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Is “Social Justice” Killing Synagogues and Churches?

by Anthony B. Robinson (previously published in What’s Tony Thinking, https://www.anthonybrobinson.com/ – used with permission)

Joel Kotkin, a prolific writer who teaches urban studies at Chapman University, argues that it is. That is, that “social justice” is killing synagogues and churches.

Kotkin’s article at Tablet is wide-ranging, touching on some of the issues that have gathered around Minnesota Congressional Representative, Ilhan Omar.

Kotkin’s article is especially interesting because it doesn’t focus primarily on mainline Protestantism, as do so many of this sort. Kotkin, who is Jewish, certainly does make mention of mainline Protestantism, but along with Reformed and Conservative Judaism and the contemporary Catholic Church.

All of these share a trend that is summed up in two words, “aging” and “shrinking.” About 20% can be described as “vital” and “growing.”

So what of his contention? Is “social justice” the problem?

I think there are two ways in which Kotkin’s argument is accurate and one way in which it is off the mark.

You’ll note, that I’ve put “social justice” in quotes. Why? Because it has too often come to be used as a signal or slogan. The phrase is not unpacked. We do not ask what is meant by “social justice?” This points to the first way in which Kotkin’s argument has merit.

That is, the term has become ideological. There is body of causes and commitments that are all wrapped together and from which no question or deviance is permitted.

An ideology is different than faith. Ideology argues that it has the truth, whole and entire. As New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, with ideology, “No debate is necessary, no further data need be considered; we know what is right, and all that remains is to do it.” All ambiguity is removed.

Faith always involves an element of ambiguity, of not-knowing — not completely. Why? Because we are not God. Our knowledge and our grasp is incomplete, imperfect, finite.

When “social justice” becomes a cipher for an ideology that cannot be debated or questioned, it drives thoughtful people away.

Here’s the second way in which Kotkin’s argument has value. If social justice becomes the whole message or focus of a church it tends to miss the primary reason people come to a church, which is to inspire and encourage faith. When social justice and doing good eclipse all else, there is little sense of a living and powerful God who makes a difference in a person’s life.

This is a very old issue in religion. For Christians, it is the heresy of Pelagianism, the idea that our salvation is something we achieve by our own strenuous efforts.

People involve themselves in religious organizations, if they do, for religious reasons, that is, for a sense and experience of the presence of God.

That’s the way that Kotkin’s argument strikes me as wrong. “Social justice” isn’t the problem, but a symptom of the problem. The problem is too much emphasis on us and our doing, not enough emphasis on God and God’s grace.

What I find with a lot of aging, shrinking mainline Protestant churches is not, for the most part, an overemphasis on social justice, but simply that such churches have become clubs. When asked, “Why do you come?” the answer is likely to be, “These are my friends, my extended family. I come for the community.”

Well, community and friendship are good things. We all need them. Even desperately. But again, for a church, they are not enough. And when they become primary and the church becomes club-like, it may speak of “inclusion” and “welcome” but it tends to be an in-group.

Lately, we’ve been worshipping at Quest Church in our Ballard neighborhood. It is packed. Mostly with people in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Very racially diverse. Worship is focused on an active God who is powerful and real. But is also about lots of what might be termed “social justice.”

Two weeks ago the sermon was on LGBTQ inclusion. Last week it was on Faith, Race and Mental Illness. I’m convinced a church can engage social issues and questions of justice, indeed must do so, but only so long as that is linked to a deep faith in the power, mercy and grace of the living God.

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