Social change can be pursued with mercy and hope.
Like a lot of people, I’ve tried to envision a way to promote social change that doesn’t involve destroying people’s careers over a bad tweet, that doesn’t reduce people to simplistic labels, that is more about a positive agenda to redistribute power to the marginalized than it is about simply blotting out the unworthy. I’m groping for a social justice movement, in other words, that would be anti-oppression and without the dehumanizing cruelty we’ve seen of late.
I tried to write a column describing what that might look like — and failed. It wasn’t clear in my head.
But this week I interviewed Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College and a contributing writer for New York Times Opinion. He described a distinctly Christian vision of social justice I found riveting and a little strange (in a good way) and important for everybody to hear, Christian and non-Christian, believer and nonbeliever.
This vision begins with respect for the equal dignity of each person. It is based on the idea that we are all made in the image of God. It abhors any attempt to dehumanize anybody on any front. We may be unjustly divided in a zillion ways, but a fundamental human solidarity in being part of the same creation.
The Christian social justice vision also emphasizes the importance of memory. The Bible is filled with stories of marginalization and transformation, which we continue to live out. Exodus is the complicated history of how a fractious people comes together to form a nation.
Today, many Americans are trying to tell the true history of our people, a tale that doesn’t whitewash the shameful themes in our narrative nor downplay the painful but uneven progress — realist but not despairing.
McCaulley doesn’t describe racism as a problem, but as a sin enmeshed with other sins, like greed and lust. Some people don’t like “sin” talk. But to cast racism as a sin is useful in many ways.
The concept of sin gives us an action plan to struggle against it: acknowledge the sin, confess the sin, ask forgiveness for the sin, turn away from the sin, restore the wrong done. If racism is America’s collective sin then the tasks are: tell the truth about racism, turn away from racism, offer reparations for racism.
A struggle against a sin is not the work of a week or a year, since sin keeps popping back up. But this vision has led to some of the most significant social justice victories in history: William Wilberforce’s fight against the slave trade, the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and the Confessing Church’s struggle against Nazism. And, of course, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.
From Frederick Douglass and Howard Thurman to Martin Luther King Jr. on down, the Christian social justice movement has relentlessly exposed evil by forcing it face to face with Christological good. The marches, the sit-ins, the nonviolence. “You can’t get to just ends with unjust means,” McCaulley told me. “The ethic of Jesus is as important as the ends of liberation.”
He pointed me to the argument Thurman made in “Jesus and the Disinherited,” that hatred is a great motivator, but it burns down more than the object of its ire. You can feel rage but there has to be something on the other side of anger.
That is the ethic of self-emptying love — neither revile the reviler nor allow him to stay in his sin. The Christian approach to power is to tell those with power to give it up for the sake of those who lack. There is a relentless effort to rebuild relationship because God is relentless in pursuit of us.
“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” King wrote. “We can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again.”
McCaulley emphasizes that forgiveness — like the kind offered by the congregants of the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., and family members after parishioners were murdered in 2015 by a white supremacist — is not a stand-alone thing. It has to come with justice and change: “Why is Black forgiveness required again and again? Why is forgiveness heard but the demand for justice ignored?”
But this vision does not put anybody outside the sphere of possible redemption. “If you tell us you are trying to change, we will come alongside you,” McCaulley says. “When the church is at its best it opens up to the possibility of change, to begin again.”
New life is always possible, for the person and the nation. This is the final way the Christian social justice vision is distinct. When some people talk about social justice it sounds as if group-versus-group power struggles are an eternal fact of human existence. We all have to armor up for an endless war.
But, as McCaulley writes in his book “Reading While Black,” “the Old and New Testaments have a message of salvation, liberation and reconciliation.”
On the other side of justice, we reach the beloved community and multiethnic family of humankind. This vision has a destination, and thus walks not in bitterness but in hope.