EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series (click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2). In Part 3, Dr. Brooks shows the connection of socialist and postmodern sources and the social justice movement. He examines one of the most popular textbooks used in classes concerning justice topics. However, Dr. Brooks proposes that the root of social justice for evangelicals is not rooted in socialism, but rather a reflection of God’s imago dei in every person. He provides some practical criteria for evangelicals to use when engaging in social justice issues.

While both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians tried to address socialism, the question must be asked if socialism is still present today in the social justice movement.

The book entitled Race, Class, and Gender has become a standard textbook concerning various social justice topics in colleges and universities in the early 1990s.[1] The book is a compilation of essays, book chapters, and journal articles on a wide variety of topics. What binds the sources together in this one volume is an approach known as “Critical Theory.” Critical Theory grew out of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of the 1930s. The Theory was define by Max Horkheimer in the 1930s as a social theory designed to critique and change society through a neo-Marxism that examined society as a whole in its specific historical settings. Critical Theory drew from the major sciences including geography, economics, sociology, history, political science, and psychology, among others.[2]

Several points may be made concerning Critical Theory in general, and then concerning its socialist roots in particular. First, Critical Theory is based first upon experience over reasoned argumentation. Several of the chapters recount experiences by the authors from various backgrounds, but the authors base their conclusions from their experiences and situations. Second, Critical Theory lends itself to having conclusions rooted in story rather than argumentation. Many of the authors told stories and longer narratives to prove their points, rather than citing argumentation, statistics, or facts. Third, and probably the most concerning issue, is that Critical Theory categorizes people into groups of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” The stories show that solidarity is built on groups organizing together to overcome oppression by overthrowing and in some cases even denying rights or privileges to other groups who do the oppressing.

While the editors of the book have published several editions, one of the first editions in 1992, featured an article by sociologist Edna Bonacich. Concerning racism and socialism, she wrote, “The racism of this society is linked to capitalism, so long as we retain a capitalist system, we will not be able to eliminate racial oppression.” She then goes on to extol some of the virtues of socialism though admitting that racism can persist even in socialism. She then wrote, “I am not suggesting its elimination would be easily achieved within socialism, but it is impossible under capitalism.”[3] In another article, Bonacich admits that she was influenced by Marxism, “My work draws heavily on the critical tradition in sociology, especially Marxism, but also on the tradition that criticizes racism, following W.E.B. DuBois and many others. I see my work as deeply rooted in the critical tradition, which informs my choice of research projects, my method of research, and my interpretation of findings. All of my work is focused on questions of social inequality, and how to fight against it.”[4] While such a project is certainly noble, Bonacich is but one example of many authors in the anthology that draw from the errant worldview of Marxism. While Bocachi may be correct in her assessment about the problem (certain economic systems continue racism), she is not necessarily correct in her solution (socialism).

Race, Class, and Gender shows that Evangelicals must be careful when drawing from secular sources concerning social justice. One must always ask the question of what worldview if motivating the conclusions. Insights may certainly be drawn from other fields, and this is probably one of the greatest contributions of Critical Theory. However, the beginnings do not necessarily justify the means, nor the ends.

An Evangelical Approach to Social Justice

An Evangelical approach to social justice needs to be rooted in the Scripture and Tradition of the Church. While certain truths may be drawn from secular sources, social justice must have a worldview that is informed by the character of God and scripture.

In a conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in October, 2018, the well-known evangelical civil rights leader John Perkins was asked the question, “How can we keep the balance with evangelism and social justice without abandoning the Gospel?” Perkins simply replied, “If you don’t see both in the Bible, then you are reading it the wrong way!”

Pentecostal scholar Murray Dempster summarizes three Old Testament arguments as a basis for an approach to biblical social justice. First, a Christian social ethic must be grounded in the self-revelation of God and His character. God reveals himself throughout the Old Testament as a being concerned for the needs of the poor and powerless. God may even be viewed giving a preferential slant for the poor against the rich. Second, the imago dei calls believers to view all humans as created in the image of God. An Evangelical social ethic flows from the desire to treat all people with respect and dignity. Third, the unilateral covenant given by God at Mt. Sinai shows that God was not only concerned about their salvation, but also about the well-being of creation. Dempster explains that the Ten Commandments show God’s concern not only for a right relationship with Him, but for His people to have a right relationship with others. The ministry of the prophets was a reminder to God’s people that they should live according to His character. Israel’s social ethic was to demonstrate God’s nature, who He is, and what He does. God explicitly expressed concern for the poor and how they were treated (Ex 22:21-24; Deut 10:17-18; 15:13-15).

