Transforming Christians to Transform Culture

“Social Justice” and Jell-O Nomenclature

Posted on October 27, 2014

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Adapted from an introduction to the Center for Cultural Leadership‘s 2014 West Coast symposium on “Social Justice: A Christian View” in Saratoga, California, October 25

We’re talking today about social justice. “Social justice” has become ubiquitous in sociopolitical discourse. It’s what I like to term “Jell-O nomenclature”: its meaning is obvious until you actually have to nail it down. I’m reminded of what the Western church father Augustine said about the concept of time: “When nobody asks me, I know what it is. But when somebody asks me what it is, I do not know.” We tend to have a vague sense of what social justice is, and in the end it can mean all sorts of things or, perhaps, really nothing at all.

Rather than define it, however, we probably can accurately describe what most people mean when they use or hear it. Social justice is basically the idea that there are unwholesome inequalities among humans in the world, and deeply caring people should use the state (that is, political means) in order to eliminate, or at least seriously reduce, these inequalities. By “human inequalities,” I mean things like income inequalities, inequalities among the sexes, inequalities among religions and races, inequalities between the young and the old, between children and parents, between rich nations and poor nations, and such. By “political means,” I denote using the coercive power of the state in order to force greater equality. Both of these factors are important in understanding social justice. Getting rid of inequality is not enough. How you get rid of it is just as important.

For example, a business entrepreneur who starts a new company in order to provide jobs and income for young people in poverty isn’t an example of social justice. Federal law raising the minimum wage for some of these same young people is an example of social justice.

A university that establishes a policy of hiring the most qualified faculty, whether men or women, is not an instance of social justice. Federally mandated hiring quotas requiring universities to enlist a specific number of women faculty is an example of social justice.

A Roman Catholic hospital that provides designated healthcare funds for its employees to spend as they wish is not an example of social justice. A state requirement that the same hospital provide abortifacients to its employees is an instance of social justice.

In other words, you don’t get to call an action that reduces inequalities social justice unless the state forces you to do it.

The expression “social justice” is Jell-O nomenclature for another reason. As Thomas Sowell once said, all justice is social. After all, if you were alone on a desert island, there’d be no need for justice. Justice is necessary when you have a society, not when you have an individual. So “social justice” is a redundancy.

That’s why it’s much better simply to refer to “justice.” That’s the language in Christian revelation. In the Bible, our English word “justice” is often a translation of the word meaning “righteousness.” To act justly is to act in the right.[1] There’s a right way to treat people, and a wrong way to treat people, and if you treat them rightly, you treat them justly.

In considering social justice, we’re really addressing  justice.

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[1] James D. G. Dunn, “The Justice of God,” in The Justice of God, James D. G. Dunn and Alan Suggate, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 31–42.

Political Conservatives Are (Finally) Figuring Out that Culture Trumps Politics

Posted on October 19, 2014

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Some of the most significant words written by a political conservative in the United States in the last quarter century are here, uttered not by a United States citizen, but by Canadian conservative Mark Steyn. He (finally?) understands that in a constitutional democracy, all of the political victories in the world cannot overturn a single significant cultural victory. You must fight culture with culture, not politics.

On his website, Steyn summarizes his view as “culture trumps politics.” This is the same language and idea that the Center for Cultural Leadership has been using for several years, but I’m less interested in taking credit for a genealogy that in communicating a truth, which Steyn artfully expresses:

If the culture’s liberal, if the schools are liberal, if the churches are liberal, if the hip, groovy business elite is liberal, if the guys who make the movies and the pop songs are liberal, then electing a guy with an “R” after his name isn’t going to make a lot of difference.

I’m far from implying that we should abandon politics — far from it. The Christian conservative stake in politics is, ironically, to downsize and deescalate politics: to expand and preserve liberty for zones of cultural “privacy” — the family, the church, business, and other aspects of what has been called civil (= non-political) society. But we must never be lured into the illusion that political victories will secure the society — the culture — we envision.

If you want to overturn cultural depravity, you can’t do it by winning elections. You must win the culture.

On Being Proudly Neo-Reformational

Posted on October 7, 2014

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In the current atmosphere of conservative Christian cultural engagement, the Center for Cultural Leadership stands squarely within the neo-Reformational (or neo-Calvinist) paradigm (most notably in the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Cornelius Van Til, today championed also by John M. Frame).

