Category Archives: social justice

Social Conflict, Original Sin, and the Libertarian Ideal

I’ve been in a reflective mood lately, quietly observing the commotion taking place around me as if I were a visitor from another planet moving unnoticed through the frenzied crowds. I’ve watched the news, read the morning newspaper, and lurked on social media as if I were sifting through ancient documents hoping to make sense of bygone era. The question that guides my search is this: What is the passion that animates contemporary society, the unexamined, deep-down belief shared by nearly all people? What is the ideal that gives meaning to modern social movements and counter-movements and drives people into the streets or into voting booths?

The Freedom Ideal

I’ve concluded that the bedrock belief that excites modern people into action is this: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. For modern people, herein lies true human dignity. Any restraint on this right and power limits freedom and hence slights dignity. And since we desire and act for our happiness, any restraint on our freedom also limits our happiness. I think analysis would reveal that this belief drives all modern social change and resistance to social change. As an ethical ideal, it goes almost unchallenged in our culture. Rhetorical appeals to freedom resonate powerfully in the modern soul. And any rhetoric that seems to restrict freedom will be rejected as reactionary and evil.

The Grand Arbiter

Of course, everyone realizes that civilization would be impossible without limits on freedom. One person’s desires and actions inevitably conflict with those of others. This conflict gives rise to another type of rhetoric, the rhetoric of civilization. The rhetoric of civilization calls for limits on freedom for the sake of freedom. Notice that even the rhetoric of civilization appeals to the modern ideal of freedom. So, I think I am correct to contend that for the modern person the ideal of freedom is basic and civilization is a means to that end.

Hence the major function of the modern state—supposedly a neutral and impersonal arbiter—is to harmonize the completing desires and actions of those who live within it. Each person, as a center of unlimited freedom, is by definition a competitor of every other person. Other people are limits or means to my freedom, dignity, and happiness. And everyone looks to the state to resolve conflict.

But of course the state is not a neutral and impersonal arbiter. It’s not a justice machine that always finds the perfect balance between freedom and freedom. The ideal of civilization is always embodied in a particular government and governments are staffed by politicians. And modern politicians get elected by promising to expand or protect freedom. That is to say, modern political rhetoric appeals either to the ideal of freedom or the ideal of civilization as means of persuasion. On the one hand, everyone wants maximum freedom for themselves and responds positively to promises of expanded liberty. But, when people come to think their freedom is being restricted by the actions of others, they respond appreciatively to the rhetoric of civilization.

Social Conflict

The conflicts we are experiencing today in society among various parties and interest groups are nothing but manifestations of the false and unworkable belief at the root of modern culture: True Freedom is the right and power to will and do as one pleases. Each party jockeys for the political influence necessary to draw the line between freedom and freedom favorably to their own desires. And each uses as occasion demands the rhetoric of freedom or the rhetoric of civilization to persuade public opinion. We can see clearly why it is unworkable. But why is it false and how did our civilization come to accept a false and unworkable ideal?

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin was one of the first orthodox Christian doctrines rejected by architects of the 17th century Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summarized the Enlightenment attitude when he proclaimed, “Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart….”(Emile or On Education, 1762). It’s not difficult to see why the Enlightenment had to reject the doctrine of original sin. It contradicted its understanding of freedom as the right and power to will and do as one pleases.

What, then, is the Christian doctrine of original sin? I cannot explain the whole story at this time but here is what it says about human capacity: Human beings are born into this world desiring, seeking, willing, and determined to pursue what they perceive as their private interest in ignorance and defiance of the truly good and right. You can see why the Christian doctrine of original sin offends modern sensibilities. It implies that even if human beings possessed the right and power to do as they please—which they do not—they still would not possess true freedom. According to the New Testament, you are not free in the truest sense unless you are free from the sinful impulse to will only your private interests. The doctrine of original sin asserts that our free will needs freeing from wrong desires and for the truly good and right. And we can acquire this freedom only as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now let me bring this essay to a sharply pointed conclusion. For 300 years our culture has been animated by a false definition of freedom taken as the highest ideal of human life. From a Christian point of view, the modern definition of freedom is false because it claims falsely to be the true and highest form of freedom. But Christianity asserts that there is a higher freedom, freedom from the innate impulse to pursue one’s selfish interests as the highest motive for action. And here is the sharpest point of the sword: judged by the Christian understanding of freedom, the modern ideal of freedom—the right and power to will and do as one pleases—comes very close to the definition of original sin! Ironically, in its denial of the doctrine of original sin, the Enlightenment made the fact of original sin its ideal and animating principle. As the Apostle Paul, Augustine, and many other theologians observed, sin is often punished with more sin.

