Five Christian Views of Social Justice: A Review Essay
If you are a Christian concerned with social justice, here is a must-read text for you: Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views (Bloomsbury, 2014). The book brings together five respected Christian scholars who present and debate rival perspectives on the issue in a dialogical format. As is the standard approach with such multiple views books, each author contributes a foundational essay which is in turn critiqued by the other authors, thus enabling the reader to get a thorough sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each view. As the book’s editor, Vic McCracken puts it, “In a sound-bite age dominated by partisan cable news networks, each spinning their respective vision of the world, serious intellectual exchange can be hard to come by. This book aspires to offer readers a window into the constructive possibilities of such exchange.” The book certainly achieves that aim.
Before highlighting the distinctive features of each author’s position, it is important to note that they all agree that social justice is of critical importance. The differences between them concern (1) just what social justice is and (2) how social justice is best achieved. The five views represented in this volume, do not entirely exhaust the perspectives Christians have advocated on the issue, but they do represent a broad range of views, as is appropriate for such a volume. These include the libertarian approach, political liberalism, liberation theology, a feminist approach, and the virtue ethics perspective.
Faulkner University Humanities Chair Jason Jewell defends the libertarian perspective. He begins by clarifying some key premises in libertarian political thought, specifically that all coercion is aggression and therefore immoral, so the state acts immorally whenever it acts coercively. This is true of individuals, notes Jewell, so why would it not also be true of governments? Thus, the essence of the libertarian mindset is simply to “insist that the State follow the same rules expected of everyone else in civilized society.” The Christian basis for this approach, argues Jewell, is evident in the fact that “nowhere in the New Testament do we find an endorsement of the use of violence for the furthering of Christian goals.” The command not to steal, for example, is absolute. There is no modification of that moral mandate which says “thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.” Jewell does grant that the payment of taxes is endorsed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13, but this is hardly an endorsement of all state activities. On the contrary, he notes that biblical writers are often critical of political powers (e.g., in such passages as 1 Samuel 8, Psalm 2, and numerous passages in the book of Revelation). Jewell closes his chapter with a discussion of common objections to libertarianism. One of the most common among these is the complaint that state coercion is necessary to restrain the evil tendencies of its citizens. Jewell replies by asking “why an . . . institution controlled by people subject to the same evil tendencies as everyone else is supposed to be a solution to this problem.” Good question.
Daniel Dombrowski, a Philosophy Professor at Seattle University, authors the essay in defense of political liberalism, focusing on the social contract theory of its most esteemed contemporary exponent, John Rawls. Like libertarians, Rawls is a strong advocate of individual liberty. But he also insists that any just civil society must have safeguards to ensure that the basic needs of those on the margins are met. Such a balance between liberty and equality, says Rawls, would be achieved if society were ordered according to a principle of equal liberty, a principle of equal opportunity, and something he calls the “difference principle,” which stipulates that social inequalities be permitted only if they could conceivably be to everyone’s benefit, including the least advantaged (such as through taxation). According to Dombrowski, the system outlined by Rawls—which has been extremely influential since the publication of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in 1971—is not expressly Christian but it does capture many of the concerns of biblical agape love, since “love is guided by what reasonable/rational individuals themselves would agree to.” Among the hallmarks of the Rawlsian state, notes Dombrowski, are that: it would allow for equal freedoms of worship, speech, and participation in the political process; it would guarantee “a minimum material standard of living for all citizens”; it would create universal access to healthcare; and it would prevent all barriers to educational and employment opportunities. Thus, Rawls aims for an ideal balance of personal liberty and state provisions to the least advantaged. Rawls intended his theory to be balanced, an aim the achievement of which is perhaps evident in the fact that he has had significant critics on both the political left and right. However, Rawls’ theory lacks attention to the critical matter of human sinfulness. In fact, Rawls regarded the Christian doctrine of original sin as “repugnant.” Dombrowski strives to rehabilitate Rawls’ theory in this regard, but not convincingly as far as this reader is concerned.
The next essay, by Miguel De La Torre, a Social Ethics Professor at Iliff School of Theology, makes a case for liberation theology. De La Torre follows in the footsteps of liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff, who saw the Christian Gospel as most fundamentally concerned with liberating the oppressed. De La Torre begins his essay with a critique of what he calls “Eurocentric ethics,” which is “a product of power held by those who benefit by making the dominant ethical perspectives of the privileged normative for everybody else.” Such an approach, he says, is not about achieving justice but rather is about “justifying the status quo.” This “Eurocentric culture,” says De La Torre, mistakenly conceives of human sin in personal terms or as “the outcome of individual choices.” The socially marginalized, however, “understand sin as the consequences and ramifications of the prevailing social structures.” And liberationists advocate for the latter approach, seeing sin as essentially communal. De La Torre rightly notes that “for many liberationists, the crucifixion is less about atonement than it is about solidarity,” and he seems to share this conviction, declaring that Jesus’ crucifixion was “the ultimate act of solidarity with all who continue to be crucified today on the crosses of sexism, racism, ethnic discrimination, classism, and heterosexism.” So what is to be done in light of these social injustices, according to De La Torre? In the spirit of the Marxist philosophical roots of this theology, he calls for “moves beyond paternalistic ‘charity’ toward actions that dismantle the social structures that are detrimental to the vast majority of humanity.” Like many liberationists, De La Torre never specifies the social structures which he wants to see dismantled. Moreover, he never addresses the more important question raised in Jewell’s chapter: Why should we think the new social structure that sinful people create and control will be any more just than our current system?
