Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Follow Up Thoughts on Public Policy and Pulpits

Well, it seems that with my earlier post I either touched on a topic that everyone has strong feelings about, or what I wrote made everyone think, "I've got to set this guy straight." Hey, that's what the internet is for, right?

Good comments, all. Going back over my little essay, I'm thinking there are a few points I want to clarify. Also, there was another little interesting exchange in one of our classes at church on Sunday that both illustrates what I was talking about, and provides fodder for more thought.


So, as is usual in cases like this, I'd like to go back to first principles. One of the things that the apostles wrote a lot about was the need for unity in the Church. And--as is necessary to secure that unity--Paul warned us to avoid disputes on questionable matters. Where differences of opinion exist, we are to avoid giving offense wherever possible, and--so long as it's not on a matter that could threaten someone's salvation--to let things slide. Examples of this from scripture include Romans 14:1 through 15:6, 1 Corinthians 3 and 6:1-8, pretty much the whole book of 1 John; and there are a bunch of other places besides.

This is absolutely crucial, because the Church is designed to hold people who are radically different from each other, who wouldn't normally associate with each other if it weren't for their religious fellowship. Consider that Jesus himself had, in his own hand-picked group of apostles, one guy known as Simon the Zealot. Now, the Zealots were religious Jewish radicals who were actively working toward rebellion against Roman rule, including through violent means. But Jesus also had as one of his apostles Matthew, the tax collector. The Romans would recruit tax collectors from among their subjugated peoples, including the Jews. Tax collectors would collect money from their countrymen, making their pay by collecting taxes above and beyond the share Rome demanded and pocketing the difference. These guys were, often with justification, widely regarded as parasites and traitors by their countrymen. Zealots hated them.

So you've got Simon the Zealot, and Matthew the tax collector, rubbing elbows within Jesus' inner circle. The Bible doesn't mention any political conversations around the apostles' dinner table, but boy, I bet it got interesting....

But this is precisely the point about unity! The church must be big enough to handle people who, outside of the church, would be diametrically opposed to each other. Christ died for the Army colonel, and the banker in pinstripes, and the university professor, and the hippie chick; and His church must be able to accommodate all of them, at the same time!

And the only way to make the tent that big, is to eliminate any restrictions, any commandments, any expectations beyond what the Lord asks of us. If a church starts to advocate any position beyond the mission that Christ gave it, it will eventually--inevitably--become something that needlessly drives people away. People have a hard enough time just living righteous lives according to what the scriptures define as righteous; when we start expecting more from people than this, it will only serve to drive out someone or another lurking near the edges--precisely the kinds of people we're supposed to be hanging onto the hardest.

This is the main reason that I feel my shields start going up whenever I start to hear politics or economics from the pulpit. Fact is, elections are divisive things. There are a lot of people who were absolutely overjoyed about the latest presidential election, and there are a lot of people who think it's an absolute disaster for our nation. And these people have to share a church. That is, they have to share a church if they hope to obey the will of God.


So, all that being said, here's why I dislike the term "Social Justice".

Within the Christian worldview as I understand it, Jesus expects me to take care of the sick, and the orphaned, and the widow, and the impoverished, and the imprisoned. And I see no evidence in scripture that Jesus is willing to let me off the hook by supporting any political program to take care of "the poor" for me. This isn't a task that I can delegate away; I am responsible for the people around me, and will be held accountable. It's a big task, and one that I don't particularly feel up to. Nevertheless, this is all a big part of the Christian mission.

Now, within the Marxist worldview, which has strongly influenced a big chunk of the pop political culture, all these problems that Jesus talked about--poverty, imprisonment, disease--are merely symptoms of underlying socioeconomic factors which are themselves driven by our fundamentally unjust economic and political systems. To the Marxist, the way to solve these problems is a wholesale reordering of our society; the elimination of private property in favor of collective ownership of the means of production; centralized government management of the economy, for the benefit of the people; elimination of gender roles; and the like. The Marxist tends to disdain charities, because they make the current unjust situation tolerable; it keeps the poor content enough to prevent them from rising up to overthrow the system, and it soothes the consciences of the wealthy and lets them think they're good people, when they're really the source of the problem in the first place.

