Book Review: Christian Faith and Social Justice (Five Views)

A libertarian, a liberal, a liberationist, a feminist, and a virtue ethicist all walk into a bar. This is the basic premise behind Bloomsbury’s new offering Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views edited by Vic McCracken. This book is intended to serve as an introduction to and conversation between five distinctively Christian approaches to social justice. The five views represented are: Libertarianism (Jason Jewell), Political Liberalism (Daniel A. Dombrowski), Liberation Theology (Miguel A. De La Torre), Christian Feminism (Laura Stivers, and Virtue Ethics (Elizabeth Phillips). The result is a highly engaging book sure to stimulate and challenge one’s Christian approach to social justice.

The most helpful part of the book was witnessing the generous, yet vigorous, conversations between the respective authors. This interaction is what makes books of this variety (competing perspectives in dialogue) so valuable. It’s much easier to assess positions and arguments when you are able to immediately see the critiques posed to each position. I also appreciated that each author had one last chance to respond to the other writer’s critiques. I haven’t found this feature in all books that present multiple perspectives, but the longer the conversation goes the more able the reader is able to assess the arguments.

Each author did a fair job presenting their position and the main chapters thus serve as a good introduction to these different approaches to social justice. If one is unfamiliar with one of these positions, it’s possible to use the quotes and footnotes to compose a good list of primary texts for further study. A suggestion: it might be helpful to have each author provide a recommended reading list for their viewpoint. Two possible downsides to the book: first, one finds many different approaches (some more philosophical, some more exegetical, some more theological) throughout the book. I’m not sure that can be avoided with so many authors involved, but some readers might be disappointed if they are expected a discussion that is primarily philosophical, exegetical, or theological. Second, it is not always clear how the five viewpoints interact and overlap with each other. There are obviously many clear differences, but on many occasions the authors wish to point out the possibility that their view is compatible with certain versions of other viewpoints. To this end, it might have been helpful for each author to address a uniform and concrete example through the lens of their viewpoint. McCracken offers three “case studies” in her introduction and I would have been interested in each author specifically addressing these situations.

From my perspective, I found Elizabeth Phillips presentation and defense of virtue ethics to be the most persuading. To be fair, I read the book already very appreciative of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas. Likewise, I found the libertarian position to be most lacking, although it was presented much more attractively than it is often represented by its ideological leaders in the media.

I greatly enjoyed reading Christian Faith and Social Justice and would recommend it for:

– Individuals looking to learn more about the interaction between Christian faith and social justice (especially those who might benefit from seeing the actual diversity of Christian opinions on the issue)
– Supplemental reading for an introductory Christian ethics/political philosophy course
– An adult study group looking for an academically orientated look at social justice


Note: I received this book from Bloomsbury in exchange for an unbiased review.

QOTD: Richard Hays on Reconciling the Moral Visions of OT and NT Texts

From Richard B. Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (pp.336-337):

“…the New Testament’s witness is finally normative.  If irreconcilable tensions exist between the moral vision of the New Testament and that of particular Old Testament texts, the New Testament vision trumps the Old Testament.  Just as the New Testament texts render judgments superseding the Old Testament requirements of circumcision and dietary laws, just as the New Testament’s forbidding of divorce supersedes the Old Testament’s permission of it, so also Jesus’ explicit teaching and example of nonviolence reshapes our understanding of God and of the covenant community in such a way that killing enemies is no longer a justifiable option.  The sixth antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount marks the hermeneutical watershed.  As we have noted, the Old Testament distinguishes the obligation of loving the neighbor (that is, the fellow Israelite) from the response to enemies: ‘[B]ut I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.’  Once that word has been spoken to us and perfectly embodied in the story of Jesus’ life and death, we cannot appeal back to Samuel as a counterexample to Jesus.  Everything is changed by the cross and resurrection.  We now live in a situation in which we confess that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Cor. 5:19).  Those who have been entrusted with such a message will read the Old Testament in such a way that its portrayals of God’s mercy and eschatological restoration of the world will take precedence over its stories of justified violence.”

Marijuana and Jesus: Love it or Hate it?

The time is here: marijuana is being legally sold for recreational use.

