I am a social justice guy. Despite Glenn Beck’s warning, I am totally in favor of the church and individual Christians seeking the betterment of the world they live in. I’ll even go further: I’m in favor of environmental justice, if by that we mean proper guardianship of the earth and its resources. I have a regular old Messiah complex (which is funny, because I believe in an actual Messiah who definitely isn’t me).
But: there are a couple of points we have to be clear on before we take up our banners and save the world. First, there is no way to thoroughly cleanse ourselves of wrongdoing. Second, our efforts at social justice will inevitably conflict with one another. Third, and most importantly, we all live under the mark of Cain.
We cannot completely avoid wrongdoing
To the first point. This is an old, old truth – one whose drum Reformed Christians have beaten loud and long, in a slightly different form. We usually talk about the doctrine of total depravity – which teaches that every aspect of the human person (Plato’s triad of intellect, appetites, and will) is affected by sin. Not only are our desires bent toward ungodliness, our abilities to think and make decisions are too. Especially with Reformed doctrine ascendant in certain parts of the Christian world, you would think that this would be fairly widely accepted.
But. Whatever the foundations of our society, for the last several generations it has preached an all-encompassing focus on personal self-fulfillment. Christians have not avoided this – not by a long shot. Freshly baptized with vaguely biblical terms, not only is my purpose on earth to “be who I am,” or “express myself,” that is now God’s purpose as well. For many Christians, the God of unreasonable demands and commands is gone. “Take up your cross and follow me,” is for other people – people whose personal desires are not as refined as mine and my friends’. Like people who drive SUVs or eat a lot of McDonald’s: they should crucify their desires, obviously. True evil in the world is to be found in the intolerant (=oppressive), the traditional, the “religious” (a word now spoken by most Evangelicals with a twist of the mouth). Anything that stands in the way of my becoming who I should be/want to be/God wants me to be is the enemy.The opinion (real or perceived) of unbelieving friends counts for much, the heritage of the Christian church for little. In short, the idea that real evil is not just “out there” but “in here” – in me, in my motives and actions and thoughts and words and decisions – is radically unfashionable.
This dismissal of human depravity has a tremendous effect on how we view problems around in the world. With an optimism successfully sold to Millennials by their elders in marketing, we think that we can literally “solve” every “problem” we can identify. Climate change! Sexism! Joseph Kony! White hegemony! Monsanto! Global poverty! Cancer! Evgeny Morozov of the New Republic has titled this attitude “solutionism”. An important component of the solution is nearly always technology, as those who sell technology never tire of telling us.
An unintended effect of this optimism is that it leads to a radical “us vs. them” mentality: in other words, elitism (which is always the mark of Pelagianism). We all know that x is bad. If we all just buckled down and did something about it (and particularly, if entrenched powers in the corporate, government, university, or religious worlds did something about it) we could eliminate x! That means that the world is neatly divided into good people and bad people. Good people who want the world to be a better place and bad people who want to be richer and more powerful than the good people.
It is easy to see other people’s faults in black and white. It is possible that the hated energy executive is an archvillain cackling over her nefarious plans, but it is much more likely that she is a normal human being, working in an industry that her background and education qualify her to work in, responding to pressures around her, as well as having a dollop of ego and personal ambition (like, I think, we all do). The board is looking for a better quarter than last year; her peers are successes in their own fields and she will feel like a failure if she doesn’t stay abreast of them; her lifestyle has gradually become expensive; her kids are all in private colleges; and the shareholders, the shareholders, the shareholders! She may not have tuned out the environmental concerns raised about her company’s natural gas exploration, but it is difficult to take them at face value. The voice of NIMBY is loud but unreliable; her company’s scientists seem very confident that they are doing no long-term harm; and beside all that she is a realist: if her company does not tap into the Marcellus Shale gas, her competitors absolutely will.
It is very difficult to see our own faults with any clarity, on the other hand. It is generally pretty risk-free to “speak truth to power” when you are not part of the power structure you are critiquing. It’s vastly more difficult to speak hard truth to your close friends and allies. In 2004 Paul Graham wrote, “Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told.” This is a simple but important rubric. If your values fit neatly with those of your peers, colleagues, close friends, coworkers, the chances that you arrived at them after careful independent thought are vanishingly small. After all, our minds tend to be emotional dogs wagging rational tails.
I hope this is beginning to convey what I mean when I say that we cannot completely cleanse ourselves of wrongdoing. It will not do to simplify the world, dividing it into the good guys and the bad guys. Total depravity is a true and practical teaching: the punch has been spiked for everyone. I am no less to blame for rationalizing my wrongdoing than a powerful oil executive is. The call of God is on both of us to do what is right, no matter what the cost. And if I answer back that my sins affect little, and the oil executive’s much, well, who is to say that? That is a perspective unavailable to us. The full effects of our actions, public or private, will not be seen till after we have left this earth. Perhaps in 10,000 years my quiet envy and self-regard will turn out to be more poisonous than someone else’s natural gas exploration.
Our efforts at social justice will inevitably conflict with one another
You can’t have your cake and eat it, unfortunately. No amount of calculation will make my carbon footprint neutral and resolve all poverty issues. Fairly traded clothing is a laudable thing, but it does not fit neatly with making affordable and dignified clothing available to the poor, nor helping developing countries, er, develop.
Looked at another way, I only have so much income each year. I can spend it on fairly traded clothing, or on free range chicken, or on a Prius. And if I buy the Prius, I am making another unpleasant choice: day-to-day low fuel expenditures, plus social cachet (both of which the Prius will give me) over a lower overall impact on the planet (which an efficient conventional gasoline car – or better, a used car – would provide).