 

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La Résistance

French Résistance

During World War II, the city of Lyon was part of Vichy France (1940-1944) and a center of resistance against French collaboration and NAZI occupation.  On a recent trip to that beautiful and historic city I heard a talk by one of the few living members of the French resistance movement. As a young man, this gentleman was tasked with smuggling weapons past the German soldiers guarding the transportation systems. I was amazed at his stories of defiance, death, and heroism. He has received many honors from his grateful nation for his service. But if you described the actions of the French Résistance, which included theft, assassination, and sabotage, but changed its name and names of its opponents you would think you were learning about a terrorist organization. We so readily admire defiance and resistance when they directed against what we think is an unjust power. Hence it seems that our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on whom it is resisting and to what end.

American Resistance

In contemporary American society we hear much in the media about “The Resistance” movement; or perhaps it’s better described as a “mood.” It’s a mood of defiance and resistance to the current administration, which it pictures as an unjust power in analogy to the opponent fought by the French Résistance. And no doubt its name was chosen for its resonance with that heroic French movement. Resistance and defiance appear honorable and heroic—even when they involve violence, destruction, and hatred—as long as they are directed at the supposed evil and injustice of a greater power. To repeat the principle stated above, our attitude toward “the resistance” depends on the power toward which its opposition is directed and to what end. If you think your cause is just and your opponent’s is evil, you can justify whatever means necessary to succeed at resistance.

Ancient philosophy taught that only “like knows like.” And common sense tells us that only physical forces resist physical forces. Resistance, then, must be of like nature to the thing resisted. The French resistance movement resisted the occupying military and police power with physical force of like nature. The American “resistance” movement resists political power with political power, namely with protest, mobilization, and sometimes violence. To define it crudely but accurately, political power is the legal right to use military and police force to enforce the will of its possessor. It is understandable that people would become distressed when military and police power falls into the hands of their enemies. But we must understand that la résistance whether it has justice on its side or not always meets its enemy with the weapons of its enemy.

Kingdom Resistance

The City of Lyon was founded in 43 B.C. as a military outpost of the Roman Empire. Two centuries later, in 177 A.D, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius instigated a vigorous persecution against the Christian community in Lyon in which its bishop Pothinus was martyred. In 178, Ireneaus (130-200 A.D.) became bishop of the church in Lyon and, in executing the duties of his office, became one of the most influential writers the church has produced. The cause for which Pothinus gave his life and Ireneaus labored exists throughout world today while Marcus Aurelius’ Empire has long since collapsed. Ever since the arrival of Christianity Lyon has been a center of another kind of résistance.

In the New Testament, Christianity is often described in terms that resemble an ideology for resistance, and the church is pictured as a subversive community. However the power we are urged to resist, the means we must use, the type of community we form, and the ends we aim to achieve differ radically from those of the resistance movements discussed above. James, John, Peter, and Paul agree on this:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

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 (Eph. 6:11-12).

The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).

According to the New Testament, our real enemy is not the empire, the current administration, evil corporations, your boss, the opposing political party, the guy who cut you off in traffic, or your abusive neighbor. Our real enemies are sin, death, and the devil. And sin is the central player, because death is but the final outcome of sin and the devil needs sinners to do his work. Jesus is the leader of the real Résistance; for he came to “destroy the devil’s work.” And what is the “devil’s work”? The devil’s work is the hatred, selfishness, envy, jealously, rage, cursing, greed, falsehood, idolatry, lust, and fear that dwell in human hearts not yet touched by Jesus and the Spirit he promised. And how does Jesus destroy it? Jesus and his community resist the devil by returning good for evil and love for hate. His resistance strategy takes the form of resisting the urge to resist power with power, violence with violence, lies with lies, and greed with greed; that is, Jesus breaks the cycle of “like knows like” and shows us how to overcome evil with good.

The church is the Résistance that maintains no army, the kingdom that needs no guns, and the community whose cohesion needs no enemies. It desires no police power and collects no taxes. It invites everyone but forces no one. Its soldiers use only the weapons of truth, faith, love, the Spirit, and the Word of God. It gives life and never takes it. Jesus’ people are willing to suffer but not willing to inflict suffering on others.

