The Statement on Social Justice vs. the Poor?

Reposted from The Cripplegate.

A few months ago “The Statement on Social Justice” was released. Authored by a group of pastors (including John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and James White), the statement declares that the modern concepts of intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory run contrary to the Bible’s depiction of justice. Moreover, it argues that the concept of corporate guilt is more at home in the Old Covenant than the new (an excellent post on that here), and that people only inherit guilt for sins they actually commit, not for sins that their ethnic ancestors committed. The main point of the declaration is that the concept of “social justice” is inherently an outcome oriented approach to justice, which is categorically different than the Bible’s concept of justice (which is process oriented).

What is outcome oriented justice? That is the concept that diverse sociological outcomes reflect an existent injustice. The most obvious examples are America’s disparity in education, incarceration rates, and income along racial lines; or South Africa’s disparity in farm ownership along racial lines. Those disparities are unequal outcomes, which reflect a social injustice.

This is in contrast to process oriented justice, which focuses on the means/access to the legal system. A judge who is racist would be inherently unjust. Other examples would be a country that segregates its schools, or limits land ownership along racial lines, or allows for the legal exploitation of vulnerable people. Those are all unjust by process standards, and the Statement on Social Justice makes clear that this kind of racism is sinful and should be identified as such.

The disagreement comes in seeing how process justice and social justice intersect. Obviously an unjust process will produce unjust results. Much of the social justice debate is dealing with the issue of how long guilt for those sinful societal structures remain, and if that guilt is passed down culturally.

For example, if some evangelicals advocated for slavery, or the banning of African-Americans from schools, it is obvious how that would contribute to inequality in society. But here are a few questions the Christian has to answer on this topic:

  • If the next generation of evangelicals opposes those policies, and labels them as racist and sinful, do they still bear the guilt of the previous generation?
  • Is there some form of repentance required from people for sins that they personally didn’t commit, but that their parents might have?
  • Is calling for that kind of generational repentance a gospel issue?
  • Or, is working to rectify social injustice (in the outcome oriented sense) a duty of the church?

The Statement on Social Justice answers all those in the negative.

There have been several people who have voiced disagreement with the document. Some have argued that it is unnecessarily dismissive of the real oppression that has taken place in evangelicalism’s past (that seems to be Mohler’s concern), while others have said that it has an implied hostility toward racial strife in our country (Russell Moore is an example of that concern). Others have responded to those concerns, and that’s not my goal today.

However, there is another objection—one that goes beyond the racial issue to the real substance of the Statement. It is the argument that to oppose outcome oriented justice as a goal of the church is to actually oppose the poor. This objection is substantial enough that I wanted to respond to it today.

One example of this comes from Tim Keller, but there are others as well. The crux of his view is that Christians have a duty to advocate for redistribution of wealth in society as a means of rectifying outcome oriented injustice (he explains this view more in depth here—Christianity Today subscription required; but Keller has written entire books on this, such as Generous Justice, and Ministries of Mercy). So Keller’s objection to the Statement on Social Justice is not going to be rooted in the racial dynamic that others have picked up on, but rather at the core level of what justice is. And thus, to Keller, the Statement does represent an affront to biblical justice, because his concept of justice hinges on eradicating income inequality—or at least poverty.

I disagree, and I have blogged on this topic many times before (for example, here). But I want to try a new approach today, using an argument that Keller himself made this week in the New York Times. Again, this is for the sake of argument. I don’t buy that outcome oriented justice is a gospel mandate, and I don’t believe it is the mission of the church to advance equal economic outcomes in society. But, if I did, I still think the Statement on Social Justice presents a better way.

As Keller points out, in politics there are different philosophies on how to counter poverty. The political left sees welfare and government run social systems as an expression of concern for the poor. Meanwhile, the political right sees low taxes and pro-business laws as more effective for growing the economy for the most people, including those in poverty. So it’s not fair to say that a pro-business Republican “doesn’t care about the poor,” because in his view the pro-business economy will help more poor people than any government run welfare ever could.

Importantly, this is not a case of “do both,” because by nature the growing of the welfare state will involve taxation and regulation that restrains economic growth. So you can’t do both, because one will be hindered.