Is there common ground between these two worldviews? Well, yes--a little. They both recognize the fact that there are needy people in the world, and they both demand that we do something about it. And when the Marxist claims that Jesus was in fact an early socialist, he points to these similarities, and says, "See! Jesus was for Social Justice. You Christians, if you really understood what Jesus was about, would be throwing your lot in with us."

The difference is that the action Jesus advocated was in no way a political program. Jesus explicitly said, "My kingdom is not of this world"; he didn't make any attempt to drive out the Romans, or to seize power; he never attempted to validate any other political group. His teachings were all about holy living, and our personal responsibility to one another.

I mentioned George Orwell's famous 1946 essay on politics and language in my post Sunday, and what Orwell was saying about catch-phrases and jargon applies very well here, too. The phrase "Social Justice" is exactly the kind of thing that Orwell was talking about. Fact is, no one knows quite what it means. Or, rather, it means different things to different people, depending on their political indoctrination. To some people, it includes Affirmative Action; to some people, it includes race reparations; to some people, it includes the abolition of private property; to some people, it means appointing judges of a certain activist bent. You might hear this term and think primarily of concern over poverty or lack of health care, and you might say, "Yes, I support Social Justice"; but the person listening to you may well hear something you absolutely did not intend to say.

Did Jesus support "Social Justice"? That depends entirely on what you mean by "Social Justice".

The trouble is that once people accept the term "Social Justice", this language itself tends to push us toward the political program of the Leftist. Once we have accepted that Jesus was all about Social Justice, then the Leftist starts saying things like, "Jesus told people to give money to the poor. Therefore, if you oppose wealth redistribution in our country, you're being un-Christlike," and "Jesus told us to take care of the sick. Therefore, if you oppose Socialized medicine, you're being un-Christlike," and "Jesus told us to take care of the orphans and the widows, so to be Christlike you must support these Welfare programs...." The sleight-of-hand here is of course that Jesus' commandment for us to take personal responsibility for the care of others, is being subverted to a political program. The very fact that we're using the term "Social Justice" to refer to both these things tends to obscure the difference between them in our minds.

As I suggested in Sunday's post, I think this has happened in many Protestant churches, and in many Catholic dioceses, to the point where the political mission has come to dominate all others. They've lost sight of their spiritual mission because they're so busy pursuing the political one.

And, as I said at the beginning of this essay, this is bad for Christian unity--not to mention, it's bad for the long-term health of the congregation. After all, there are people all across the political spectrum, with all kinds of views on economics; and Jesus died for all of them. When you have a church that has bought into the political "Social Justice" view of Jesus' teachings as I described above, it isn't going to be big enough to accomodate those whose political leanings lead them to reject the political advocacy. It will drive such people away--even when such people would be entirely receptive to Jesus actual teachings on personal responsibility for others.


Man, I had no idea this column would go this direction. I still haven't gotten to that little exchange from Sunday. Well, on the bright side, I still have fodder for another column. :)


Roger Z said...

Tim- this is an EXCELLENT post. And thanks for the insight on Matthew and Simon! I'll have to remember that one.

Now, allow me for a moment to play the devil's advocate. Someone- Jonah Goldberg, I think- once wrote that (and I'm paraphrasing, pardon the quotes) "the moment you put the adjective 'social' in front of a noun, the noun ceases to mean what it originally meant." He was referring to concepts like "social justice", "a people's history", and things like that. As I was reading this post of yours, it got me thinking about that quote... and then it got me thinking about a certain post of yours just a week ago about "social conservatism" too. Ahhhh, is the shoe on the other foot, thought I?


No, not really. Your post on social conservatism is very much a liberatarian post. In your conclusions, you don't allot a much larger role for social conservatism than you do for social justice: these are chiefly instruments of the private sphere and means to direct the order and continued function of society.

Yet I can't help but wonder two things: can you see, given your reaction to your pastor's comments on "social justice" how easily someone can react poorly to the concept of "social conservatism"? After all, it's not hard for those who don't think like you to see "social conservatism" as a force for ordering people via federal law to believe like you do (look at what you wrote about "social justice" for the corrolary). Secondly, I couldn't escape the feeling that in your post on social conservatism, you were dancing around the issue of the federal role in these cultural issues, particularly when you conclude "What he calls cultural wedge issues are rightly seen by SoCons as matters--literally--of life and death, both for our next generation, and for our entire society."