In an age of resistance perhaps we should be even more wary of taking the putative justness of our cause as justification for using the means of the enemy against the enemy. Thoughtless resistance to an enemy of “flesh and blood” on earth always involves collaboration with the spiritual adversary “in the heavenly realms.”

Note: The picture above is of the Church of Saint Ireneaus in Lyon, France.

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).

Social Justice and the American Prophet

The issue of social justice remains the hottest topic I’ve ever written about on this blog. My essay, “On the Difference between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice,” written two years ago, still receives more hits per week than any other essay. So, I’m going to address the topic again from a new perspective.

American Christianity has a long tradition of producing social reformers, social ethicists, and public theologians. These individuals are often seen as carrying on the tradition of such Old Testament prophets as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. They speak to the general population and their leaders, that is, to the whole nation, as if America had inherited the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. They demand justice for the poor, for minorities, for women, for gay people, for transgender people, and for every other oppressed group. And they often root their demands in the biblical vision of justice and community. And this prophetic persona is not limited to left-leaning personalities. Others, right-leaning prophets, take up the mantle of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and call for repentance from immorality and idolatry. This phenomenon is not limited to high profile preachers, professors, and nonprofit CEOs. With the advent of social media, every Tom, Dick, and Susan can become a prophet to the nation. Of course no one listens to Facebook prophets; no one cares and no one changes.

As venerable and as American as this “prophetic” tradition is, it is based on a false premise. There are no American prophets, and there never have been. And the reason is simple. God has not made a covenant with America or any other nation or nation-state to be his people. The Old Testament prophets were sent by God to challenge God’s covenant people to repent of their unfaithfulness to the covenant. The prophetic ministry presupposes a divine covenant and its binding responsibilities. Apart from a covenant, a prophet is without authority; she or he is just another political advocate. The covenant nation was a failure. The only divine covenant in force today is the New Covenant Jesus sealed with his blood. The new covenant people is not composed of one ethnic group, or of the people living within the borders of one nation state, or even of all humankind. You cannot enter it through birth or the social contract. You enter by faith and baptism into Jesus Christ and in so doing you place yourself under the sole Lordship of Jesus. Prophets have authority only as they speak on the basis of the New Covenant to the New Covenant people, the church. The death and resurrection of Jesus marked the end of divine covenants with nations. There are no state churches or church states! And there are no national prophets!

Does Christianity have a message for the people of America or for the world? Yes. But it must be spoken by a different persona, the evangelist! The message to those outside of God’s covenant people is “Repent and believe the Gospel.” To speak prophetically to people outside the new covenant deceives them into thinking that as long as they believe in whatever social reform is being advocated, they don’t need to repent of idolatry and immorality and become Jesus’ disciples. They are deceived into thinking that political power can accomplish as much good as the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; that they don’t need to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2), that they don’t need to “live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), that they don’t need the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38),  that they don’t need to worry that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4), and that they don’t need divine mercy and forgiveness.

If you find yourself wanting to be a prophet to America (or Canada or Germany or any other nation), if the state of things outrages you, be careful lest you substitute a political message for the gospel and a superficial call for social change for radical conversion to Jesus. Don’t mistake anger and personal offence for passion for justice. Don’t mistake insults, judgments, and self-righteousness for prophetic inspiration. Don’t take Amos or Elijah as your model. Their day has come and gone. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Live it and preach it. If you aim to live as a disciple of Jesus your life will have an inadvertent prophet effect. The light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Is it Okay for Good People to Hate Really Bad People?

I’ve known preachers to preach the same sermon twice within a short period, short enough that the rerun sounded very familiar. When asked why they preached the sermon again, the preacher may well reply, “You’ve not yet repented of the sin I preached against last time.” Well, that is what I am doing in this post. Since January 20th, 2017 (Let the reader understand.), I’ve heard brothers and sisters who in other settings seemed to be peacemaking and loving disciples of Jesus erupt in anger, use abusive speech, and melt in despair over what they describe as the dawning of a new Dark Age. This new era is characterized, they say, by hatred of the poor, weak, and wounded. So, these good people are angry.