Now, apply this to the church. If you believe that the church has as its mission the elimination of poverty and ending of unequal outcomes in the social justice scheme of things, how should they do that? One answer appears to be to advocate for social justice, which presumably (and this thing is always short on the practical) involves using the church’s time and money to advocate for programs to affect social justice. The other side of this answer, the one put forward by the signers of The Statement on Social Justice, is that the church should preach the gospel and make mature followers of Jesus Christ who scatter into the world to make more disciples.

My point is, for the sake of the argument, that the second approach (what is dismissively called the preach the gospel approach) will actually have a greater impact on social inequality than an intentional approach within the church to combat poverty. I see this as the model in Acts 2:44, 4:32, 6:1-ff, 1 Timothy 5:3-13. I know the social justice side understands those verses differently than I do, but it has to be granted that the focus on the sacraments of preaching, baptism, fellowship, and communion have a practical outworking in the lives of those who participate. All I’m arguing is that it is ultimately going to be a more effective way to change society than a deliberate focus on changing society.

Christians are free to disagree on that point. But intellectual honesty requires that they not accuse the signers of The Declaration of Social Justice of not caring about the poor. After all, it’s the very thing they were eager to do.

Jesse Johnson bio


Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master’s Seminary Washington DC location.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

The key concept of the difference between outcome-based concept of justice vs. what I'll call responsibility-based justice is huge.

The former essentially says "we don't have justice until everyone is approximately equally powerful and wealthy." The latter says "justice is what we do to punish evil and promote good" (1 Pet. 2:14). One of these concepts is upheld by both the Bible and the evidence of centuries of human history (hint: it's not the first one). 

There's a series going on at Ref 21 explaining the Statement article by article. Latest post: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2018/10/the-statement-on-sjg-explained...

Paul J's picture

In our area, schools are not centralized by county but rather by townships and cities.  Because of this structure the distribution of tax dollars are not equitable.  The taxes are not distributed beyond the township other then what comes separately from the state.  Because of this you have wealth suburban schools with amazing facilities.  And in one example a city school which can’t use their gym because of safety issues and has to decide do they use funds for education or repairing the gym?  An example of church entering into justice would be to raise funds to give to the school to make the repairs and to provide volunteer labor to extend the reach of those dollars.

This, in my opinion would be an example of ongoing injustice and a way for the Church to make a real impact, today.  You can work to create change in government and you can present the Gospel which both are long-term fixes to change the populous and the systems but what about today?  Should the Church stand on the sidelines when they have the resources to make a real difference today?

Bruce Rettig's picture

I'm not sure I agree that is a matter of justice to balance the outcome of school district expenditures. If I misunderstand you, correct me. There are other variables in play besides the tax base that impact the condition of school facilities. My district functions like yours, it is rural and doesn't have the kind of resources input into the system that some of the neighboring districts do. I wouldn't call that unjust because of a bare fact. For the outcome to be guaranteed by an act of justice would assume that my district has a right to claim the resources of those who live in another district and then receive a  guarantee that the resources would be managed in such a way to give the same positive outcome.

If individual Christians want to get involved in social actions that are supported by Scripture, then let them follow their conscience. The role of the church in society is more narrow, especially focussed on gospel proclamation and holiness. Yes we are to love our neighbors and do good for them, but that radiates outward from the church as we care for fellow believers first (Gal. 6:10). How would you make an argument for corporate advocacy in government? This is a sincere question.

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

Bert Perry's picture

I'd agree that inputs are a better measure than outcomes for how we ought to try, as it's a central principle of any quality system.  Get the inputs right, and amazingly the outcomes fall in line too.  The trick is to find the right inputs and (this is the kicker) persuade people that they're willing to give it a try.

And that's easier said than done.  For example, one of the major drivers of sexual assault is intoxication--but God help you if you dare to suggest that people ought to avoid that because (a) drunk people aren't good witnesses and (b) drunk people have trouble with impulse control.  You will be seen as blaming the victims.