Its leading features with reference to culture are:

  1. The inescapably religious character of humanity
  1. The antithesis between righteous cultural thinking and acting and unrighteous cultural thinking and acting
  1. The Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things
  1. The Bible as providing the basis for society
  1. Each sphere of culture (family, church, state, education, science, arts, etc.) fulfilling its own Christian tasks, related, but not subordinate, to other spheres (“sphere sovereignty”)
  1. The calling of Christians to Christianize culture (“cultural mandate”)

The nearly unforgivable and embarrassing scandal of this neo-Reformational paradigm among many Christians, including many Christians rightly working to reverse the secular trends in our culture, is its:

  1. Appeal to special and not merely natural revelation for governing a society (they don’t want the Bible involved)
  1. Refusal to privilege the church vis a vis other spheres (they want the church to be the fountainhead of God’s working in culture)
  1. Commitment to (non-coercive) Christian hegemony (they are often committed to structural pluralism and recoil at any suggestion that biblical Christianity should dominate a culture)

Prominent Christian conservatives invested in natural law alone or in the Two-Kingdom theory or in merely traditional non-neo-Reformational approaches to cultural engagement are often our allies in the cultural battles of our time, and we are grateful for them.

But we are convinced that the neo-Reformational paradigm alone furnishes the most consistent, God-honoring, potentially permanent program for turning back our regnant cultural apostasy.

History Doesn’t Pick Sides — You Do

Posted on September 11, 2014

 

USA Today’s Christine Brennan chided the soft-spoken, retired-NFL-coach-turned-commentator, devout Christian Tony Dungy, for his comparatively benign comment that he would not have drafted the openly gay Michael Sam since he “wouldn’t want to deal with all of it [the controversy].” The unforgivable sin that Dungy and a number of his over-60-years-old crowd committed is, according to Brennan, to be “[o]n the wrong side of history.”

Barack Obama once publicly worried about being on the wrong side of history by not supporting same-sex marriage though, later, he apparently got on the right side of history by supporting it. In fact, as even the left-slated Slate complains, the president is increasingly trotting out that expression “the wrong side of history,” as, for example, when he scolded Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading the Ukraine. Even conservatives sometimes get into the act. Fox News’ Shepard Smith claimed the Republican Party was “on the wrong side of history” for not lining up behind same-sex marriage.

The phrase is often identified with classical Marxists, and Leon Trotsky is reputed to have told his opponents they would end up in “the dustbin of history.”

 

The Metaphysical Myth

 

Behind this idea widely held by leftist radicals is a metaphysical myth, a breathtaking leap of faith. It is this: just as linear history is a record of man’s scientific and technological advance, so it is a record of his moral advance. Earlier morals in history were at best crude and undeveloped and oppressive, and, in many cases, just plain wrong. But as history moves forward, and man becomes more enlightened, as he inevitably will, his morals become more enlightened.

 

But it is, in fact, not true that science and technology have merely advanced. As Carnes Lord has noted, some ancient cultures (notably Egypt and her pyramids) obviously employed technologies every bit as modern as our own. How did that technology get lost for 2500 or more years? From a purely empirical standpoint, scientific and technological advance are not inevitable. But apparently, moral advance is.

 

The radicals will say: “Just think of slavery. It has been abolished everywhere in the Western world. It is not even thinkable.” (Except by radical Muslims in Africa, but we apparently should only be concerned about the putative injustices suffered by the descendants of African-American slaves, and not actual African slaves today.) According to this metaphysical myth, mankind is consistently shedding morality destined for the dustbin of history. (Even expressions like mankind must be shed for the less paternalistically imperialistic term humankind.) When outmoded moralities do reappear, as in the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, they are quickly and relentlessly crushed because they are, well, on the wrong side of history.

 

Disproving a Myth

 

Like most myths, this one is hard to disprove. It is a metaphysical myth. It cannot be empirically disproven because it enlists a standard beyond history by which the events of history must be interpreted. Technological and scientific advance are different. Common sense will tell us that, if our goal is swift and accurate communication with one another, a smart phone is better than a telephone, and a telephone is better than the Pony Express, which has been consigned to the dustbin of history, just as telephones are being relegated to dustbins, and not just historical ones, either.