The New Testament continues the theme of care of justice. In the Gospels, Luke is perhaps the most explicit author that mentions themes of social justice. The kingdom mission of Jesus, of everything that Jesus taught and did, is then transferred to the Spirit-empowered community at Pentecost. The kingdom ethic that Jesus did and pointed to in His earthly ministry is then carried out by the Spirit-filled community in the book of Acts. Luke is showing how the New Covenant Community in the book of Acts becomes the moral foundation for the life of the church (Acts 2:32-25). Paul continues this theme in his writings as well (Gal. 2:10 and 6:10). James emphasizes good works to show the fruit of faith (James 2:17). And finally John explicitly states if believers do not have a social ethic that moves them to action, the love of God is not in the person (1 John 3:17-18).[5]

A Stronger Evangelical Approach to Social Justice

How can Evangelicals develop a stronger approach to social justice? Four areas need to be addressed.

First, in secular social justice, redistribution is motivated by a righting of wrongs. Often this righting is executed by a higher authority, normally the state. Marxism and socialism are motivated by a redistribution that forcibly takes from those who have and gives to those who have not. A biblical approach, especially as seen in the books of Acts, is motivated from a social ethic based upon kingdom virtues, in other words a voluntary willingness to give and share. There may be times when the state may step in, but the end result must be a redistribution not based upon a “right” of having something but rather to give opportunity to underserved populations and groups.

Second, secular social justice appears to be motivated by the equation of power: who has more or less power, and how can that power be leveled or reversed? Such an equation of power can be seen in the reading of texts like Race, Gender, and Class where much of the narrative is about overcoming oppression from various groups and a redistribution of resources.  A kingdom social ethic is not motivated by power, but rather reconciliation, which ultimately comes from the Gospel. A kingdom reconciliation is motivated first and foremost about personal reconciliation between God and then people. One may use the imagery of the Lord’s Supper table. Jesus makes room at the table for all those who come to Him; people do not have to elbow their way to the table to get the resources they want or need. Believers are then called by the kingdom social ethic to share freely so that “none has any need” (echoing Acts 2:42-47).

Third, it may be useful to think about the relationship between the Gospel and social justice in terms of the ordering of implications. Social justice is not the Gospel, but is a first-order implication. From the Old Testament examples to the Spirit-empowered New Covenant community, one observes that the reality of the way of life for Christians is always based upon what God has done. In the same way, social justice is a first-order implication of the Gospel. The Gospel is simply that God saves sinners, but because He does, Christians can work toward reconciliation and correctly wrongs felt in society.

Last, a kingdom social justice is rooted in the character of God and his self-revelation. Most secular approaches to social justice are based upon an ever-changing situation and experience, as seen in the methodology of Critical Theory. Kingdom social justice must be rooted in the never-changing character and virtue of God. One must always be careful to ensure that one is interpreting the revelation of God correctly, as many in church history have done harmful things to other people, especially non-believers, “in the name of God.” One must always discern the beginnings, means, and ends of a worldview to observe how it measures up to biblical revelation and tradition.

Perkins’ assessment must become our prayer that we will “read the Bible correctly” and see there is no duality between social justice and the Gospel. To be Christian means we are socially engaged to point people to the kingdom to come.

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NOTES

[1] Margaret Anderson and Patricia Collins, eds. Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 9th ed. (Independence, KY: Cengage Learning, 2015).

[2] Max Horkheimer, Critical Theory (New York: Continuum, 1968), 244.

[3] Edna Bonacich, “Inequality in America: The Failure of the American System for People of Color” in Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 3rd ed., Margaret Anderson and Patricia Collins, eds. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1992), 103.

[4] Edna Bonacich, “Working with the Labor Movement: A Personal Journey in Organic Public Sociology,” The American Sociologist Fall/Winter 2005: 106.

[5] For a helpful and well-developed survey of biblical social justice themes, see the edited volume by Cynthia Westfall and Bryan Long, The Bible and Social Justice (Eugene: Pickwick, 2016).