August 1, 2014

Unveiling IRD’s Symposium on Social Justice

“Social justice” advocacy in the churches typically means attaching the Gospel to political causes of the Left: big government, swelling welfare and entitlement state, draconian solutions for apocalyptic environmental warnings, hostility to free markets and private property, anti-Americanism, anti-military, anti-Israel, pacifism, faith in international governance, and a liberationist narrative that conflates Christian salvation with building a socialist utopia.

Enough already! None of these causes, if pursued, actually advances genuine social justice from a traditional Christian perspective. Yet the social justice theme largely has been captured and reinterpreted by secularists and theological revisionists relying mostly on secular academia instead of the rich ethical heritage of the historic church. This false notion of social justice operates without a firm Christian anthropology and typically denies the chief obstacle to true social justice, which is that humanity is sinful and needs divine redemption.

Christians and churches definitely should advocate social justice in the sense that ever sinful society needs constant moral reform. The church’s chief tool in this advocacy is the Gospel itself. Redeemed humanity is likelier to care about justice than unregenerate humanity. But even the redeemed need an ethical framework for social renewal. And even the non-redeemed can be enlisted in good causes with appeals to conscience, natural law and self-interest.

How should Christians advocate an effectual social justice rooted in Gospel and natural law? IRD’s mostly young staff and writers will address this theme over the coming weeks. According to a media barrage, millennial Christians have mostly rejected traditional conservative Christian advocacy of earlier generations. Many, especially elites, have gravitated leftward, accepting the equation of social justice with endless statism.

Blogs from IRD will seek to inform Christian Millennials and others that they need not reject the old paradigm of the Moral Majority or Christian Coalition by jumping aboard the latest liberal crusade from Jim Wallis’ slightly updated 1960s style Sojourners brand of protest politics. Christian political witness shouldn’t rely on fads or political triangulation, instead it should modestly attempt to uplift society incrementally through practical reforms that Christians and others of good will can embrace.

A valid Christian political witness for social justice starts with the premise that all persons are created in God’s image. It also understands that the state is not the church but has a very different vocation, having been divinely ordained primarily to uphold order and restrain the wicked. Social justice should not equate all societal improvement with legislation, regulation and other coercive state action.

Instead, Christian social justice understands that most of society is not the state and includes a wide assortment of important actors, including the family, the church, other religions, businesses, philanthropies and charities, trade associations, civic groups and other human groupings, each of which ideally contributes to human order and happiness.

Social justice seeks especially to protect the vulnerable, including the very young, the very old, the unborn, the terminally ill, the disabled, the poor and the unpopular. Social justice also seeks to energize the able and the powerful towards virtue, thrift and industry. It shouldn’t seek to deconstruct but to build. Social justice must also safeguard essential liberties rooted in human dignity and God’s character such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection of property.

True social justice knows that humanity is both fallen and complicated, often needing threats and incentives to pursue what is right for all and not just the self. Social justice is concerned about unintended consequences and lasting reform, not posturing, sentiment, or arbitrary power grabs.

Social justice advocacy should be modest, understanding that Christianity does not offer comprehensive political solutions demanding universal adherence. And authentic social justice premised on the church’s moral heritage posits a hierarchy of teachings that don’t assert the moral equality of all policy goals. Protecting unborn humans is more morally urgent than recycling, for example.

Social justice advocacy shouldn’t offer a dogmatic check list of what Jim Wallis presumptuously once labelled “God’s Politics.” Instead, it should be an intricately woven tapestry that applies the teachings of the ages to constantly shifting social needs in different cultures and places.

So, stay tuned for IRD’s impending blog symposium on social justice!

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