 

A commonsensical standard for, say, human sexuality is not as clear. Is monogamy superior to polygamy and, if so, to what commonsense standards would one appeal? If the goal is the proliferation of offspring, polygamy beats monogamy hands down. But to assess whether proliferation of offspring should be the chief objective of sexual relationships is to invoke a standard beyond the merely historical. Ironically, however, most radical leftists see monogamy (including, today, homosexual monogamy) as having replaced polygamy in the great march of human history. Radical leftists must enlist a metaphysical standard, a moral standard, that they did not discover merely by historical investigation. To say that monogamy must replace polygamy and that homosexual monogamy is no less legitimate than heterosexual monogamy is to express a judgment based in a particular presupposition, or worldview. No one should simply accept it as an axiom.

 

The Empirical Failure

 

But the wrong-side-of-history myth fails on the empirical level too, even if it can’t be disproven empirically. Moral optimists early in the 20th century were hailing the end of war, the ushering in of universal peace and brotherhood. Tribalism and xenophobia and their moralities had been found to fall on the wrong side of history and had been replaced by the universal morality of tolerance. But something funny happened on the way into the 20th century: World War I, and then World War II, and then world communism, and then the Cold War, and then Korea and Viet Nam, and then Rwandan genocide, and then 9/11, and then ISIS. If, according to the radicals, each event was on the wrong side of history, much of the 20th century was on the wrong side of history. Which is to say, there’s nothing inevitable about the march of morality, including leftist morality. People make decisions, and they often make wrong moral decisions (however “wrong” is defined), and if enough of them make those wrong decisions, the culture will quickly get on the wrong side of history. There is, frankly, nothing morally inevitable, and there simply isn’t any moral march of history.

 

God’s World of Human Choices

 

This world is God’s world, however, since he created it, sustains it, and will bring it to its conclusion, glorifying him and his truth without his employing determinist moralities, without coercing humans to be good or evil. God alone is absolutely free, but he gives man free choices. He can assure the ends without coercing the means. He gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey or disobey. He set before ancient Israel good and evil. His apostle Paul declares that when God revealed himself to humanity in righteousness, most of it turned to idolatry and consequent perversion. History is not some personal force gradually shedding some morals while adopting others. History is God’s created theater in which he dynamically interacts with man, created in his image, to bring all things to God’s glory. There is no right or wrong side of history, there is only a right or wrong side with respect to God. “Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me’” (Ex. 32:26). “Whoever is not with me is against me,” Jesus states, “and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Lk. 11:23).

 

God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, the Bible, and in creation is the only standard of morality in any historical period. Older morality is not illegitimate (or legitimate) merely on the grounds that it is older, and newer morality is not illegitimate(or legitimate) merely on the grounds that it is more recent. All morality must be judged by the objective standard of God’s revelation.

 

We Can Win

 

We Christians aghast at the onslaught of cultural apostasy surrounding us should derive great comfort from the falsity of historical determinism — the myth that history picks sides on which we’d better bandwagon. The pervasive victory of same-sex marriage is not historically inevitable. Legalized abortion on-demand may be the law of the land, but it is not the iron law of historical determinism. A socialistic state may seem the wave of the future, but it may turn out to be nothing more than the splash of the present. Apart from the predictive prophecy of the word of God (and there is much less of this in the Bible than you might suppose), nothing is inevitable. Properly qualified, Thomas Sowell’s comment “[N]othing is inevitable until it happens” is right on target. The world changes. People change. Churches change. Businesses change. Nations change. Cultures change. Nothing is inevitable until it happens.

 

The moniker “the wrong side of history” is calculated to cut off reasonable arguments and is often simply a dash into irresponsibility. To be on the right side of history is simply to capitulate to the inevitable: “Who am I to impede history’s moral march?” That is the lazy way out, and often the immoral way out. History doesn’t decide anything. We decide whether we will obey God or resist him. “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4).

 

Don’t be either bullied or discouraged when you are accused of having fallen on “the wrong side of history.” There is no wrong side of history, or right side of history. There is only a wrong and right side of God and his revelation.

 

Being on God’s right side is all that matters — individually, and culturally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Aesthetic Terrorists

Posted on September 3, 2014

In the far-from-Christian New York Times, Dexter Filkins discloses a fact emerging from the ISIS rampage in Syria and Iraq as horrifying in its own way as the images of rape, pillage, torture, crucifixions, and decapitations we are now accustomed to seeing every night on TV: evidence that ISIS fighters are less interested in political objectives that their murders can secure than in simply enjoying the murders themselves. Filkins reminds us of Carl von Clausewitz’s famed aphorism that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” but Filkins inquires what war might look like when there is no political component — that is to say, when people enjoy the ravages and depredations of war as an end in themselves. Which is to say, finally, that some people kill because they, well, love killing other people. Filkins relates that videos produced by ISIS murderers and their collaborators feature eerie, perverse delight in the murders. This reality, he argues, might belie the words by the murderers (most recently, the decapitators of two Americans) that their goal is to discourage American bombing. The actual explanation is found elsewhere: ISIS simply loves killing people and photographing the killing, and expansionary war is a pretext for their perverse and exhibitionist bloodletting. The beauty is in the killing itself — doing it, and watching the doing of it over and over again.

