A Christian Vision of Social Justice

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 progressrealist 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 loveneither 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.

Jon Meachum: The Constitution is a Calvinist Ducument. The Declaration was an Englightenment one

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me to this point so I I do think it’s
a it’s a good bright line to draw John
Jefferson knew that part and this is in
your book all these codes about
partisanship I mean he was pretty
dedicated to engagement and political
issues but what would he think of the
type of partisanship we have now at this
moment I think he would recognize it
honestly he once said divisions of
opinion have convulsed human societies
since Greece and Rome divisions of
opinion were the oxygen of a free
government I’m a skeptic of the a
prevailing scholarly view that the
founders had this vision of a one-party
one-party state and we would all be on
Olympus with powdered wigs and
solving problems they may have had that
vision we all had that vision and but
they understood reality oh if you if you
worry if you’re worried about or if you
doubt me about whether they understood
reality read the Constitution which is
entirely about reality constitute if
Jefferson was an Enlightenment document
the Constitution is a Calvinist document
as looms we are all Despres sinful and
driven by appetite and ambition and
we’ve done everything we can
since then to prove them right so I
think you know this is a the Hemings the
story about Sally Hemings was first
publicized in 1802 and we with all love
and respect to a net we don’t know that
much more than that first piece doing it
wasn’t seen as a historical or cultural
document it was a partisan attack yeah
you know right and and continued during
that you know during his presidency and
in a few times afterwards there’s been a
big debate recently coming out of the
New York Times 16:19 project how much do
we need to revise our concept of the
founding of this nation do you think
that makes sense or has it gone a bit
too far the pendulum is historians have
been writing about this down for quite
some time but what we haven’t done as
much as to think about what that means
for us today
that the legacy of slavery is still with
us there’s a tendency there has been a
tendency on the part of many people to
say oh well we knew that but that’s over
I think that’s the that’s the
contribution of the magazine of 1619 is
not to tell us something many things we
didn’t know but to say there is a
connection to this that is continuing
you don’t get rid of hundreds of years
of slavery in a century or so and we
really don’t get going as legally full
citizens until 1965 the passage of the
that’s not in the history you know
that’s a blink of an eye so they even in
total blink of an eye in history and
thinking that this stuff is all in the
past has been the problem and that’s I
think that’s what the project was trying
to do is to say no this isn’t over John
I was struck I believe it was the
remarks at the signing of the Civil
Rights Act and in July July 2nd 1964
Lyndon Johnson grounds his remark at the
bill signing not on Philadelphia but on
Jamestown it which which I was struck by
talk about a complicated figure well you
know were the Democratic nominee for
president is a 77 year old white man who
was the vice president of the first
african-american president incredibly
loyal and eulogized Thurmond and
Eastland you know so well if you’re
looking for simplicity if you’re looking
for straightforward figures good luck
I don’t know who they would be I think
what an it just said is absolutely
essential I have a theory
aboard Walter with this I think
privately actually that we’re only a 60
year old nation right the country we
have right now the polity we have which
is soon going to be majority diversity
whatever phrase it is was really created
in 1964-65 not only with the Civil
Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act but
with the Immigration Act yeah which
totally changed the nature of the
country and so no wonder this is so hard
no wonder we’re having such a ferocious
white reaction this is kind of the 1830s
in a way and so it’s not to excuse it
but I do think it explains it a little
bit and this idea of Prague
and I know it sounds tinny to people and
look if you look like me you can talk
about progress right I’m the boring Lee
heterosexual white southern Episcopalian
right I mean things tend to work out for
me in America so I stipulate that but
but it’s simply the lesson of history
that we are in fact a better country
than we were yesterday doesn’t mean
we’re perfect doesn’t mean we stop up
but our are enough of us devoted to
doing all we can as citizens and as
leaders to try to create a country that
more of us can be proud of and if we are
then let’s get to it yeah and and I
would throw in women the changing role
of women from the 1960s and this is
that’s a good point I wouldn’t I agree
with 60 years again a short time in
history where everything everybody’s
sort of in place it’s like Ken Burns
said that he found it difficult to call
talk about the Golden Age of baseball
and there were no black players in the
major league how do you how do you do
that and this is a similar situation
where you have blacks legally allowed to
vote and those rights are protected I
mean there’s issues with voter
suppression but sort of on paper
equality is there and it’s hard is
wrenching for people who have had you
know power who are used to a certain
hierarchy a certain way things are were
or they think about their grandparents
or good old days it’s hard to get used
to all of that and so you’re right
there’s no wonder that there’s a people
Annette gordon-reed Jon Meacham thank
you for joining us to be here

Christ Means “Anointed”

Cynthia Bourgeault has spent years studying Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest apostles, often conflated with a prostitute. Cynthia reclaims Magdalene’s significance as Jesus’ beloved companion and a model of authentic love.

Christ is not Jesus’s last name—an obvious but so-often overlooked truism. It means “the anointed one.” And however much his followers may have wished for the ceremonial anointing that would have proclaimed him the Davidic Messiah, the fact is that he became “the Anointed One” at the hands of an unidentified woman who appeared out of nowhere at a private dinner bearing a jar of precious perfume and sealed him with the unction of her love. . . .