In the same way, to use Paul's comment about schools lacking facilities, while there are indeed poorly funded school districts that suffer through little fault of their own, there are a lot of others that have excellent funding--close to that of the most affluent suburban districts--but squander it through excessive adminstrative costs, security costs, vandalism, and corruption.  Try saying that when the corrupt administrator, or the guy who just tore up the bleachers, lives next door.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul J's picture

My point it the problem is systemic, and though I would not be a fan of distribution of personal wealth, I do say that I'd be in favor of redistributing school tax income.  In many ways this is like the problems in the south before segregation where they would say "separate but equal" but the schools were far from equal.  We could talk about the redundant waste in all the back-end costs of the various districts that could be eliminated/reduced by centralizing.  The problem with the current system is that the funded districts have no reason or even if they wanted to, no method to fund the needs of the under resourced districts. This system is broken and churches and individual Christian can work to right the injustice by giving and serving. It's probably impossible to fix as it would require some pain which no one is going to stay elected if they were to recommend the drastic measures required.  Bert, I think the administrator would get the boot. That is one thing good about the current set-up is you are really close to the administration and they are your neighbors.  With the vandal might neighborhood outreaches make a difference to salvage them? On either it would make neighborhood barbeque a bit uncomfortable. Smile

Bert Perry's picture

Paul, my comment was in reference, really, to cities where corrupt administrators go into the 2nd and 3rd generation.  I grew up near Chicago and Gary, and the degree to which people in those cities closed ranks around "their" leaders despite clear corruption had to be seen to be believed.  For that matter, there are a lot of small towns where you simply don't cross a certain "power family" or group of families.  

A big part of improving the world around us consists in recognizing these power structures so our help doesn't make them worse.  A good example; the District of Columbia fails to have safe schools in good condition, AND they spend $30k or so per student.  Giving them more money just deepens the disfunction by giving the corrupt administrators cash to throw around to buy support and votes.  

(yes, it's much like a third world country.....)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Joel Shaffer's picture

First of all, let me say that I appreciate Jesse Johnson's article.  It's voices like this that are needed from the pro-SJS group who do not imply guilt-by-association, who do not judge the motive, who do not misrepresent the views of their opponents, and who do not create hasty generalizations and do not excuse these slanderous/logical fallacy tactics by stating they are using polemic writing, which is the way the Pyromaniacs group and even John MacArthur has approached social justice issue.   

However, I do want to offer a little push back, which may help us understand the whole "redistribution" talk.  When we talk about redistribution and justice in the conservative evangelical world, we need to be careful not to read into what is meant by "redistribution" and assume that it means outcome-based justice and Marxist/Socialism/Government-Redistribution type thinking.  Just about everyone within the conservative evangelical world (including Tim Keller) who does urban ministry/community development work has been influenced by John M. Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) that he founded.  Keller's church and Tim himself are members of CCDA.  Redistribution is one of the main principles of Christian Community Development.  Yet for Perkins and CCDA, Redistribution means God’s people working for justice in the community utilizing their skills and resources to address the problems of that community alongside their neighbors as they develop jobs, improve schools, create home ownership opportunities, and other enterprises of long-term development.  Redistributing income, as John Perkins asserts, only hurts the poor by creating dependency instead of empowerment.   That is the context of Social Justice.  That is why my frustration level has been at such an all-time high when Phil Johnson, John MacArthur, and even a few on Sharper Iron assume that social justice for these conservative evangelicals is somehow connected to political and social left that is sympathetic to Marxism and Socialism.  If they would actually take the time to do the grunt work and research, they might realize how misplaced their fears really are.   

Andrew K's picture

Paul J wrote:

In our area, schools are not centralized by county but rather by townships and cities.  Because of this structure the distribution of tax dollars are not equitable.  The taxes are not distributed beyond the township other then what comes separately from the state.  Because of this you have wealth suburban schools with amazing facilities.  And in one example a city school which can’t use their gym because of safety issues and has to decide do they use funds for education or repairing the gym?  An example of church entering into justice would be to raise funds to give to the school to make the repairs and to provide volunteer labor to extend the reach of those dollars....

Speaking from the education world here, facilities are the least of our concern re. inner city schools. Or at least that's just one symptom. A more significant issue is the extreme difficulty they face attracting or holding on to talented, caring teachers. There are many reasons for this; systemic, as you'd call them, or cultural, as I'd say. And they're not issues that can be easily fixed or addressed by an outsider/outsider(s) giving money.

