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.
Choosing between a focus on race or class is the wrong choice to begin with... There’s a lot of discussion about how far left the Democratic Party should go these days. Is it destroying its electoral chances when its members call for a single-payer health plan or abolishing ICE?
That’s an important question, but the most important question is what story is the Democratic Party telling?
.. As Alasdair MacIntyre argued many years ago, you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of. Story is more important than policies.
.. The story Donald Trump tells is that we good-hearted, decent people of Middle America have been betrayed by stupid elites who screw us and been threatened by foreigners who are out to get us.
.. Back in the 1980s, the Democrats told two different stories. One was the compassion story associated with Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy: Too many Americans are poor, marginalized and left behind. We must care for our brothers and sisters because we are all one family.
.. The other was the brainpower/meritocracy story associated with Gary Hart and later the New Democrats: Americans are masters at innovation. We must use our best minds to come up with innovative plans to solve our problems and head into a new technological century.
I don’t hear those two stories much anymore. The Democrats are emphasizing fighting grit these days, not compassion or technocratic expertise.
Today’s Democrats tell two other stories.
- The first is the traditional socialist story associated with Bernie Sanders: America is rived by the class conflict. The bankers and the oligarchs are exploiting the middles. We need a fighter who will go out and battle concentrated economic power.
- The second is the multicultural story: American history has been marked by systems of oppression. Those who have been oppressed — women, African-Americans, Latinos — need to stand together and fight for justice.
.. Racial justice socialism seems to be the story of the contemporary left. This story effectively paints Trump as the villain on all fronts, and Democrats do face the distinct problem of how to run against a bully like Trump. But is it good politics for the entire Democratic Party to embrace it?
.. no national Democrat has ever fully embraced this story successfully. In fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went to great lengths to assure people they were not embracing this story.
- .. They did because Americans trust business more than the state, so socialism has never played well.
- They did it because if you throw race into your economic arguments you end up turning off potential allies in swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
- They did it because if you throw economics into your race arguments you end up dividing your coalitions on those issues.
In brief, Democrats have stayed away from this narrative because the long hoped-for alliance between oppressed racial minorities and the oppressed white working class has never materialized, and it looks very far from materializing now.
.. for 100 years, Democrats have tended to win with youthful optimism and not anger and indignation.
.. The Democrats who have won nationally almost all ran on generational change — on tired old America versus the possibilities of new America:
- F.D.R.’s New Deal,
- J.F.K.’s New Frontier,
- Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century and
- Obama’s hope and change.
If I had to advise on a Democratic narrative I’d start with three premises:
- First, by 2020 everybody will be exhausted by the climate of negativism and hostility.
- Second, the core long-term fear is American decline; are we losing our mojo?
- Third, communities and nations don’t come together when they talk about their problems; they come together when they do something on behalf of their children.
Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.
.. This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented.
If you want peace, work for justice. —Pope Paul VI
.. the single biggest obstacle to the church’s mission and vision of peace with justice is the fact of the segregation of the poor/the oppressed/the exploited/the neglected/the stranger from the comfortable/the secure/the satisfied. The result is a divide that convinces the comfortable and secure that all is well and persuades the poor that there is no hope. . .
.. Regardless of what else we do, we must stay connected in some kind of face-to-face way with the persons and the places at risk. . . .
.. The second critical ingredient . . . is justice education. . . . The single most repeated phrase in the Gospels is [what] Jesus uses to describe the vision and focus of his ministry: the Reign of God. . . . This is the reign of
- compassion and
Jesus calls disciples to this vision. Is it fair to say that Jesus did not call disciples to follow him for the purpose of idolizing or honoring him? Rather, the reason to follow him is that he is pointing toward a new possibility—a holy possibility. . . .
.. for us to live as we live in this country, we need to dominate others so that they cannot use the limited resources that we want.
the foundational principles of the Law of Three:
- In every new arising there are three forces involved: affirming, denying, and reconciling.
- The interweaving of the three produces a fourth in a new dimension.
- Affirming, denying, and reconciling are not fixed points or permanent essence attributes, but can and do shift and must be discerned situationally.
- Solutions to impasses or sticking points generally come by learning how to spot and mediate third force, which is present in every situation but generally hidden.
.. The Paschal Mystery is another example, with affirming as Jesus the human teacher of the path of love; denying as the crucifixion and the forces of hatred driving it; and reconciling as the principle of self-emptying, or kenotic love willingly engaged. The fourth, new arising revealed through this weaving is the Kingdom of Heaven, visibly manifest in the very midst of human cruelty and brokenness.