10 March 2010

Social justice and the revolutionary nature of orthodoxy

I write this in part as a response from a High Church perspective to Revd Eugene Cho's excellent question about the role of 'social justice' and 'economic justice' in the Church. Though we may be very much on opposite sides of the liturgical spectrum, I suspect we are very similar in our social priorities.

The Four Propositions of the Right Revd Charles Gore, from his 1927 Halley Stewart Lectures:

In these lectures I am seeking, not for the first time, to advance the influence of certain ideas, already perhaps familiar to those I am speaking to. They are these --

(1) That the present condition of our society, our industry and our international relations, though it presents encouraging features, yet, on the whole, must inspire in our minds a deep sense of dissatisfaction and alarm, and a demand for so thorough a reformation as to amount to a revolution, though one which the teaching of experience, no less than the teaching of Christ, leads us to believe can only be brought about by gradual and peaceful means.

(2) That the evils which we deplore in our present society are not the inevitable results of any unalterable law of nature, or any kind of inexorable necessity, but are the fruits of human blindness, willfulness, avarice, and selfishness on the widest scale and in the long course of history; and that therefore their alteration demands something more than legislative and external changes, necessary as these may be: it demands a fundamental change of the spirit in which we think about and live our common life, and conduct our industry, and maintain our international relations. The cry must be "Repent ye -- change your minds," if "the kingdom of heaven" is to come as a welcome gift of God and not as a scathing and destructive judgment.

(3) That we should not look for such change of spirit to arise from any simultaneous conversion of men in masses. If we accept the teaching of past experience, we should expect the general alteration to arise from the influence in society of groups of men, inspired probably by prophetic leaders, who have attained to a true vision both of the source of our evils and of the nature of the true remedies; and who have the courage of faith, which can bind them together to act and to suffer in the cause of human emancipation, till their vision and their faith come to prevail more or less completely in the general mind and will . . .

(4) That Jesus Christ is really the Saviour and Redeemer of Mankind, in its social as well as its individual life and in the present world as well as in that which is to come: and that there lies upon those who believe in Him a responsibility which cannot be exaggerated to be true to the principles which He taught, and by all available means to bring them to bear upon the whole life of any society of which they form a part, especially when it professes the Christian name.

As members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we are first and foremost followers of Christ and members in his Body, and because we believe that Christ truly was God Incarnate in this world, of one being with the Father who is in Heaven, and because we believe he came not to condemn this world but to save it, we are irrevocably committed both to the idea that this world is worth saving, and to the methods and priorities exemplified in the life, ministry and death of Our Lord. Just as Our Lord dined with prostitutes and tax collectors and lepers, rode into Jerusalem among a crowd of the disenfranchised on a young donkey, healed the blind and lame, fed the hungry and generally directly served 'the least of these' on the social pyramid, so must our efforts as his followers be directed to such service.

And there are trends in today's world which systemically disenfranchise and exclude 'the least of these' from full participation in society, which must indeed inspire in our minds 'a deep sense of dissatisfaction and alarm', in our spirits repentance, and in our actions resistance. A few of these destructive trends are suggested and explored by the group Progressive Christians Uniting in their excellent series of essays:

a.) consumerism
b.) economic neoliberalism
c.) American imperialism
d.) materialistic reductionism
e.) the factors contributing to climate crisis

To these I might add 'incivility', but otherwise resistance to these trends is a very good place to start. Underwriting all of these trends is the reactionary and deterministic tendency to see human beings as atomised and separate constellations of negative rights and property, rather than as embodied souls dependent upon and responsible for the environmental and social conditions in which they live. This philosophical tendency (which orients our society to the worship of Mammon) leaves us and our ecology vulnerable to exploitation by the powerful, the greedy and the violent, and to despair of meaning in our existence. This is a tendency which is opposed readily by orthodox Christian belief and praxis, and a Gospel which in this cynical age seems paradoxical: the commonwealth of God has come near, and God himself is incarnate among us, in particular among the most lowly and poor and despised of us - for example, the victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia, the single working mothers on welfare, the uninsured sick with pre-existing conditions and the small farmers afflicted by an increasingly unstable climate.

So is there a place in the Church for 'social justice', so defined? My answer is that there had better be, if we truly do take Jesus of Nazareth to be the Saviour of this world.

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