Thomas Frank's book did center on policy. Policy is at least a state issue, and often a federal issue. My question- does social conservatism have a legitimate place at the national level that social justice does not, or vice versa? Why?

I'm not writing this as an adversary, believe me. I just think there are some interesting things to consider in contrasting these two "social" matters.

Arby said...

Yes, but did you speak to your pastor about this issue? All the blogging in the world, as well written as it is, will not alleviate the need to address this prayerfully and thoughtfully with the man in the pulpit.

Crimson Wife said...

My mom belongs to one of the liberal Protestant denominations. At one point, she was president of the congregation women's group and therefore a member of the board.

One meeting was devoted to the topic of how the church could make itself more diverse. They discussed how to be more welcoming towards racial & ethnic minorities, low-income folks, singles, even homosexuals. But when my mom brought up reaching out to people who are theologically liberal but not politically liberal, there was opposition from the other board members. They wanted "diversity" when it came to certain things but conformity when it came to political beliefs.

I don't recall Christ having a political litmus test for his followers...

Timothy Power said...


You are, of course, absolutely right. So I have just sent a note to my pastor, explaining about what I've been writing here. I frankly don't know exactly what to expect in return, though he seems to be the kind of guy who loves to jump in and grapple with Big Ideas, so I'm hoping for the best.

Timothy Power said...

Roger Z,

OK, I've finally had the time to give your comment some thought. Hopefully I've given it enough. :-)

Yes, the term "Social Conservatism" has become a catch-phrase without clear definition, too; and I can certainly accept that for some people it's an Orwellian term, in that it's a euphemism used (sometimes intentionally) to obscure meaning.

In Orwell's view, the proper thing to do when presented with such a euphemism, is to demystify it, by figuring out--in plain, easy-to-understand English--just what it means. You bring those meanings out from the obscurity of jargon into open clarity; and then you can tell whether the argument being made has any sense to it.

I think, in both my posts, I was trying to do this. In the post on Social Conservatism, I was presenting either a definition or a description of the cultural phenomenon we label "Social Conservatism". I gave a broad description of the kinds of cultural values that are widely considered SoCon, and how they came to be considered "conservate" in the first place. I consider that post an attempt to demystify and explain the subject by going back to first principles.

And in this post, I'm trying to do something of the same about Social Justice: exploring what the euphemism really stands for. After all, the stakes are high: once people accept that Jesus stood for "Social Justice", you can get people to do whatever you convince them falls under the label. My attempt here is to provide some definitions; The term social justice is sometimes used to refer to these things and those things; Jesus encouraged the former, and ignored the latter.

As for your observation that I was dancing around the issue of the proper Federal role for Social Conservatism, you're absolutely right: I intentionally avoided that question in my post.

This is because there are different ways that Social conservatives express themselves politically. You mention Jonah Goldberg; I've read a fair amount of his stuff too, and I like the way he breaks the Conservative movement into "anti-left" versus "anti-state" factions. Well, there is a similar split in Social Conservatism; there are those who are fine with big government solutions, so long as they are intended to advance the values that SoCons advocate. I would put Huckabee--and even George W. Bush--into this camp. Then there are those like, well... most of the Fredheads out there. Most of us are socially conservative, but fairly libertarian; we don't trust government solutions, even when our guys run the place.

You ask, "Does social conservatism have a legitimate place at the national level that social justice does not, or vice versa? Why?" Well, in a perfect world, I think neither of these would have a legitimate place at the national level, by the principle of subsidiarity: all authority would be held by the lowest level of government inherently capable of performing the duty competently. The trouble is, often times our opponents pick the battlefield, and the issues get fought out at the Federal level whether we want them there or not.

Consider the issue of Abortion: it was once within the authority of the states to regulate, as one would expect after reading the 10th Amendment; and then seven guys in robes said that states could no longer do so. Most SoCons would prefer to fight the little political battles at the local and state level; but that's not where the legal battle is anymore, by court diktat. Since at least 1973, the SoCons have understood that unless we have a strong presence in Washington, contesting every Leftist initiative, eventually the Left will win by default and use Federal power to systematically undermine every institution and every value that we hold dear. After all, the Left has no problem with the idea of using government power to force its values on everyone else.