I am not writing to dispute those who believe we’ve regressed to an age of barbarism. For argument’s sake I grant it. And I’m not addressing those who don’t claim to be disciples of Jesus. They don’t know better. My argument is with those Christian people who act and speak as though they believe this new situation requires that they “fight fire with fire.” I want to remind us that Jesus fought the world-dominating powers with suffering and death on a cross. Is it right then for his would-be disciples to react to unrighteous anger in what they think is righteous anger, to reply to unjust hatred with just hatred. Righteous anger? Just hatred? What absurd notions! Can there be such a thing as twisted straightness or peaceful violence or unhappy joy? Those are the thoughts of Saul of Tarsus as he persecuted the church and of Torquemada as he tortured the Jews of Spain. Saul didn’t realize that those who persecute “blasphemers” thereby become blasphemers, and it never entered Torquemada’s mind that those who torture “heretics” thereby make themselves into heretics. In exactly the same way, if we hate those we think hate the poor, weak, and wounded, we transform ourselves into haters.

So, I want to reblog a post from last year (“The Logic of Hate”) to encourage us…

to bless when cursed

to overcome evil with good

and

to believe in the power of a cross-shaped life.

 

“The Logic of Hate

Hate, hate, and more hate! Hate crimes! Hate speech! Hate looks! Hate thoughts! Television commentators, college administrators, columnists, political pundits, and political officials have a lot to say these days about hatred. However, as far as I can discern very little of it is grounded in any serious moral philosophy, much less in a thoughtful application of the original and most radical prohibition against hatred and hate speech, that is, Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. So, as we continue our thoughts about the Christian way of life let’s think carefully about hatred.

Keep in mind Jesus’ words from Matthew, Chapter 5, as we think about hate and hate speech:

 

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell…“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:21-22; 43-48).

 

Who is My Enemy?

In verses 21-22, Jesus deals with what our culture calls hate, hate crimes, and hate speech. Most murderers are motivated by hatred, and Jesus addresses the motive as well as the act. But he makes a surprising move. Rather than saying “Don’t hate your brother or sister” he says “Don’t be angry” with them. We might make a plausible denial of hatred but we can hardly deny that we get angry with others. Jesus severely condemns even mild insults like “raca,” which means something like “idiot!”  And he warns that calling someone a “fool” places one in danger of divine judgment.

In verses 43-48, Jesus speaks about hate and love. It is human nature to think we can love some people and hate others. But Jesus teaches that it is never permissible to hate. Who is your enemy? The enemy is here defined relatively. Your enemy is anyone you think wishes you harm or refuses to give what you think you are due. Of course, the person you think wishes you harm or will not give you what you think you deserve may not actually wish you harm or intentionally withhold what you are due. But that makes no difference. Whatever the truth of the matter, Jesus commands that we love our enemies.

 

What is Hate?

What is hate? Let’s begin where Jesus began, with anger. Anger is an emotional response to insult.  In anger we desire revenge for the disrespect others show us. Anger feels a lot like fear, and sometimes it accompanies it. But they are not the same emotion. Fear precedes and anger follows a damaging act. We fear something that threatens to harm us. When we suddenly feel that we might fall from a great height or when a huge dog charges us, teeth bared, we become afraid. But when a human being moves to harm us the threat is accompanied by a sense of outrage. Human beings know they ought to respect our dignity.

If we think we have been insulted repeatedly by a person or if we can’t get a past insult out of our minds, anger becomes habitual. In a moment of anger we desire revenge, but hatred, as constant desire for revenge, becomes obsessed with imagining and plotting ways to get even. Hatred is anger that has taken root and come to dominate other motives. In its poisonous imagination it magnifies, distorts, and deepens the insult to the point that taking revenge becomes a sacred duty to oneself…and sometimes a duty to God. For the person consumed by hatred, taking revenge feels like the only way to find release from self-destructive emotions.

 

Jesus and Your Enemy

But Jesus says to love your enemy. And your enemy is anyone you think wishes you ill. And to wish someone ill is to hate them. Your enemy is the one you think hates you. Now don’t miss this: the “enemy” Jesus says to love is precisely the person you think hates you, that is, the hater. Jesus warns us not to insult anyone, not even the one who hates. But in contemporary culture it has become acceptable to target people who “hate” us and others as long as we think their hatred arises from irrational prejudices. Such “haters” deserve anger and insult from “good” people, that is, the non-haters. Labeling “haters” with insulting and damning names and pronouncing severe judgments on them is a duty, rational, holy, and good. The logic of hatred is subtle indeed! For it was precisely this logic that Jesus exposed when he rejected the rule “Love your neighbor but hate your enemy.”  The enemies you are duty bound to love are the irrational haters. There is no other kind! And if we rage in anger and hurl insults at those people, we have become “irrational haters” ourselves. The logic of hatred is this: You are like what you hate! Jesus’ answer is this: “Love your enemies.”

