Injustice Anxiety: How Progressive Christians Have Become Their Own Worst Enemy

A couple months ago, my wife and I attended a theatrical performance given at Northwestern’s law school, which detailed the history of violence and systemic injustice in Chicago. It was an incredibly moving and powerful performance. Afterward, the director of diversity and inclusion programs for Northwestern moderated a time of response from the audience. One of the comments that struck me the hardest was given by a young white woman. She began by telling everyone she was a social worker and a justice advocate but then complained that whenever she has been involved in justice initiatives whether protests, attending council meetings, etc., her ideas are rarely taken into consideration. She was calling on minorities to be more open to white folks who just want to help. I was fuming in my seat but was amazed by the response of grace and patience that came from those who responded. The common thread was something like this: You have to earn the trust of these communities in order to participate. It doesn’t matter what knowledge or degrees you have. Even your righteous indignation at injustice doesn’t matter. You have been part of something that has systematically destroyed bodies of color in this country, and the first steps are to recognize that, accept the discomfort it is going to bring, and then, just be present. Presence is important, and trust will follow. But it takes time.

That was a huge step for me in learning to let go of my own anxieties over being an advocate for social justice. As a white, cis-gendered male who does not have any of the experiences of oppressed groups in this country, I have often worried about making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, thinking the wrong way. But over the last couple years with the help of voices like the ones I heard that night, I’ve come to realize that my problem was that, like that young woman, I was still making the issues about me–i.e. my fears and anxieties. Being an advocate means letting go of the fact that I’m a white, cis-gendered male, that I’m not going to be fully trusted as an advocate right away, and that my job at first is to just be present.

It seems that this is a message that much of “progressive Christianity” still needs to hear. Last summer, I wrote about my discovery of an ultra-conservative Christian blogger who was using the language of progressive Christianity against progressives themselves to try to argue that progressivism is cold, rigid, ideological, and just plain not fun. This morning, I’ve discovered that a number of progressive Christians have been wringing their hands over the exact same thing: They feel that progressive Christianity has become a purity culture where those who do not match ideologically are rejected much in the way that conservative Christians reject those they consider hedonistic.

This is a particularly attractive point of view especially for those who originally came from conservative backgrounds but now find themselves taking on a more progressive stance on political and theological issues. If you scroll down the comments of the culture of purity blog, you’ll notice Rachel Held Evans praising the author for articulating something she’s felt for a long time: that there’s a problem with the “everything is problematic” point of view. It’s not that surprising that a more conservative progressive like RHE would feel that way. On the one hand, one of the primary reasons that conservatives leave for more progressive pastures is the fact that the former has too many legalistic rules. They’re looking to “get away” from religion in order to find Jesus. So when what they thought was good ol’ free thinking progressivism starts telling them they have to think certain ways about political and social issues, they want to retreat back to somewhere in the middle.

On the other hand, that retreat back to the middle isn’t only about an aversion to rules. It’s also an aversion to the kind of politics that a truly progressive Christianity requires. This political aversion is also multi-faceted. It includes a desire to purify Christianity from politics, claiming that Jesus’ original message was not political in nature or decrying the merger of either Republican or Democratic politics with Christianity. But it’s also a fear that this connection between politics and Christianity will bring to the surface the very thing they’ve tried to repress: Their discomfort with minority groups. That isn’t necessarily their fault. It takes a lot of work to overcome the ways of viewing the world that we’ve been taught from a young age. But progressive Christianity is a demand to overcome those things.

Actually, Christianity is a demand to overcome those things. Therein lies the rub of this rejection of “progressive purity culture.” Forget the fact that “purity” is the wrong word or that neither progressive Christianity nor social justice movements need resemble anarchistic Marxism in order to be progressive and effective. This is about what the author calls complicity in injustice which he characterizes as the “idol” of progressive Christians. The heart of this complaint–like the heart of the ultra-conservative complaint against the same thing–is that progressive politics makes people feel bad about themselves, specifically white, cis-gendered male people. But once you’re a Christian, how you feel no longer matters. That’s why you become a Christian–so you can die to self and take up the cross. If we just did whatever we felt like doing, intentionally becoming part of Christianity (or any religion) wouldn’t mean anything at all. Social justice isn’t about you and your feelings. The demand for inclusive language, for highlighting passive complicity in systems of injustice, for a radical commitment to social justice is not about maintaining an ideologically pure progressive culture.