As someone interested in both how the church does ethics and what conclusions she reaches, this is about to be an interesting time.  Anyone paying attention to this issue has probably seen the writing on the wall for a while and it appears that it might not be too long until the entire country can smoke legally (although I realize that this is not a foregone conclusion).

This creates an interesting and complex situation for evangelical church leaders, though, who for so long have demonized marijuana use.  The situation is even more intriguing due to the following fact: (it seems to me, at least) the leading argument from Christian parents and youth leaders up to now was simply, “It’s illegal. And Christians have to obey the law.”  Not a wholly satisfying answer to a generation of smokers, but logical.

I’d like to pose two questions in hopes of a significant discussion taking place between readers and authors of Cataclysmic:

[1] Prediction: How do you think church leaders will react?
Not how should they react, but how do you predict that they will react?  Will there be a turn-about?  Will marijuana eventually be treated by evangelicals in a way similar to popular views on alcohol? [See: Is Marijuana Sinful for Christians?]  Or will evangelicals bunker down against marijuana use by utilizing arguments besides that of legality (a resurgence in the “gateway drug” argument, perhaps)?  [See: Driscoll’s Puff or Pass: Should Christians Smoke Pot or Not?]  How polarizing will the issue be? (Will folks get fired for coming out in support of legal marijuana use?)  Even if church leaders denounce the morality of marijuana, will the average congregant pay any attention?

[2] Ethical Analysis: Do you think it is sinful for Christians to legally use marijuana?  Why or why not?
What are the important arguments (Biblical/theological, historical, philosophical, scientific/medical, etc) for and against?  What is at stake?  How should Christian leaders go about sharing their opinions on the issue (if at all)?

I’d love for you to join the discussion and share your answers!


Good Works and Holy Troublemaking

Not long ago, Mark Driscoll tweeted:

No one gets in trouble for good works, you get in trouble for good works and for talking about Jesus.

While I understand the point that Driscoll was making, it got me thinking.  I sometimes wonder if the true reason that our society (corrupted as it is by greed, violence, and systemic injustice) is not bothered by Christian attempts to do “good works” is that our “good works” are largely unthreatening to the status quo.  What if “good works” that do not get you in trouble with a deeply fallen world are not “good” enough?  Perhaps the church needs to re-think its strategy for holy troublemaking, going far beyond making controversial or exclusive statements.

To begin with, we need to avoid undermining the church’s social significance by privatizing & individualizing both sin and good works.  As I read Scripture (Micah, for instance), it seems that God is often much more concerned with larger political sins such as economic injustice and oppression than the individual sins focused on in many congregations.  Would it surprise someone who goes to the average evangelical church that God wasn’t upset with Nebuchadnezzar for neglecting his quiet time and using foul language, but for ignoring the poor and practicing injustice (Daniel 4:27)?  Thankfully, there is a noticeable shift in the evangelical church for a greater emphasis on social justice.  However, I’d like to suggest that if our efforts at social justice aren’t causing any trouble, we need to re-think our strategy.

If I were to offer a riff on Driscoll’s tweet, it might look like this:

No one gets in trouble for feeding the poor, you get in trouble for going after the powers & systems that create & sustain poverty.

See the difference?  (Note: It’s even still under 140 characters, leaving room for a creative and witty hashtag.)  Here’s an example: many Christians “feed the poor” (or more likely, donate to an organization that claims to do so) and yet still support companies and political policies that create and sustain poverty and abuse through low wages, poor health care, and child slavery.  This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was getting at when he said:

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

I have a hard time believing that if Christians took seriously the call to “drive a spoke into the wheel (of injustice) itself” that we would be able to stay out of trouble.  I get verbally abused for even suggesting that Christians should be more non-violent in a world of constant war, so I can’t even imagine what would happen if you seriously went after other idols like Mammon. (For instance, what trouble might a local pastor get in for faithfully speaking to Christians who live in extravagant wealth in a world that is starving?).

Can you think of any other ways that the church has bandaged the “wounds of victims” while still continuing to sustain the systems that create those victims in the first place?  Why do you think this is?  What might be the way forward?