't need addressing or, worse, they are merely illusions created by social justice advocates. Either way it is arrogant and wrong. Systemic injustice existed in scripture, as Acts 6 shows us with what was happening to the Greek speaking widows, and the solution to that injustice was also systemic with the implementation of the deacons. To modernize it, in the United States systemic solutions were needed to counteract the racial discrimination. Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and Affirmative Action legislation were all systemic solutions to a systemic problem - the United States Racial Caste System. Those policies and policies like it are still needed today to continue to counteract systemic oppression. In short, systemic injustice is in need of systemic solutions! The goal should be transformation.
Transformation is what Acts 3:1-11 is about. The man Peter and John encountered simply expected for them to give him charity in the form of a few coins. What they offered him was transformation and wholeness. In those days they called giving a "beggar" money almsgiving. It was something that caused others to look favorably upon the giver of alms. It gave them "spiritual brownie points," so to speak. In that way, charity was not about transformation and wholeness of the person in need, it was more so about the giver. The giver was centered, not the recipient who was in need.
In the interview, the author says, "So much poverty is the result of injustice," but then he immediately turns around and says, "the most powerful thing we can bring them as Christians isn’t money or projects of different sorts. Its truth. Biblical truth has the power to raise people out of poverty and brokenness. So much poverty is rooted in beliefs and ideas. And that is why I became concerned here about the ideology of social justice because it purports to care for the poor and oppressed but it does just the opposite of everything it purports to do. It makes conditions worse for people in poverty by locking them into a sense of entitlement and dependency. It makes racism worse; it fosters intensified racism. I began to see how it’s so damaging and dangerous. Our calling as Christians is to speak and to live out biblical truth in ways that bless the nations and bless our neighbors. I care deeply about that and saw this as a threat to it."
When reading that I was reminded of a quote from legendary preacher, pastor, and social activist Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones Jr. He said, "You can't talk religion to a hungry man." With that statement he was highlighting the fact that even Jesus addressed people's need before preaching the kingdom of God. He demonstrated the love of God, which gave credibility behind what he preached. On the other hand, the author disregards the systemic and structural barriers that create poverty and inequality and places the responsibility solely on individuals or even communities. In response to the interviewer's question, "When it comes to caring for the poor, is that a category mistake to call it social justice? Shouldn’t we be calling it charity or something along those lines?" the author of the book goes on to say, "That could be the case. There is a long history of social justice in the church. For many, especially when I was growing up, social justice just meant caring for the poor. That term has taken on so much more meaning. I strongly encourage Christians not to use that phrase anymore because it means something specific and definite in the culture. We can’t let go of the word justice, it’s a biblical word we have to fight for. The phrase social justice causes confusion. It’s an ideology and has nothing about caring for the poor."
The author and "evangelical" perspectives like his are more committed to charity than transformation and people's wholeness. This is also indicative of their need to individualize the faith and avoid the communal intent of God and Biblical writings. The Bible and Christian faith is both personal and communal. But there is also something even more sinister about the motivations behind this book.
The author further reveals in the interview, "The more I study contemporary social justice. The connection to Marxism became clear for me. The contemporary social justice in academic circles goes by the name critical theory or critical social theory and there is a variety of branches of it. There’s critical legal theory and critical race theory and many others." He then goes on in a followup question to say, "If you go back to Marxism 1.0, the original one, the problem in the world was not sin. Of course, that is what the Bible puts forward is the main problem. This sinful rebellion of people against their creator. The problem was oppression. In this case it was on the social and economic plain. It was oppression by property owners and capitalists against workers. The solution was to redistribute it. To seize control of these systems that created economic disparities, capitalism or what not. So, there was an equality of outcome, traditional communism. So, what we see today is that same basic concept, but the Frankfort school critical theorists expanded it. So, all the talk we have of race today or LGBTQ issues."
The author knows exactly what he is doing and it is quite insidious. Once again there is this weird logic playing out. He doesn't identify oppression as human's "sinful rebellion against their creator," or once again, he doesn't believe oppression really exists. Both are looney tune level nonsensical. Additionally, when talking about sin, he completely ignores the United States of America's original sin - kidnapping and enslavement of Africans and genocide of Indigenous Americans (and theft of their land). He also tries to align social justice with marxist communism, which elevates capitalism as a system. In other words, communism equals bad, and capitalism equals good. This is sinister because it means that he associates capitalism with Christianity in a very unsettling way. He makes them compatible and complementary, if not the same. In addition, anything American (U.S.) becomes entangled with Christianity. The result is that many in the "evangelical" community have a nationalistic religion. Their Christianity is really just Americanism in disguise, when the reality of the Bible and Gospel of Jesus the Christ does not neatly align with any economic system or government. The Gospel of Jesus is unique and therefore followers of Jesus should also be unique. Our loyalties shouldn't be tainted by systems and structures of this world, especially if they discriminate and create life consuming inequality.
The message that I hope I have conveyed to the author, the white "evangelical" world, and anyone who ascribes to this thinking is to stop lying on God! Actually read the Bible. Don't use it as a tool to describe discrimination and oppression as unreal, justify inequality, and explain away poverty. Realize that the Christianity you practice is actually disguised as a Conservative American Capitalist ideology. You love the status quo because it benefits you. An end to systemic racism, sexism, and inequality of all kinds makes you uncomfortable. It challenges who you have known yourself to be and your place in society. Just be honest with yourselves and the world.
(Note: In the past year before writing this piece, the Holy Spirit led me develop "The Bible and Social Justice" Bible Study Experience for the youth and young adults of Emmanuel Baptist Church, where I currently serve as Associate Pastor of Youth & Young Adults. Although our church and especially our youth and young adults were in no real danger of ascribing to this ideology, I wanted them to have the tools to evangelize an alternative vision to this white American capitalist ideology disguised as "evangelical" Christianity. I hope it continues to have an impact!)