CAWatson's picture

Paul J wrote:

In our area, schools are not centralized by county but rather by townships and cities.  Because of this structure the distribution of tax dollars are not equitable.  The taxes are not distributed beyond the township other then what comes separately from the state.  Because of this you have wealth suburban schools with amazing facilities.  And in one example a city school which can’t use their gym because of safety issues and has to decide do they use funds for education or repairing the gym?  An example of church entering into justice would be to raise funds to give to the school to make the repairs and to provide volunteer labor to extend the reach of those dollars.

This, in my opinion would be an example of ongoing injustice and a way for the Church to make a real impact, today.  You can work to create change in government and you can present the Gospel which both are long-term fixes to change the populous and the systems but what about today?  Should the Church stand on the sidelines when they have the resources to make a real difference today?

Sure. Most of the capital projects are paid for locally (like a new gym, building maintenance, etc.). If someone doesn't like the condition of their school, they should run for school board, approve projects, and bring capital improvements to voters to pay for through bonds. That is how it works in the rural areas. If you don't want to pay higher property taxes for your child's education, then vote "no."

Social inequality is normal. Some people are stronger. Some people are smarter. Some people grow up in historic wealth. Some people make a lot of money through a good idea. Some people get lucky. And some people sit on the bottom of society, barely existing. What is the Christian's duty? To do good to all men. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Do the proponents of "redistribution" bear any responsibility for the misunderstanding they create by choosing to use a term largely associated with socialism?  Do they have as much responsibility to work at communicating their intention clearly by not using words with powerful socialist and communist associations?  Yes, critics have a responsibility to read what they actually say instead of assuming, but when one chooses to use politically charged words, how much does that one share the blame for whatever misunderstandings result?  (Just wondering.)

G. N. Barkman

Joel Shaffer's picture

Do the proponents of "redistribution" bear any responsibility for the misunderstanding they create by choosing to use a term largely associated with socialism?  Do they have as much responsibility to work at communicating their intention clearly by not using words with powerful socialist and communist associations?  Yes, critics have a responsibility to read what they actually say instead of assuming, but when one chooses to use politically charged words, how much does that one share the blame for whatever misunderstandings result?  (Just wondering.)

That's a good and fair question!  Perkins formulated his 3 R's of Christian Community Development (Relocation, Reconciliation, and Redistribution)  in the 1960's and 1970's where some Christians were quite sympathetic to a form of Christian Socialism (Ron Sider comes to mind). Some of the Christians he was interacting with held to more of a socialist income redistribution model.  As a way of teaching them a more Biblical way of economics, he redefines the term redistribution and modeled it through his ministry that redistribution has little to do with, but rather has everything to do with redistributing skills and opportunity so that there is empowerment among the poor rather than dependency.  And it worked.  Take for instance Ron Sider.  The first edition of his book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" leaned very much towards Christian Socialism and heavy-handed government intervention.  Sider received an mixed reaction from Christian evangelicalism, with more negativity from those who knew how the free-enterprise system works    A book was written in response to Sider's "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" called "Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators" (which I think is one of the best book titles of all time)  and Sider listened to his critics and sought out models of Christian Community Development that was free-market friendly-which was primarily Perkins' Voice of Calvary Ministries in Mississippi.  By Sider's 3rd and 4th edition, he had admitted his lack of understanding of economics in the 1st edition and acknowledges that a free-market economy is the system best suited to break cycles of poverty among the chronic poor at-large.  

I've been reading and listening to Perkins since 1989 and he goes out of his way to distinguish what he means by redistribution verses what the world thinks of when they hear the word "redistribution."    And I am not alone.  Even the conservative economic think tank Acton Institute has published numerous articles praising Perkins and CCDA, and don't have a problem using the term, "redistribution."   https://acton.org/pub/commentary/2000/06/29/models-effective-compassion-...

I would venture to say that most of fundamentalism within Sharper Iron is not familiar with Perkins or his theology or philosophy of ministry because most of these stripes of fundamentalism have ministered outside the orbit of urban/poverty ministry.    So I get why you wonder why he uses such as politically charged term, especially today's culture where there have been resurgences of socialistic and Marxist thought. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

Joel, that's very helpful info.