The next alternative perspective on social justice is offered by Laura Stivers, Professor of Ethics at Dominican University. Stivers’ presents a feminist take on the issue which “advocates a vision of flourishing life and supports particular values such as inclusivity, right relations, and sustainability as normative foundations for policies and practices that promote justice.” Like De La Torre, Stivers approaches the issue with an eye to various forms of “systematic oppression” which plague marginalized groups. She maintains that “policy-making ought to be in solidarity with those who routinely . . . experience injustice.” The Christian theological basis for this approach, says Stivers is that our “compassionate God(dess) of liberation makes justice-making for the marginalized an imperative.” She helpfully traces the history of feminism through its three “waves,” beginning in the nineteenth century. Next, Stivers discusses the feminist ethical method and applies this to various aspects of oppression especially as manifested in social structures and public policies, ranging from environmental sustainability to women’s reproductive rights. Her application of a feminist ethic to issues seemingly unrelated to women’s rights or even gender will prompt critics to worry that her approach is somewhat over-reaching.
In the book’s final chapter, Wescott House Theology and Ethics tutor Elizabeth Phillips presents a virtue ethics approach to social justice. As Phillips explains, “a virtue ethics approach says that justice is not only about our duties in relation to specific political and social issues; rather justice is about the kinds of relationships we are created to have with one another, and thus the sorts of people we are meant to be.” Phillips succinctly traces the history of virtue ethics, beginning with the ancient Greeks, noting the emphasis this approach places on the concept of human flourishing, which is in turn defined in terms of the notion of a natural human telos or purpose (a lost concept in contemporary social thought in the U.S., where the politics of self-identification is currently ascendant). Phillips observes that in order to be uniquely Christian, the notion of “justice as virtue ethics must be thoughtfully and practically related to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.” And she notes that one of the strengths of virtue ethics is that it is contextually based, always attentive to particular life circumstances for understanding what it means to flourish. This approach avoids the tendency of other moral theories to get lost in universal abstractions when it comes to justice issues. However, this strength also entails a weakness, namely the inability of virtue ethics to provide adequate grounds for concepts of duty and obligation, which most thinkers recognize as essential to a satisfactory account of social justice.
This is just a quick summary of the perspectives defended in Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views. For a single volume, the book does an admirable job introducing readers to these diverse perspectives and highlighting their weaknesses as well. Given the current surge of interest in social justice issues, I think this book should be compulsory reading at all Christian colleges and universities, and not just for students but especially for administrators, professors and student development personnel. It would be particularly beneficial at those colleges where one perspective on social justice has become hegemonic. Many would argue that the liberation theory is now problematically dominant at many schools, and careful attention to other perspectives such as those discussed in this book would be a valuable corrective to this trend. Such is also in keeping with the goal of the university to represent diverse viewpoints on vital issues and to encourage an open-minded attitude toward them. After all, if university leaders do not demonstrate openness to diverse perspectives, then why should we expect such open-mindedness from our students?
The late great media theorist and social critic Neil Postman once said that as a particular technology permeates culture its presence becomes mythic and ecological. Technologies—from the printing press to the personal computer—become “mythic” when they are seen as if they are part of the natural order of things, a fundamental and unquestionable feature of the world. Technologies become “ecological” when they fundamentally change culture and human relations. Certainly, this is true of many technologies. For example, electric power, the automobile, and now smart phones have fundamentally altered the way we order our lives in the West.
It is also possible for paradigms of thought and social theories in particular to become mythic and ecological, and arguably the liberation theory of social justice is steadily rising to that status. Increasingly, people in the West—especially young people—seem to believe that approaching social justice issues in terms of Marxist categories of oppressor and oppressed is just the way it is and needs no prior argument or rational justification. That’s the mythic dimension. And the “ecological” impact of this is evident in how this dogma impacts mass media, politics, and higher education, and even the Christian church. This is troubling for a number of reasons. First, with the hegemony of the liberation theory it is possible to become so influenced by this paradigm that we even become blind to the dogma it instills in us. Secondly, as the liberation perspective becomes mythic and ecological, it is possible even for well-meaning Christians to read Scripture through the lens of this philosophical paradigm without realizing they are doing so. This reinforces dogma with the sense that it enjoys the imprimatur of God himself. Thirdly, the consequent inability to recognize the potential legitimacy of alternative perspectives on justice issues fosters an attitude of moral supremacy and intolerance toward minority perspectives (a tragic irony, given that liberationists so strongly emphasize their compassion for minorities and the marginalized).
For these reasons, among others, it is crucial that we—especially Christians—be mindful that theories of social justice are not God-given or straightforwardly obvious in their truth. At best, a theory of social justice—whether libertarian, classically liberal, liberationist, feminist, or virtue oriented—is a more or less rational approximation of the truth. And, for all we know, the most rational perspective on social justice has yet even to be articulated! As the Apostle Paul says, we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12), and this is especially true of scholarly inquiries into matters as complex and forbidding as social justice. So it behooves us to proceed with caution and humility in that inquiry, keeping in mind that there are plenty of folks more wise and informed than we are who disagree with us. One way to do this is to actively maintain alertness to the diverse views on the issue. And carefully reading Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views is an excellent way to start.