 

Bruce Mazlish once wrote about both acetic revolution and aesthetic revolution. An aspect of aesthetic revolution is often aesthetic violence — the perverse beauty of destroying human lives, murder as high art. A striking example of aesthetic violence projected on the silver screen is the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

 

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Similarly, in the background noises of ISIS ecstasy accompanying videos of suicide missions, beheadings, and crucifixions, we encounter what I’d like to call aesthetic terrorism — terror for its own sake, terror not so much for a political or military objective, but terror because it, well,  feels so good.

 

Aesthetic Terrorism in the Secular Worldview

 

Aesthetic terrorism is difficult to explain within the postmodern Western democratic, which is to say, militantly secular, worldview. According to militant secularism, the world’s problems are largely reduced to educational or technological challenges that reside in the as-yet-imperfect human system. In the face of humans harming other humans, we simply need better education, better drugs, better brain implants, better electro-chemical bodily stimulation, and so on. In the end, there really can’t be moral transgressions (except maybe racism, sexism, and Christian sexual standards) because morality itself is a spurious category.

 

This is why secular elites scoffed at the cowboy president, Ronald Reagan, when he referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and why many of the same people and their ideological successors responded in the same way when George W. Bush referred to the “axis of evil.” Evil simply isn’t real. Like the triune God, it’s a mental construct of unenlightened people.

 

ISIS’s recent aesthetic terrorism severely tests that thesis. In the Dark Knight, Alfred the butler, played by Michael Caine, explains to Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) the motivations of the nihilistic Joker. He tells the story of his time in Burma when he encountered a man who wreaked havoc in the jungles with no discernible motivation: “Some men just like to see the world burn.”

 

 

If evil is an illusion, what do we call people who do not employ murder as an objective to a greater (= political) end but who relish murder as an end in itself? If this isn’t evil, what is it? And if there is no such thing as evil, what do we call this?

 

Aesthetic Terrorism in the Christian Worldview

 

Aesthetic terrorism is readily explainable in terms of the Christian worldview, however. People are sinners. They’re not sinners because they sin; they sin because they are sinners. This is the Christian idea of Original Sin, which, as G. K. Chesterton once noted, is the only Christian dogma that can be empirically verified. From the vantage of the Christian worldview, it’s not evil that needs to be explained, but good. In a post-Fall world, evil is the default. Good is the exception. Good happens because God intervenes in history to restrain people from being as evil as they otherwise would be. We call this God’s common grace. More importantly, he intervened in history in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue sinners from eternal judgment. We call this special grace. Apart from God’s grace, the world would be festered with aesthetic terrorists.

 

The Christian Crusade

 

Which leads to a final comment: the Christian worldview does not offer any schemes of naturalistic redemption. Sinners are converted by God the Father’s love exhibited in the incursion of God’s Spirit in history on the basis of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work. The Bible promises that one day God will rectify all the evil in the world, but that day is not today. Before the eschaton, God has authorized a few less overtly sinful individuals (in the form of civil government) to suppress more overtly sinful individuals (like ISIS) who are destroying his image, in other words, humanity. And if they can’t suppress them, they must kill them. Thirty-five years ago, Harold O. J. Brown argued for the Christian crusade, warfare in extreme and limited cases by which the nations of old Christendom, despite their own drift from Christian truth, nonetheless retaining aspects of Christian morality, unleash their lethal justice against just the kinds of perversity that ISIS is today perpetrating in the Middle East. When the doggedly non-interventionist Rand Paul argues for military intervention to suppress ISIS as he did last weekend (which is not the same thing as Woodrow Wilson’s messianic “making the world safe for democracy”), it is hard to imagine any reasonable moral barrier to at least serious consideration of wiping this depraved plague off the planet.

 

Meanwhile, let us consider that in arguably the most horrifying military expansionism since Nazi Germany during World War II and the Soviet Union just after it, the ethical resources of the great guiding light of modern secularism have left us in darkness.

 

The Christian worldview alone provides both a rationale for this human horror — and a rationale for obliterating it.

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