The commitment to rooting out those things is about standing in solidarity with the victims of systemic injustice who do not have the luxury to ruminate over which of their oppressors they might offend in fighting to tear down those systems.

When this middle group of Christians makes issues of systemic injustice about themselves by pointing out that they feel bad when someone says they’re complicit in systemic injustice, that they’ve made a mistake, are thinking about something in a problematic way, should maybe just shut their mouth and listen for once, they have completely missed the point of the gospel’s call to serve the least of these–i.e. those who are threatened by systemic injustice. Is it going to be difficult to answer that call? Are you going to be faced with all the uncomfortable things I just listed? Yes. But that call is not about you–it’s about helping those under the threat of systemic injustice and listening to what they need.

It is not about you.

Ultimately, I think this is an issue of liberal verses non-liberal (e.g. radical) progressivism. I mean these terms in the political rather than theological sense. In other words, those who see themselves as outside of the walls of both progressivism and conservativism are beholden to a liberal politics which wants to claim a neutral ground on these sorts of contentious political issues. It’s a ground of natural rights, of complete “gospel freedom,” which is really just old fashioned liberal, Enlightenment freedom: “We’re all human beings”; “We’re called to love and care for everyone“; “Everyone has universal human rights,” etc. The problem is that these platitudes generate ways of thinking that tend to perpetuate current systems of oppression. In this case, they’re used as excuses to not go all in on advocacy because we might marginalize the oppressors whom, in the context of this liberal worldview, Jesus also calls us to love, care for, and forgive.

However, that’s not clear at all in the gospels. At no point does Jesus chastise the Pharisees and then turn back to them later and say, “Don’t worry you guys. As I’m radically turning your religio-political world upside down, I’ll make sure you feel cared for.” That doesn’t mean, however, that we can say Jesus likely didn’t care at all about what the Pharisees thought. On the contrary, he’s constantly charging them to change their minds and fix the system! After all, they’re the ones with the ability to do it. Similarly, the critique of liberal human rights discourse and/or middle Christian care for everyone discourse doesn’t mean we’re forced to fundamentally devalue the life of some human beings for the sake of others. That’s a false dichotomy. Honestly, how are the poor and oppressed any threat at all to the lives of those in power as long as the system keeping them there remains in tact? They’re no threat at all.

This complaint is a matter of seeing ourselves as the savior of those in need. It is not on us to solve the problems of minorities, the poor, or oppressed. But it is our responsibility to stand and be present with those who are seeking justice. If you feel excluded by that, then maybe some self-reflection is in order. Begin by understanding that working toward ending systemic injustice is not about you and your feelings.

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A Brief Discourse on Justice

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” – John Piper

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a post about John Piper or even fundamentalism per se. Taking them down is too easy, and frankly, they see enough abuse from other progressives. I say that because what I want to suggest in this post might at first sound rather pedestrian, some kind of banal plea for social justice. But stick with me. I intend to do a few posts about justice, so in this one, I’m just trying to lay out the primary tension and raise some really difficult questions.

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot since moving to Chicago. I now live in a city that suffers some of the worst systemic oppression in the country (not that Los Angeles is much better), and I live in a neighborhood (Rogers Park) that experiences a large portion of that. I live among people who, according John Piper’s understanding of justice, deserve some sort of punishment–not the justice that comes through the undoing of systemic oppression.

The understanding of justice posited above begs two important questions:

Is justice tied to morality, and if so, how?

Christians tend to think of justice in two fundamentally distinct ways: Legal and Social. Most Christians probably wouldn’t disagree with Piper, i.e. we need morality or else civilization degenerates into anarchy. I also don’t doubt that most Christians, including Piper, have a heart for the poor and oppressed. That varies widely in how it’s embodied, but I think most Christians today know that’s part of the program, and they want to participate, whether they really mean it or not. The problem is that these two categories aren’t divided so neatly. It’s not as if all those who suffer under systemic oppression are really saints with hearts of gold in desperate need of liberation. Many who would qualify under the Social probably also qualify under the Legal understandings of justice. So if we really want to stick to the legal/moral understanding of justice–that true justice punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous–we have to shuffle a bit if we also want to be biblical followers of Christ and address the social. In other words, it’s really tough to love a homeless drug addict with the love of Christ when you also feel pretty strongly that he should go to prison for stealing the money he needed to buy his drugs.