So while I would prefer that SoCons operate within Civil Society instead of through government channels, the fact is the Left often chooses Washington as the battlefield, and we have to stop them there, or resign ourselves to losing by default.

But I also believe that the true goal of the Social Conservative is a population that holds on to the character, the values, the Faith, the culture, and the discipline that made the nation great in the first place; and while these things can be undermined by unwise (or malicious) governance, they are not the kinds of things that government can create--not even by good government. Our primary battlefield is, and always shall be, Civil Society--the family, the church, the school, the scouts, the Lions club, the markets, MOPS, and even the local street corner and strip mall.


Does that answer your questions, Or am I going to have to do this all again tomorrow night? :-)

Goldman said...

Power, this is just fun and thoughtful. The exchange of ideas you're delving into is wonderful.

The term social justice is such a loaded term (and not a Biblical one). I'll try to be careful using terms that come loaded with political baggage. The concept of being a source for justice and mercy within any society or social structure is absolutely Biblical. That's why so many, I think, have utilized this term (and my rational personally).

Being part of a multi-ethnic church, these terms are received in radically different ways. Some say, "About time," while others say, "Enough already." The problem is our bias about the term (pro or con) cause some to miss the greater point: We have a collective responsibility and should have a collective conscience -- this is true. But, Christ's teachings are aimed not just at the community, but the individuals that make up the community.

In other words, our responsibility lies more in what "I" do than in what "WE" do. Many churches who go down the social justice path begin to focus on the "WE" and it has a tendency to absolve the individual of Godly living and just practices.

On the other hand, churches that have ignored the scriptural messages/teachings about justice in society, have bred numerous people who turn a blind eye to the injustice and oppression and rationalize away any responsibility at all: collective or otherwise.

As a preacher, I've been receiving numerous criticisms recently that are at odds with each other. One side petitions the leaders to encourage more open discussion about politics while the other say, "Mentioning Barak's election was over the line." It cracks me up because it let's me know something: Churches don't know how to handle this stuff so we typically leave it for the ultra-liberal churches.

I'm convinced that true conservative churches (those who believe in the authority of scripture without exception) need to be a voice in the justice and oppression conversation. Otherwise, all you're left with are conservatives who seem to have no conscience and liberals that seem to have no doctrine.

The church needs to have both voices strongly embedded within the conversation.

Now, to a personal note about Tim's comments that may seem critical of my preaching to some reading his blog: I assure you it's not. Tim is a great supporter and part of my family. However, Tim has done me a great favor which I want to comment on.

I have been accused or portrayed in many ways over the last 20 years of ministry. Never, and I mean never, has anyone with real thought called me down for being too strong on the topic of social justice. I can't wait to send these comments to some of my critics from the left side of the pulpit. I will claim to have made enough strides to retreat back into my comfort zone of doctrine and dogma while announcing victory to those who have said I'm too much about "word" and not enough about "action." (Please read this understanding my great love for sarcasm and wit!)

Tim, thanks again and I am having a great time. By the way, my banks won't celebrate Jubilee and forgive all my debts. So, I'm looking for friends who would love to just pay them off for me. I was surprised when Obama's administration didn't pay my mortgage off or send me a check in the mail, so I'm a bit at a loss. Anyone want to help?

In Him, Goldman

Roger Z said...

Tim- that was a great answer, thanks! And I'm still digesting your latest post, there were some very powerful observations in it (it's just too early on a Saturday morning to fully take it in yet :) ).

Lately I've started thinking that there is a solid majority in this country that prefers no federal action on social issues. But you are exactly right that neither side gets to pick the battlefield the other side chooses. You mentioned abortion, there was also welfare back in the 1990s. On the conservative side (to be fair), I think the Terry Schiavo case was a bridge too far, and generally that "majority" I'm referring to would be deeply troubled by a federal law prohibiting gay marriage (though many of these same folks might support it at the state level).

I don't think they mind "defensive" actions at the federal level though. And, of course, the gaping problem if this is true, is that there really are times when the federal government needs to intervene on cultural issues to solve terrible problems- like segregation in the 1950s. So occasionally it's not enough to say "let the states decide." The problem is where to draw that line. Obviously, socons and soju's disagree about that. Generally these things get resolved in democracy by the median voter, who sways around like Flora from South Park- indecisive, unsure, tentative, driving the true believers nuts, year in, year out. :)