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Two Roads to Happiness—One Broad, the Other Narrow

It may seem that I have strayed from my theme for this year, which is “love not the world” (1 John 2:15-17). So it may appear, but it’s never been far from my mind. Living a Christian life can be summed up as loving God in every word, thought, and deed and refusing to love the world. You cannot live the Christian life unless you keep ever before you the difference between these two loves. This task is not easy, because “the world” is the dominant way human beings order their lives. That’s why it’s called “the world.” It’s the majority, which enters the “wide gate” and travels the “broad road” (Matthew 7:13). It’s the way of the rulers and powers of this world (Ephesians 2:1-3). It’s the easy way, the downhill road.  You just follow your lusts, do what everyone else does, approve of what they approve, dislike what they dislike, and love what they love. But to be a Christian, to love the Father, you must break loose from the world and squeeze through the “small gate” and travel with Jesus and the “few” on the “narrow road” (Matthew 7:14).

We deceive ourselves if we think that Jesus’ warning about the “broad road” and John’s assessment of his society and culture do not apply to our age. To the contrary, we live in “the world,” and despite superficial differences, our society follows the ways of the world just as thoroughly as first-century society did. And we are just as tempted to love the world as our first-century brothers and sisters were.

Perhaps the most deceptive value that orders society today is freedom. Even cries for justice and equality can be reduced to demands for freedom. Equality largely means “equal freedom,” and justice means primarily equality, which again means equal freedom. But freedom itself remains largely undefined, because everyone thinks they know what it means. They assume without thinking that freedom means the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness understood as a subjective feeling. Hidden in this definition is the idea that happiness can never be achieved as long as one endures any condition that is not desired. The worst thing you can do to anyone is deprive them of their freedom, which is the same as making them unhappy. And to make someone unhappy is to deprive them of their reason for living, which is psychological murder.

Why is this understanding of freedom a problem? What makes it worldly? And what makes it deceptive? If we defined freedom simply as “the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness,” we could fit the Christian understanding of freedom within it. For the Christian faith, there are powers and conditions that block our way to ultimate happiness, and God is the only power that can free us from those hindrances. And possessing and being possessed by God is the only condition under which human beings can find true joy. But modern society’s view of happiness and how it must be achieved differs dramatically from the Christian understanding. As I pointed out above, contemporary culture thinks happiness can be attained by breaking free from every limit that prevents us from following our desires. Both freedom and happiness are achieved by our own power, freedom by self-assertion and happiness by self-indulgence. As you can see clearly, modern worldly people put the human self in God’s place. In the Christian view, God is the basis of both freedom and happiness. But the way of the world seeks freedom and happiness through its own power. Hence the contemporary world, just like the first-century world, finds its power for freedom and its way to happiness in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Nothing has changed.

Is Protesting for Justice a Christian Act?

Yesterday and today many of my Christian friends, my dear friends, proudly shared selfies of themselves in the streets of Los Angeles protesting for “justice.” I was troubled, not by their choice of causes, but by their untroubled confidence that protest is a noble and Christian thing to do. Hence this afternoon I ask you not whether the cause for which they protested is just but whether protest as an act is a Christian thing to do.

It seems that many good people allow their belief in the rightness of a cause to blind them to the moral ambiguity of the means of supporting it. Protesting, marching, and demonstrating become inherently noble things to do. But are they? What is an act of protest? It is at least an act of speech that includes symbolic actions meant to express aggrieved feelings and convey a message of strong disapproval and anger. It is not a mutually agreed upon dialogue or debate in which one presents one’s reasoned arguments. It presupposes, rather, that dialogue and reasoned argument have been abandoned. By its very nature protest interrupts others and demands that they stop speaking and listen. Protest by its very form embodies a threat of disorder, for it is an act meant to display and exert power, conducted outside the usual political process.  My question is this: Is this form of speech and action a Christian way of speaking and acting when confronted by what one believes is injustice? Ought we not at least ask this question?

In view of these events, I am reblogging today an essay I wrote in 2016. Here is the paragraph in that post that convinced me that I should reblog it:

“Justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.