It looks to me like one of those situations where a thought leader decided to redefine a term rather than coming up with a new one... It would have been better to come up with a new one, because "redistribution" has had a pretty widely recognized meaning in economics for a long time, and in most contexts, still means what it always did.

In the interest of clarity, Perkins et. al., should consider some better labeling.

It sounds like it's "redistribution of skill" not "redistribution of wealth" though the former tends to result in the latter, eventually... (while attempts to achieve the latter directly only result in a shrinking pool of wealth to draw from, eventually).

However, I hasten to add that while I believe in doing good in these ways, not every good is the mission of the church, and I remain very leery of anything that distracts from the purposes assigned to the church in the NT.

G. N. Barkman's picture

The word redistribution suggests subtracting from one in order to add to another.  If it's money or material resources, it is questionable whether this can be done without violating ownership rights.  Voluntary giving is a different matter, and all Christians surely believe in this, and hopefully go beyond believing it to actually doing it.

But redistribution of skill puzzles me.  To teach someone a new skill adds to the recipient, but does nothing to subtract from the donor.  Should this be called redistribution?

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

I haven't read Perkins, and would like to see what Joel says about this question, but I suspect there is a belief that educational resources are disproportionately owned/controlled by groups that already have a high level of skill and knowledge -- and success.

So then there would be a reduction of training energy, technology, and skill at the higher socio-economic levels to put more of it at the lower levels.

While both the perceived problem and the redistributional solution may well be valid, I do not see these as things the haves "owe" to the have nots, and therefore not as a matter of justice. ​​​​​​

We're all better off calling charity and mercy by their rightful names. 

Joel Shaffer's picture

I would agree that the term Redistribution isn't exactly the best term to use to describe what is really economic opportunity and development.  We need to remember here that Perkins is 88 years old and is in the early stages of dementia) So he probably won't be changing his terminology and its been the terminology that he's used since the early 1970's.  

The things that you mention Aaron-the Justice language and what the church should or shouldn't be doing when it comes to Justice is where I believe the debate should be going when it comes to Social Justice and the mission of the church, rather than attempting to link conservative evangelical Social Justice advocates to Marxist theory.  Deyoung and Gilbert's book, "What is the Mission of the Church"  has 2 great chapters on Social Justice that I would recommend-Making Sense of Social Justice (exposition) and Making Sense of Social Justice (application).  

I am not that cut and dry with keeping "social justice" out of part of the mission of the church, because some of these areas of social justice is part of loving one's neighbor as yourself (which is the context of making disciples) and sometimes doing social justice can be part of what it means to make disciples.  Ironically, I've had to advocate on behalf of the poor and oppressed many times dealing with failed government systems (friend of the court, child protective services, and or the criminal justice system-such as a government appointed attorney that won't help their client).   When I've walked along side of people where their rights have been violated, it gives me open doors into their families and even extended families lives to share the gospel.  Its never a distraction from evangelism/discipleship-mission of the church, but rather enhances it.  I think sometimes we equate social justice with political activism, but that is not how I see social justice.   

CAWatson's picture

FWIW, the differences in this discussion highlight one of the reasons why fundamentalism and evangelicalism split - beginning with Henry's Uneasy Conscience of a Modern Fundamentalist. 

Joel Shaffer's picture

CA Watson,

I think you are on to something there.  And interestingly, both Russell Moore and Al Mohler (who did not sign the SJS statement) count Carl FH Henry and one of their primary Mentors.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is also the home of the Carl FH Henry Center for Evangelical Engagement.  http://www.henryinstitute.org/

 

Paul J's picture

Thank you for weighing in Joel.  You of course have better context then any of us.  I was using my example above as an illustration of systematic injustice and you have real life examples.

In reading the occasional Pyro posts, which I rarely do other then when they show-up here, just seem caustic.  Your words, described my feels.

John Perkin's book "Let Justice Roll Down" was one of the things that has helped shaped my own views on things like civil rights and injustices that have happened in the USA in my own life time.  These are things that continue to shape and color today.  Watching John and his wife and their family's work over many years has proven much for me.  I haven't had that book back in my library for probably 5 years as it just keeps being shared one person to the next.

A few years ago I heard he was speaking at Lancaster Bible College so I jump in the car to get the chance to hear him and it was a blessing to me.

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