A review of Christianity and Social Justice: Religions in Conflict (Reformation Zion Publishing, 2021) by Jon Harris
Writing during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s, Princeton New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen argued that Christianity and liberalism are hostile and antithetical religious systems. “In the sphere of religion,” wrote Machen, “in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology.”
A century later, “conservative” Protestantism remains a house divided. The dwindling battalions of orthodoxy stand against the forces of the Great Awokening that are waging war under the banner of “social justice.” The battle pits religious elites, who like their secular counterparts control the institutions of authority and indoctrination, against Middle Americans and bitter deplorables who cling not just to guns and religion but to historic conceptions of the faith. Social justice ideology has spread far beyond mainline Protestantism into conservative denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), America’s largest Protestant denomination. In 2019, the SBC adopted a resolution endorsing the use of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality “as analytical tools” to apply scripture and analyze culture.
Admonitions to “tear down all hierarchy” and root out “white privilege” pepper the preaching of the clerical class. Inside the Trojan Horse bearing the name social justice are radical feminism, Black Liberation Theology, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. And they’ve been smuggled into even conservative churches. Pastors proclaim them from pulpits, at conferences, and on social media.
In Christianity and Social Justice: Religions in Conflict, Jon Harris provides a concise, readable summary of the differences between biblical Christianity and social justice. Social justice, he avers, is a new religion. It has its own doctrines of God, man, sin, and salvation, as well as its own priestly class, liturgical rituals, and canon of texts. All are at odds with the historic Christian faith.
A New Heresy
Harris begins with a synopsis of nearly 250 years of intellectual history stretching from the streets of pre-Revolutionary France to the halls of Harvard and into the sanctuaries of evangelicalism. Influences as diverse as Rousseau and Marx, Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács, the social reform and Social Gospel movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, along with French postmodernists and intersectional theorists, have fused with liberation theology to produce a new Christian heresy.
Woke Christianity threatens the gospel by “conflating the demands of social justice with the grace offered in the gospel,” Harris writes. A new evangelical theology of liberation blurs the distinction between law and grace, which turns the gospel and church of Christ into an engine of egalitarian social change. “Such teaching,” writes Harris, “confuses the gospel by making the church’s ability to keep additional ethical demands, mostly derived from a New Left moral framework, necessary in order to maintain the reality of the gospel’s presence in the life of the church.”
Harris shows why this false understanding of the gospel rests on an unsteady epistemological foundation and distorted metaphysics that produce a faulty conception of ethics.
A cornerstone of that false understanding is standpoint theory, which assumes that an individual’s social and political experiences shape their beliefs and perspectives. Thus, different experiences produce different kinds of knowledge and different understandings of reality. “Postmodern standpoint epistemology destroys this Christian conception of revelation’s accessibility by placing knowledge barriers in front of people from certain social locations,” Harris explains. He cites numerous examples of the influence of standpoint theory being applied to biblical interpretation and hermeneutics.
For instance, in 2018, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist convention featured Dr. Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a video that asked the question, “What do white Christians need to be mindful of when speaking out about racial reconciliation?” Akin answered that “white Christians need to learn above all things… to be good listeners.” According to Akin the “white perspective” is different from Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who operate “out of a different paradigm and context.”
In 2020, in an interview Akin said it was “better” to “read the Bible” with people “from all different ethnicities” and “socioeconomic standings because they’re going to have insights” into the Bible that he would miss. One further implication according to Akin is that white people need to surrender leadership to ethnic minorities in order to make progress towards racial equality. You first, Danny!
The problem is not the admission that people learn from one another, indeed scripture should be interpreted within the context of the church. The problem is the assumption that social location, race or “oppression” determines understanding. This is a form of Gnosticism or racial solipsism that absolutizes the presuppositions of the “oppressed” interpreter and makes the text dependent on those assumptions. Moreover, if standpoint theory is true, no one can make truth claims about anything outside their experiences, which means no one can make absolute truth claims. Postmodern assumptions therefore undermine the authority of scripture and the intelligibility of divine revelation.
Social justice metaphysics replaces God’s providential governing of history with an ideology of oppression and a distorted, reductionist view of human nature. Rather than acknowledging that God creates men with different identities, duties, and relationships, social justice Christians view social relations primarily through the prism of power dynamics and injustice.
Harris concludes with ethics. Historic Christianity assumes a social order where men are born into hierarchical families, churches, institutions, and nations. Likewise our duties within those structures, one of which is indeed justice, are hierarchical and flow outward in a series of concentric circles. The Christian duty to love is arranged according to proximity and responsibility. To live with piety is to accept our place in that structure of reality and favor the near over the far, the concrete over the abstract.
Social justice redefines love and justice based on egalitarianism that “weakens natural relationships and flattens personal affections into caring for all humans across the globe equally,” which replaces “a love for one’s relatives and neighbors with a love for abstractions and fantasies.” The concept of “neighbor love” has been universalized. In part this is strategic. The goal is to leave the individual naked and unprotected before the state. The universalization of obligation ends in socialism.
Weakening such natural and organic connections has other spiritual implications. Practical piety is this-worldly and extends beyond the prayer closet, confessional, or “accountability partner.” It is impossible to pursue supernatural virtues while ignoring natural obligations. “For if a man deserts those who are united by ties of kindred and affinity, how shall he be affectionate towards others?” asks John Chrysostom.
Nothing Worth Salvaging
Christianity and Social Justice shines a bright spotlight on Woke Christianity. One great service Harris provides is simply naming those who are either advocating egalitarian and left-wing ideas or accommodating and enabling them. The problem isn’t confined to the likes of Jarvis Williams, Eric Mason, and Jemar Tisby. Culpability also includes those such as Albert Mohler and Ligon Duncan who grant them academic appointments and the respectability of mainstream cover.
Nothing is worth salvaging from Woke Christianity and its gospel of social justice. Indeed, Christians must reject that gospel, which really isn’t a gospel at all but instead leftist ideology stamped with the false imprimatur of “biblical” authority.
Harris sums up the choice facing Christians this way:
“Social justice offers what it has delivered every time it is tried: jealousy, envy, bitterness, destruction, corruption, tyranny, and ultimately, civil slavery to an impersonal, centralized bureaucracy. At this crucial moment, it is up to evangelicals, and Americans in general, to decide which path to follow.”