01 November 2018

Statement on Social Justice, a final assessment

Now that we have evaluated in some detail each of the affirmations and denials of the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, it is appropriate to make a final assessment of the statement as a whole.

To begin with, it seems to me that we are manifestly living in a moment of manifesto fatigue. Too many statements are published to persuade people to come onside of a particular issue or set of issues. Forty-five years ago the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Concern was published and garnered a number of signatories, including such mainstream stalwarts as Carl F. H. Henry, Richard Mouw and Lewis Smedes, but also those more evidently associated with the so-called Christian left such as Ron Sider, John Howard Yoder and Jim Wallis. I was particularly excited about this document, although I never had the opportunity to sign it, which was more difficult to do before the internet age.

Then came the 1976 Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation, spearheaded by Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger, and signed again by Mouw and Smedes, among others. This statement attempted to combat a number of defective views concerning the relationship between religion and modernity. I could list more, such as the Manhattan Declaration (2009), the Nashville Statement (2017), and now the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Since the most recent statements cover much of the same ground, it is unclear why some people think that new statements are necessary, apart from the fact that they emerge out of different organizations with somewhat different emphases and constituencies. Some people have signed one of these statements but feel unable to sign the others for various reasons. Dare I ask whether there should be a moratorium on the making of new manifestos? If they appear too frequently, they will tend over time to lose whatever impact they might have had as singular documents tailored to specific circumstances.

Nevertheless, as this document is now "out there", I will indicate right off that I cannot sign it for several reasons, despite my agreement with much of its content. Why?

1. The statement takes too individualistic an approach to racial division. It concentrates too much on vindicating people today from the sins of their forebears without recognizing that systemic patterns may exist that perpetuate this division today. If one of my ancestors was a slaveholder—not altogether inconceivable given my maternal roots in the American South—I bear no legal or moral culpability for this. The statement is correct on this point. In fact, given my paternal roots in the Ottoman Empire, where slavery was legal into the 20th century, it is possible that some of my own Orthodox Christian distant relatives were slaves.

Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the authors feel they have to belabour this point. Much better would it be if they were to call all Christians to work for racial reconciliation and to build bridges between peoples where the wounds inflicted by racism still fester. Otherwise, they risk conveying a tone of self-justification.

2. The authors of the statement properly recognize that God created humanity as male and female. Furthermore, virtually every society known to us prescribes a sexual division of labour of some sort, although the precise contours of this division vary with time and place. Those favouring an egalitarian society risk subjecting the untidiness of flesh-and-blood communities to the demands of an abstract ideological construct incapable of full realization. Nevertheless, those who attempt to harden a particular, historically-conditioned manifestation of this division of labour, as though it embodied the whole of God's plan, are similarly in danger of imposing an abstract formula on men and women who do not fit the prescribed roles. In this respect, complementarianism turns out to be just as ideological as egalitarianism, with neither taking sufficient account of the ways men and women relate to each other in the real world. This inevitably affects the way readers interpret Scripture.

3.The statement's authors view Scripture in a way that divorces it from God's creation ordinances. Or, put differently, it unduly separates special from general revelation. Once again they make it appear as if we have no knowledge of justice before we read about it in the pages of the Bible. We are a blank slate awaiting biblical data to be inscribed on us. But to reiterate what I wrote earlier, this is not the way human beings function in the real world. We are embedded in God's creation and thus are given at least a rudimentary understanding of the principles by which we are to live, including justice. By our very nature, we marry, establish and raise families, grow the food for our nourishment, build cities, make music, and establish systems of justice—all without waiting to see what, if anything, the Bible has to say on these topics.

Calvin likened the Scriptures to spectacles through which we clearly see God and his work in creation (Institutes 1.6.1). Or as the psalmist puts it, God's word is "a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). We do not go to the Bible to find scientific data. The Bible is not a textbook in sociology, political science, psychology, physics, biology or astronomy. Nevertheless, reading the Bible and immersing ourselves in its redemptive story provide insight applicable to all of these fields and more. It illumines the way before us, correcting our course when we have gone astray.

4. The statement exhibits a defective ecclesiology, failing to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as body of Christ. In the absence of this crucial distinction, it seems we are compelled to choose between preaching and social reform. But this dilemma evaporates once we recognize that there are two senses of church and that the life in Christ covers, not only what we do in the pews on sunday, but what we do the rest of the week. Recognizing this distinction would have changed key sections of the statement. Neglecting this distinction inevitably confronts us with false dilemmas.

5. Finally, the statement's authors take too narrow a view of the kingdom of God. They appear to see the kingdom as a matter of preaching the gospel and bringing individual persons to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Don't misunderstand me here. The work of evangelism must be done, and many Christian social activists are in danger of neglecting it. These are the people whom the statement addresses. Yet that initial moment of repentance for sin and recognition that we are saved by God's grace through faith is not the end of the story, as the authors would perhaps admit in another context.

The error of the old Social Gospel movement was not that it focussed on social reform and lifting the poor out of poverty. The Social Gospellers erred in two respects. First, they had a defective understanding of the Christian faith owing more to a typical 19th-century rationalistic mindset than to the Bible. Second, they isolated social reform from the broader call to live for Christ in the whole range of life's activities. The authors of this statement appear to be doing something similar: the choice before us is either the gospel or social reform. Yet the call to holiness and to living for the kingdom is as extensive as creation itself. Farmers, manufacturers, labour union stewards, musicians, artists, journalists, electricians and sewage line workers are not obviously preaching the gospel or attempting social reform. Yet if they are in Christ, they are agents of his kingdom in every walk of life.

It is telling that the authors of the statement neglect the eschatological dimension of the faith. Eschatology, or the doctrine of the last things, is not a mere add-on to our Christian walk. Rather, it gives us direction for the future. At the end of the present age are we to be removed from this world to spend eternity in a blissful ethereal realm of floating spirits? Or will the whole creation be renewed when Christ returns? Perhaps the authors are not in agreement on this, which could account for their silence. Nevertheless, the Bible itself is not so reticent: "For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:22-24). "For in him [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:19-20). "And he who sat upon the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new'" (Revelation 21:5, emphases mine).

We live in the hope of the resurrection of the dead in a renewed creation, which awaits its final fulfilment at Christ's return. In the meantime we are heirs of this promise in everything we do in God's world. Some of our fellow believers will feel called to sign this document as an expression of their faith, and I do not criticize them for so doing. But for the reasons given above, I will not be signing, and I hope that those who do so will take a charitable attitude towards those of us who are keeping our pens in our pockets.

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