I know some might object to the idea that Jesus didn’t have a moral understanding of justice. He did, but not in the sense of bringing punitive justice to the rule-breakers. For Jesus, the true moral breach was living in a way that did not bring liberating justice to the poor and oppressed. That is his message to the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23:23, for example.)

Here’s the primary problem: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation?

Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable with our notion of “God’s love” exceeding our wildest expectations and definitions, yet when it comes to justice, we seem to want to limit God to an exact replica of our own penal system? Why wouldn’t “God’s justice” be just as radical as God’s love? And why wouldn’t those two things be tied together?

The typical response to this sort of question is, “Oh, but they are! You see, when a parent loves a child, she disciplines that child for the things he does wrong. It is just that the child be punished for the things he does wrong.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

1) We don’t love our criminals. That isn’t why we punish them. When we think of the people who are “going to hell,” we think of the “bad guys” (probably because it’s too painful to think of some atheist relative, but that’s a future post.) We want the people who have done us wrong punished. We want them to suffer a bit–or a lot. Most of us have never been wronged in any serious way by a criminal, yet we still demand punishment, mostly because we sense that it will make us safer. That’s what the Piper quote at the beginning is getting at. If there’s not punishment, all us civilized folk are going to be forced into a state of anarchy. That might be the case for describing a practical social structure. But that has less to do with some notion of maintaining morality for the sake of morality than it does just making sure we can walk safely on our own street (and I recognize that even those points are debatable.)

2) People who make the above claim always forget the second part of it: Forgiveness. The punishment doesn’t work the way the parent intends unless the child is allowed to return to the loving arms of the parent. If you’ve been scouring the gospels this whole time for the place where Jesus tells the adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11),  you need to ask yourself: If the woman did continue to sin, would Jesus not continue to welcome her back regardless of whether or not she repented? And that isn’t even the whole verse:

10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” [CEB]

Jesus doesn’t condemn her, and I think it would be hard to make the case that he would change his mind regardless of whether or not she followed his final instruction to her. (Of course, this is all ignoring that John 7:53-8:11 is a disputed section of the gospel anyway. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament don’t have it. So if one really wanted frame Jesus as a moralist out to nab the rule-breakers of the Ancient Near East, one would need to look elsewhere.)

The extreme tension in understanding what justice is according to Jesus comes when we try to reconcile our moralist sensibilities with the fact that Jesus welcomes everyone and doesn’t condemn them. That starts raising all sorts of grinding, insomnia inducing questions about murderers, sex offenders… Questions that cannot be written off or taken lightly, but questions that we’ll have to cover later.

There is only one group of people Jesus says are excluded from the his kingdom. He says everyone except those who wield power against the poor and oppressed are welcome in the kingdom of God. And it isn’t because there’s some sort of “sin force field” keeping the power wielders out. It’s that the kind of thing that the kingdom of God is is the kind of thing that they absolutely despise. Those on the outside, in the outer darkness that Jesus speaks of in Matthew, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth because they’re being horrifically tortured–it’s because the kindgom of God is an absolute affront to the power they hold so dear, and they just can’t stand it. They can’t bear to see God’s justice being handed down–not against them but for those they were against. The powerless coming to power.

It might seem like our notion of justice is a bit of a mess at this point. There’s a lot I haven’t addressed yet. We haven’t really defined “sin.” As I’ve alluded to, we haven’t talked about justice for victims of crime, especially violent crime, about justice for victims of despots like Hitler or Stalin. We haven’t talked about what forgiveness is or might look like in any of those situations. We haven’t touched the Old Testament at all. Those are all very important points. What I want to do in subsequent posts is tease out the ways in which even our conceptions of what justice should be like in these situations is challenged by the nature of God as I want to suggest it. For now though, let’s think about what the implications might be for the sort of justice I’m suggesting. What do we lose if we remove morality from the equation? What do we gain?