It is not difficult to find calls for the church to be “prophetic” especially toward the end of “social justice.” Of course we should favor social justice since nature and Scripture (e.g., Rom 13:1–7) both teach us that it is the function of the civil magistrate to enforce just laws. By implication, it is the duty of citizens in civil society to seek justice as far as lies within them. Yet we have yet to define “social justice.” It is evident in current discussions in the USA that there is not a shared definition nor is there a shared vision of how to achieve and maintain it.
How We Got Here
One of the underlying reasons for these differences is eschatology. Arguably, through the 18th and 19th centuries, most Americans did not expect to achieve an earthly utopia through political or concerted social action. The pursuit of “happiness” of the Declaration of Indpendence was assumed to be relative. Even the Deists who founded the American Republic had some idea of an other-worldly heaven. Most Americans assigned their utopian hopes to the life after death. The higher critical (i.e., theologically liberal) movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries undermined among social elites confidence in the Scriptures and in historic Christianity. In the 1920s and 30s orthodox Christianity was exiled to the margins of society. Witness the denominational splits and the leftward theological and social movement of the “Mainline” Christian denominations.
For most people, however, on the ground, those discussions were postponed by the need to survive the Great Depression and World War II. After the war, with the onset of the Cold War, the process of the marginalization of historic Christianity continued thereby creating a vacuum. If what the church had said about heaven was no longer true what then? The Liberals had long been using Christian vocabulary but redefining its terms. The Scriptures were re-interpreted, selectively, in figurative terms. Heaven became a fixture of speech. Remarkably, even as the post-Christian West was winning the Cold War and even as the great Marxist enterprise in the Soviet Union collapsed (1989) versions of Marxism were capturing the hearts and minds of university students across the West. The remarkable prosperity of the post-Christian 80s did not satisfy the soul yet heaven no longer seemed credible. By the 90s many young people in the West had concluded that it was necessary, in the words of Eric Voeglin, to “immanentize the eschaton,” i.e., to bring a kind of heaven to earth.
Like the Liberal project in the early 20th century, that project too was postponed by war. Though the West had largely given up on old-fashioned religion, a significant number of Islamist Muslims had rekindled the ancient vision of a world dominated by an Islamic caliphate and they launched a remarkably effective sneak attack upon American civilians, plunging great sections of the world into what has become a long-running “War On Terror” since 2001.
As that war has begun to wind down, with the draw down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, young people have turned again to the quest for “social justice,” fueled by Marxist categories and rhetoric. They inherited these categories but without the education to critique them. While the West was defeating Marxism across the globe and Soviet bloc nations were celebrating their deliverance from their Marxist overlords (who had murdered tens of millions of them) American children were learning their history from Howard Zinn and taking it as gospel truth.
This background helps to explain the shift our difficulty in defining social justice. During the modern civil rights movement it was generally agreed that social justice mean equal opportunity, that every citizen has the right to his civil liberties, that tax payers of all ethnicities and religions should have access to the public accommodations for which they had paid. It meant that every citizen has a right to vote. It also meant that every citizen has a right to compete for work and to secure economic betterment. Social justice, however, did not guarantee outcomes. Today, however, social justice is widely understood not to be about opportunity but to require equality of outcome. The role of Marxian Utopianism in this shift should not be ignored.
At the same time there were other massive social changes afoot. As has been noted in this space, we have been in the midst of a series of sexual revolution since the early 20th century. These both indicated and fueled the changing eschatology (from heavenly glory to earthly utopia). The American standard of living has grown remarkably so that even the American poor is relatively wealthy (as measured by ownership of disposable goods). The American family has been vitiated partly by the sexual revolution, partly by good intentions. As Robert Woodson and Thomas Sowell have long noted, the African-American family survived centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow only to be nearly wiped out by the Great Society (1965). Prior to the 1965, 70% of African-American families were two-parent households. Today 38.7% of those households are two-parent households. Another, sometimes neglected shift, was the change in immigration laws in 1965. For four decades America more or less closed her borders. Since 1965, however, and especially since 1989, the borders have become increasingly porous presenting new social and economic challenges with which policy makers are still wrestling.
There have been other massive changes that seem to have have made heaven less plausible. Deconstructionism permeated the English-speaking universities in the late 80s and early 90s. When I got to the UK to do my doctoral work, it was the topic. Everything, even medieval and Reformation studies, was being done in light of postmodernism. Anyone who talked about objective reality was regarded as backward and possibly suspect. In other words, the university had taken a radical turn toward the subjective (my experience, my truth, your experience, your truth). What is truth or heaven to subjectivism?
We should also mention the rise of the internet. At first, in the USA, email users could only communicate with users within their service provider (AOL or CompuServe). Then, someone flipped a switch and we could talk to each other. Then there were websites. At first the web was just text (at least for me from 1993–97). The Millennials, of course, have been raised with the internet which shapes their world. It has put a world of information and a world of suffering at our fingertips.
Then there is the envronment. Scaremongers had been threatening an apocalypse since the 1960s. First it was Rachel Carson who, in 1962, terrified the world about DDT. Then it was Paul Erlich’s Malthusian overpopulation scare. In 1968 he predicted that there would be mass starvation in the 1970s and 80s. It did not happen but the Malthusian myth persists. In the mid-1970s we were threatened with a new ice age. In the early 80s, as the Regan administration sought to end the Cold War (by winning it), we were treated to nightly warnings about “Nuclear Winter.” In the early 2000s, after he left Washington, Al Gore began touting “Global Warming.” None of his dire predictions have been fulfilled and now people warn ominously about anthropogenic “climate change.” For nearly 60 years alarmists have bombarded succeeding generations of young people with apocalyptic, mostly bogus claims about what models (because models never err) tell us will inevitably happen.
Both, along with the long war and the other factors surveyed, have had the effect of driving the desire to fix things in this world. Messianic politicians have long promised many things but just as the internet was taking over, just as the education system was collapsing (as predicted in the 1950s), in what turned out to the mid-point in an exhausting war on terror, a charismatic, “post-racial” president promised them:
Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.
In a way, the turn to an earthly utopia of equal outcomes was predictable. Marx had, after all, turned Hegel on his head. He laid out an eschatology, a vision of the future that was entirely earthly, that assumed (and required) prosperity provided by private property and capitalism (however abusive that system might have been at points in the 19th century. How abusive capitalism really was in the 19th century is a matter of debate. Lest we assume that our kinder, gentler capitalism is superior to that of the “Robber Barons” and steel magnates, perhaps we should ask the children building our iPhones in Chinese factories or stitching our clothing in Vietnam or Bangladesh?) and sketched a utopian earthly future of fueled by resentment, envy, and achieved class warfare.
Enter the renewal of “the Social Gospel” movement now combined with Marxist ideas of class consciousness, where every group seeks to position itself as the victimized proletariat (promised by Marx to be the winners in historical pinball game of history). As in the early 20th century, Christians are once again invoking the Reformation doctrine of threefold office of the church to call the visible, institutional church to take up its social responsibility in our new age. In some ostensibly confessional Reformed and Presbyterian quarters, one of the first steps toward lashing the church to this agenda has been to discredit the alternative by smearing as racist (on the basis of private, unpublished correspondence) the principal advocate of the alternative view from the early 20th century. The demand for justice cannot be slowed by little things such as anachronism.
It is in this context that we must evaluate the renewed call for the church to take up her prophetic office. More on that next time.