Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought

It’s an intentionally provocative title, so let me clarify what is and isn’t meant. But first let me say that this post will not explore in any great detail the relationship between the Church and the state, though such talk will nonetheless be inescapable. I will not here entertain acceptance of or defend against various charges of various church groups (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) such things as caesaropapism, erastianism, or theocracy. I am vary narrowly focused on one particular thought, a thought that animates much of mainline U.S. Protestant Christianity (and, because they apparently don’t want to be left out, is animating more and more of evangelical U.S. Protestant Christianity) as well as quite a swath of U. S. Roman Catholic activists. And because I am so very narrowly focused, it is crucial that I state what I mean by “social justice.”

By what is meant I’m referring to that sort of thinking which seeks, as its immediate end, the alteration of political (and also social, usually the social by way of the political) structures and processes toward some proximate end (alleviation of poverty, race/gender/sexual orientation equity and political rights or advantages, etc.) by primarily social and political means (demonstrations, “community development” [euphemistically so called, but really mass political organizing], voter campaigns, editorials and other media utilization, etc.). By what is not meant are such activities as homeless shelters, free health clinics, manning soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing drives, sewing shrouds for deceased babies, etc. Now there can be overlap between the two, especially when some of these outreach locations are used for political organizing, or when backers of the latter efforts form PACs or lobby government to achieve former ends. But generally the distinctions are quite clear: on the one hand is the use of political means for political ends (ostensibly for the alleviation of human ills); while on the other hand are the use of social (here more often personal) means for the alleviation of human ills.

And it is precisely on this divide of endpoints that social justice is not a category of ecclesial thought.

The primary failure of “social justice,” in Christian terms, is that it invokes the heresy of chiliasm and preaches a different providence than that of the Father. Social justice teaches its adherents, both directly in its stated aims and goals and indirectly in its acts and methods, to put their trust in human political structures. Prayer vigils may be held, but these usually turn out to be public demonstrating for the political cause, bastardizing the primary form of prayer our Lord taught us, which is one of the closet. But even such prayer vigils are shaped by the notion that it is the state (local, state and/or federal) to whom we should turn for the redress of wrongs. Gone is any real faith in God to put kings on thrones (and presidents in office). Gone is any real faith in the justice of God and in his timing. Gone is any patience and willingness to wait on the Lord. No, such faith and patience is ridiculed as “passivity,” “collusion”, and “fatalism,” and, ironically, less “Christian” than putting one’s faith in the government to redress wrongs. We want justice, Lord, and we want it now. We can’t wait for Thee.

The problem with this social justice is that it also seeks not the salvation of the offender’s soul, but, rather, his civil remediation. Or, as is more usually the case, since social justice is more often simply Marxist economic and class warfare dressed up in Christian terminology, what is sought is the civic advantage of one group over another, or, if that is not attainable, the civic disadvantage of the majority or empowered group. We can’t take away the beemers from the yuppies, but we can tax them to high heaven and give their income to the poor as tax “refunds” on taxes such poor have never paid. This social justice preaches and teaches to its adherents that the Kingdom is of this earth and manifests itself in mammon.

More could be said, but this is sufficient to demonstrate, I believe, not only that the category “social justice” is not a category of Church thought, but is, more insidiously in fact, opposed to it.

Had we Christians in North America (or at least most of us) not lost sight of the life of the Church narrated in its history, had we not lost our faith in God, we would have seen, and known, that a single prayer can topple kings from their thrones, that the faith of a child can hold back the rapine, plunder and savage evil of the invading force (or turn it back once it had been unleashed). We would have known that it is not in pharmaceutical companies coerced by the state but in the grace of God and the faith and prayers of his people, and in his Sacraments, that diseases have been kept at bay and turned back, that the dead have been raised–and that true healing is not found in this present life of mortal flesh.

The saints of God were no less active against these human ills than today’s social justice activists. The difference is in Whom they put their trust, and in the means they sought to alleviate those ills: Christian charity on the personal level, prayer, the Sacraments, and so forth. Did Christians seek treasure from kings for service to the poor? Indeed, they did. We are not denigrating every tactic of social justice adherents. But the difference is that the saints who sought such treasure did not lobby the king, but went, armed with prayer not legal representation, often into the face of death, to seek it directly.

We, of course, have different political structures here in the West, democratic in various forms. And there is nothing unChristian about seeking the assistance of the state in alleviating various ills. Indeed, if Christians want to organize a hospital or shelter, there is no escaping such on the local level. But if Christians are spending more time in politics than they are in prayer, or if their anxieties rise and fall on various political fortunes, then they may find themselves far from the mind of the Church and its life.

For them is a great need to enroll in the school of God’s providence. And such a school is not taught from books, although one can see testimony of it from the Scripture and the lives of the Saints. Rather, such providence is taught in the living of it. And no political structure will grant that.

4 thoughts on “Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought

  1. Seraphim,
    I have been reading your posts for some time now and have enjoyed your challenging thoughts. However, these last two posts have been exceptionally challenging, deep, and well thought out. I wanted to thank you for the time you have put into this for your readers’ benefit.

  2. I do struggle with this, my disenchantement with mainline Protestantism has to do partly with this issue, but I do feel as if significant changes in history have happened because people took it upon themselves to advocate for those changes. You say, “Gone is any real faith in the justice of God and in his timing.” MLK Jr. said:

    “I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in the generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

    I don’t think MLK Jr. is saying he doesn’t trust God’s justice and timing; rather as Christians we have to be a part of that, somehow (I dislike the terms “co-workers with God” though). Sorry if I’m not making sense but I agree with some of what you are saying but I think some injustices do need the state to redress.

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