Saturday, June 12, 2010

Collateral Justice

One of the things I struggle most with as a nominally progressive pastor is the whole social justice thing. I'm for it, of course. Pretty much across the board, I'm in favor of stuff that makes it clear to all and sundry that I must be a hard core left winger. Material relief for the poor? Check. A visceral distrust of the processes of capitalism? Check. A deep commitment to conservation and the environmental movement? Uh huh. A radically inclusive and welcoming attitude towards gays and lesbians? Check. A passion for liberty and equal rights for artificial and synthetic sentient entities? Absolutely.

Oh. Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Whichever way, when asked to check a box on the leftist/rightist debates, I come down pretty much consistently progressive and social justicey. Much of the reason for that has to do with my faith, with the radical love towards the Other that is at the heart of the Christian message. Yet as I review those teachings of Jesus, what I encounter has very little to do with using collective power dynamics to resist systemic injustice and empowering the disenfranchised. Yeah, Jesus resisted The Man, and got himself killed as a subversive and and agitator and a general maker of trouble. This sends tingly feelings down the spines of self-described radicals everywhere.

But when you look at what he taught, and the ethic for which he lived and died and overcame death itself, it has very little to do with the socioeconomics and the power dynamics of human communities. Those structures of power aren't even part of the equation. They are immaterial, to be addressed only so far as they must be rejected in order to embrace the Gospel.

When we forget that, it's easy for churches to simply become mirrors of the communities in which they find themselves. It's easy for them to become indistinguishable from the political and social entities that fill the secular spaces around them. When that happens, they lose their grounding, and gradually become little more than an association or a nonprofit entity, organized around a common secular interest or purpose.

There's nothing wrong with such groups. I think they're great ways to get things done in our culture that need to get done. But they aren't church. They do not convey the same message.

That, I think, is one of the primary ways in which both progressive and conservative Christians are prone to stumble. Rather than focusing on instilling in folks a sense of the radical grace taught by the Nazarene, it's easy to get into talk of social issues as the raison d'etre of the church. But what Jesus taught was not sociological, but spiritual. It was not economic, but existential. It is for that reason that it can be such a shattering, dangerous, and transformative thing...not just for individuals, but for cultures as well.