 

“On the Difference Between Seeking Justice and Doing Justice”

(Originally Posted January 1, 2016)

 In a time of increasing emphasis on justice ministry (a.k.a. social justice) in evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries, perhaps we ought to reflect on the difference between seeking justice and doing justice. On almost every occasion in which the Old Testament uses the expression “seek justice” it  refers to seeking justice for others, for “the fatherless” or the “poor” (Isa 1:17 and Jer 5:28). Quite often these instructions are given to people in authority or with social status enough to advocate for others. A king, for example, should “seek justice” for all the people (Isa 16:5). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). Micah informs us of what the Lord requires: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). But neither the Old nor New Testament tells us to “seek justice” for ourselves. Advocating for the legitimate rights of others is counted a virtuous act. But seeking it for yourself is at best ambiguous; it is not condemned but neither is it praised.

Oversimplifying matters a bit, I see three different modes of enacting justice in the Bible: (1) seeking justice for the powerless against unjust powers; (2) seeking justice for yourself in matters where you believe you have been treated unfairly; and (3) acting justly in all your own relationships with others. Let’s discuss them one at a time.

Seeking Justice for Others

To engage in this mode of justice you must possess some qualities the oppressed do not possess. You cannot be powerless and oppressed yourself. You have to possess power or you cannot help those without it. And you cannot be a member of the oppressed group or you would not be seeking justice for others but for yourself. You cannot seek justice for the poor if you are poor or the vulnerable fatherless if you are vulnerable and fatherless. This distinction between those who have status to seek justice for others and those for whom they seek it makes the activity seeking justice morally ambiguous.

True, all good deeds are morally ambiguous because the moment we recognize the goodness of our actions we become proud of our goodness. And pride is wrong. But seeking justice for others adds another dimension. We must distinguish ourselves from those we aim to help. We have power, wealth, and status, and they don’t. Hence our compassion for the victim can easily transform into relief that we are not victims, not poor, not powerless. A root of distain is given life.

Additionally, it is easy to forget the people we were trying to help and get caught up in the noble, heroic cause of justice and the feelings of self-importance it engenders. It is often said these days that giving “charity” to the needy offends against their dignity but seeking justice for them affirms that dignity. But as you can see from the analysis above, seeking justice also distinguishes between those who have power, wealth, and status and those who do not. Seeking justice makes plenty of room for a condescending attitude on the part of the justice seeker. It would be ironic indeed if in seeking justice we grow to despise the very ones for whom we seek it.

One more irony: justice seekers often attempt to awaken and mobilize the oppressed to resent and hate their oppressors. We make seeking justice for oneself a holy task, a moral obligation, and a virtuous act. In so doing, justice seekers remake the oppressed in the image of their oppressors. It is an infallible dialectical rule that we become like what we hate.

Seeking Justice for Yourself

Seeking justice for yourself is not a noble or virtuous act. It’s normal and spontaneous indeed, but we have no duty to make sure other people treat us fairly. We have a highly developed and finely nuanced power of detecting injustice when it is done to us. But we are notoriously bad at judging our own cause. Who feels that life treats them with perfect fairness? Does anyone feel like they get enough recognition or are paid enough for their work? Who is happy with a B+ when you know you deserve an A? Every 6-year old child says, “No fair” at least 5 times a day. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to discourage or even condemn seeking justice for yourself. It’s too easy to clothe envy and selfishness in the purple cloak of justice. No one is qualified to be their own judge. We need an objective standard and an impartial judge. I addressed the need for an objective standard for justice in my post of November 28, 2015 (“No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours”):

Human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Doing Justice

Doing justice is at the heart of the issue. Seeming to seek justice for others does not require that you give up your supposed rights and privileges. You can seek justice for others for less than noble reasons and you can remain deeply self-centered while doing it. But doing justice is an altogether different matter. I do justice when I submit all my actions in relation to God and others to the test of the right. Doing justice requires that I renounce all self-judgment and reject all actions that privilege my desires, my supposed rights, over others. We do justice when we do the right thing whether it is in harmony with our interests or not. The foundation for doing justice is loving justice more than you love yourself.

How can we claim to seek justice for others when we don’t do justice ourselves? And how can we seek true justice for ourselves when we turn a blind eye to the injustice we do to others? Perhaps, if we will concentrate our hearts on doing justice in all our acts, we will be better able to seek justice for others. And if we focus on doing justice we might not be so insistent on seeking justice for ourselves.