If I am an important person who wants to use his influence to combat human rights abuses around the globe, I will certainly be traveling by plane frequently. If I want to offset the pollution produced by my travel, I can pay for someone to plant trees somewhere – relying on cheap labor and someone else’s calculation of how exactly trees and carbon dioxide work. And the money I have spent on carbon offsets could have been spent on fairly traded clothing or hiring an out-of-work recent college graduate.
I want my neighborhood to retain its historic appearance. So I and my neighborhood association make rules about siding, windows, gardens, etc. – at the expense of alienating working-class neighbors, exacerbating class tensions, stifling entrepreneurship, and (by forbidding new siding and efficient windows) bumping up the neighborhood’s carbon footprint significantly.
Beginning to get the idea? I have only mentioned concrete acts of consumption – I have not touched the attitudes with which we often approach our lives. Do we make good decisions as consumers, and then torture our families and friends with our self-righteous attitudes? Do we look down our noses at people who have chosen differently (including, perhaps, all of our forebears)?
O’Donovan writes of a “peculiarly innocent posture of much modern moral idealism, conflating its multitude of causes together into one grand but illusory project. The term ‘ethical,’ as used in such phrases as ‘ethical trade’ and ‘ethical banking,’ covers many adventures in moral earnestness which have little in common with one another beyond the fact that the same good people support them through the same coffee mornings and the same sponsored bike rides. But that does not prevent them thinking they are serving one overarching end, spoken of as ‘saving the planet,’ ‘changing the world,’ or whatever. Reflective moral thought has different reasons for different moral judgments. If torture is to be opposed and organic farming supported, the grounds for the one are not the same as the grounds for the other. But the modern will, with its generalized high-mindedness, brushes the differences aside and conceals from itself that carbon-emissions, endemic poverty, torture, speculative bankers, and anti-immigration rallies pose diverse perils, and that saving the planet from one of them may not at all be conducive to saving it from the others.” (Self, World, and Time, 117)
I think that this, too, undermines our Pelagian elitism and perfectionism, and brings us back to the “throne of grace.” Even if the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we are the good guys, we are unable to do our jobs. Even the private consumption of goods has repercussions throughout the world – too many to all be handled well. Conscientious consumers find themselves relieved to not know where a gifted sweater or a restaurant meal was sourced: a bit like vacationers abandoning their diets, but still burdened by a vague guilt.
The mark of Cain
The form of conservatism currently dominant in the United States (at least) tends to pooh-pooh questions of social and environmental justice. That is not my intention. I actually do try to buy ethically farmed meat and clothing manufactured in humane working conditions. I think these things are important. What I want to do is provide a strong theological starting point for the ethical decisions we have to make. And that starting point, for me as a Christian, is a scriptural one.
Genesis 4 tells the story of the first children born to Adam and Eve, brothers named Cain and Abel. It is recorded that Cain tilled fields while Abel tended flocks. Both offered their produce to God as a sacrifice. For whatever reason, God was pleased with Abel’s offering but not with Cain’s. This led Cain into a murderous jealousy, and he struck and killed Abel in a field.
The part of the story I want to highlight is the part that comes next: God’s confrontation of Cain. The sentence God pronounces on Cain is that he will be driven away from the land he has been living in and will be a wanderer on the earth. For hard-nosed death penalty advocates, or indeed for anyone who has read the hard punishments of Moses in the next few books of the Bible, this may seem light. But Cain complains: “Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (verse 14).
God’s response is an astonishing one. “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden,” (verses 15-16). Remarkably, Cain proceeds to found a city (the first “city of refuge”) and a vigorous family. Under the mark of Cain, judgment is deferred, refuge and even real life for the guilty is made possible. The mark is not a scarlet A (scarlet M?), but a flag of protection. Cain’s guilt is real, but others may not judge him: that is God’s prerogative.
I think that this describes perfectly our situation as we seek to do right in the world. We are all of “the race of murderers,” O’Donovan writes. We are, frankly, soaked in guilt: the guilt of what we have done, and not done, as individuals. But also the overwhelming burden of what we have done and continue to do as a human race, as various ethnic groups, nations, churches, cities, families, professions, and circles of friends. If we began to accuse one another, there would be no end. And that’s just human judgment. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” No one, of course. Jesus’ warning, “Judge not!” is not an easygoing dismissal of human imperfection. It is a recognition that were judgment to really start, it would be a bloodbath for everyone.
But there is a better reason to refrain from judgment even as we pursue justice: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” God has poured out judgment, but not on us. Condemnation is silenced now by “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
This, then, is the starting point of our pursuit of a better world. We are not nearly perfect, striving to sand off the corners, while deploring the rottenness of Others. We are of the race of murderers. But we have been given a reprieve and more than a reprieve, true remission of sins. We pursue justice with humility of speech and conduct, ready to admit freely our guilt, and change our ways as we are able. We recognize that blood cries out against us as well as those we despise, and we recognize that blood speaks for them as well as us. We are no better than anyone else. Our Messiah complexes are checked: while we may say, “By thee I have run through a troop, and by my God I have leaped over a wall!” we also admit that we cannot say, “this is the Father’s will … that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing.” It is beyond us to do perfectly what we know to be right.
But the mark of Cain means that it is in our power, even now, to do what is right. Judgment has been deferred. Every day, every enterprise, every decision is a new chance to do right. Not because we’re the good guys, not because we’re successfully juggling all of our obligations. Because we have been given real liberty to choose.