I believe that the traditional memory of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s anointer . . . holds the key to . . . understanding . . . the Passion as an act of substituted love. It also . . . offers a powerful ritual access point to the Christian pathway toward singleness and “restoration to fullness of being.” If we are fully to avail ourselves of Mary Magdalene’s wisdom presence today, it will be, I believe, primarily through recovering a wisdom relationship with the ritual of anointing—that is, coming to understand it . . . as an act of conscious love marking the passageway into both physical and spiritual wholeness.

Her passion has transformed her into one of the initiated ones. And in The Cloud of Unknowing, the author recognizes this same quality of passion as the key element that not only frees Mary from her sins but catapults her into unitive consciousness and a state of continuous beatific communion:

When our Lord spoke to Mary as a representative of all sinners who are called to the contemplative life and said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” it was not only because of her great sorrow, nor because of her remembering her sins, nor even because of the meekness with which she regarded her sinfulness. Why then? It was surely because she loved much.

. . . Even though she may not have felt a deep and strong sorrow for her sins . . . she languished more for lack of love than for any remembrance of her sins. . . .

Richard Rohr: Do Not Be Afraid

 “When I act against my own will, then it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me” (Romans 7:20, Jerusalem Bible). Somehow, he knew there was a part of him that was authentic, steadfast, and true to its God-given and loving nature.

Paul then contrasted the true self with what we are calling the false self and he called “sin” (7:14-25). It is the self that is always passing away.

.. The false self is not really bad or evil, but just inadequate to the big questions of love, death, suffering, God, or infinity. God allows and uses all our diversionary tactics to get us to move toward our full and final destination, which is divine union—and thus wholeness. That is how perfect and patient divine love is: Nothing is wasted; even our mistakes are the raw material to turn us back into love.

.. The True Self will surely have doubts about the unknown. But the True Self is the Risen Christ in you, and hence, it is not afraid of death. It has already been to hell and back. The Risen Christ in us knows that it will never lose anything real by dying. This is the necessary suffering of walking the full human path. That is what Jesus did and why we are invited to “reproduce the pattern of his death,” each in our own way, so that we can also take our place in the “force field” of God’s universal resurrection (see Philippians 3:10-11 and Acts 3:21).

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, “Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water. At that moment, all fear of death disappears.” [1]

And in Stephen Levine’s:

But water is water, no matter what its shape or form. The solidity of ice imagines itself to be its edges and density. Melting, it remembers; evaporating, it ascends. [2]

So do not be afraid. Death to false self and the end of human life is simply a return to our Ground of Being, to God, to Love. Life doesn’t truly end; it simply changes form and continues evolving into ever new shapes and beauty.

Richard Rohr Meditation: The Most Essential Thing

Love is who you are. When you don’t live according to love, you are outside of being. You’re basically not real or true to yourself. When you love, you are acting according to your deepest being, your deepest truth. You are operating according to your dignity. For a simple description of the kind of love I am talking about, let’s just use the word outflowing. .

.. John the Evangelist writes, “God is love, and whoever remains in love, remains in God and God in them” (1 John 4:16). The Judeo-Christian creation story says that we were created in the very “image and likeness” of God—who sets the highest bar for this kind of outflowing love (Genesis 1:26-27). Out of the Trinity’s generative and infinitely flowing relationship, all of creation takes form, mirroring its Creator in its deepest identity.

.. We have heard this phrase so often that we don’t get the existential shock of what “created in the image and likeness of God” is saying about us. If this is true, then our family of origin is divine. It is saying that we were created by a loving God to also be love in the world. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. Our starting point is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If the beginning is right, the rest is made considerably easier, because we know and can trust the clear direction of our life’s tangent.

.. We must all overcome the illusion of separateness. It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness but union, to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness “sin.” God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. “My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God” (1 John 3:2).

Henceforth, all our moral behavior is simply “the imitation of God.” First observe what God is doing all the time and everywhere, and then do the same thing (Ephesians 5:1). And what does God do? God does what God is: Love. God does not love you if and when you change. God loves you so that you can change!

Richard Rohr Meditation: Radical Politics

If you walk around with hatred and prejudice in your heart and mind all day, morally you’re just as much a killer as the one who pulls out the gun. That seems to be what Jesus is saying. The evil and genocide of World War II was the final result of decades of negative and paranoid thinking among good German Christians, Catholic and Lutheran. The tragic fascism of Nazi Germany was fomenting in people’s hearts long before a political leader came to catalyze their hate and resentment. Now it seems we are seeing the same in the United States.

Jesus tells us to not harbor hateful anger or call people names even in our hearts like “fool” or “worthless person” (Matthew 5:22). If we’re walking around all day thinking, “What an idiot he is,” we are already in the state of sin. Sin is more a state of separation and superiority than any concrete action—which is only the symptom. How we live in our hearts is our real truth.

.. Jesus insists that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). For Jesus, prayer seems to be a matter of waiting in love, returning to love, trusting that love is the unceasing stream of reality. Prayer isn’t primarily words; it’s an attitude, a stance, a state that precedes “saying” any individual prayers. That’s why Paul could say, “Pray unceasingly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). If we think of prayer as requiring words, it is surely impossible to pray always.