The Powerful Appeal of Social Justice Issues

In June 1990, the “Social Justice and Peacemaking Unit of the General Assembly Council, Presbyterian Church (USA)” published a journal entitled Hate Crime in America. It constituted the May/June edition of Church and Society, published bi-monthly “to provide a forum for the church on subjects of social concern for Christians.” Its “Farewell Issue” was published in July/August 2006. In the June 1990 issue, they spoke of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, power and presence of racism in American society. “The sin of racism of the society and church in which we participate is that which places an uncritical priority on being white and speaking English. . . . White racism is a special curse of our society.” Their purpose, in addition to giving an alarm as to the necessity of doing something bold and direct against personal and institutionalized racism, was to identify four groups, and a few tributaries, that identify themselves in terms of white supremacy: the Christian Identity movement, Skinheads, Neo-Nazis, and a sprinkling of material about the Ku Klux Klan. They also give awareness of the purpose and policy of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and the Posse Comitatus.

The research done was breathtaking, for not only did they look at the writings and the court cases involving these groups, they went to their own turf and interviewed the leaders in a strikingly candid way. Hatred of black and brown people is matched by insidious and philosophically-grounded anti-Semitism. Quoting a 1981 statement of the PCUSA, they noted, “Whereas it was once assumed that racial injustice was merely a function of overcoming individual attitudes and bigotry, it is now clear that racism also exists in complex and subtle institutional ways.” The report points out that some of the self-styled white supremacy of these groups has been brought on by some rotten social situations, radical economic policy shifts, poor national farm policy, and failure to deal with immigration reform (this is 1990!). But more than all of that, the committee surmised that “the white supremacist movement shows the underbelly of our national life and its subterranean racism.” Their assumption in doing the study is an assumption that all Christians should share: “Racism will not fly away as a bad dream on awakening. It is a malignant presence in church and society. It is destructive. It hurts people. It must be contested. And it will not be defeated easily.”

A more subtle and sinister theme, however, is that the most egregious sin [“the special curse of our society”] Christians must point out layer by layer is virtually unknowable to those who commit it [the “subterranean racism” of our national life]. The destructive sin of humanity to be opposed by Christians is concentrated in whiteness [“the sin . . . is that which places an uncritical priority on being white”]. This isolation of sin to a specific manifestation of corrupt pride and to a single racial group ignores the biblical emphasis of the absolute pervasiveness of sin to all of humanity and that the greatest of all sin from which flows every other species of sin is the intrinsic unbelief of our hearts. “God has consigned all to an unbelieving disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). “For there is no difference or distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace, given freely and undeservedly, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).

Along the way, the report lamented that many “serious efforts to combat racism” had resulted in economic backlash from Presbyterians who did not want money to be given to “the provision of legal assistance to Angela Davis.” Angela Davis was an eloquent and moving speaker, a self-professed communist, a member of the party until 1991, actively seeking a complete reorientation of the economic and political system of America. She was imprisoned on charges of conspiracy. She knew the four children who had been killed in the Birmingham bombing in a Baptist church on September 15, 1963, and grew up on dynamite hill and with the racism of Bull Connor controlling the civic life of Birmingham. She believed that all white people had a bedrock of racism as an intrinsic element of their social orientation. Even given the fact that some of the social changes for which she worked were right and carried a high degree of emotional connection, giving aid for her legal defense was not how many Presbyterians viewed the gospel mission of the church (more than 30 years ago, that is). It would only be so if the gospel was defined in terms of social justice, and if the elements of social justice as defined by her communist agendum were the same as biblical justice. For many, those two did not seem to coordinate.

Another aspect of the report, however, showed how far the PCUSA Council on Social Justice had moved from any idea of the exclusivity of the gospel and the necessity of trusting in the redeeming Person and Work of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation. All of that seems so other-worldly and disconnected from real issues that we confront every day, doesn’t it? It only increases in importance if it is true that “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment; so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27, 28). In combating Anti-Semitism the council declared, “Jews are our sisters and brothers in Christ, with whom we share the grace of God—they first, and we as the ones added later.” To oppose the Christian Identity movement in its anti-Semitic efforts to declare the holocaust a hoax, to stigmatize Jewish people as economic, political, and educational oppressors, and encourage violence against Jews is certainly a clear matter of just action. To make the solution, however, a denial of Jesus’ own claims and warnings he issued is not even close to a solution that will satisfy biblical Christianity: “But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John,” Jesus claimed. “For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:36-40). No such ideas or words would do in the search for social justice, for the kind of exclusivism they portray would seem to play right into the hands of the Christian Identity movement. And so, “Clearly, in seeking to repair the public perception of Jews and the relationship of Christians to Jews, [italics added] Presbyterians will be taking on Christian Identity and denying it easy access to any lingering gullibility of the general public. It will be hard but fruitful work.” To work for the obliteration of Anti-Semitism is not only commendable but necessary; to form a strategy that assumes the exclusivity of Christ and conscious trust in him is an element of the “lingering gullibility of the general public” is to deny the clear truths of divine revelation.

The last section of the bi-monthly journal discussed “At the Present Moment.” In this, the writers, expressing only “the opinion of the authors” according to introductory information, isolated several issues that were very important to White Supremacist groups. First, they pointed to the place of women. White Supremacists do not allow women “leadership functions” and glorify the roles of child-bearing and child rearing. They minimize the attraction of opulent careers in singleness for the sake of giving stability and increase to the Aryan race. There is not much news here, however, for “that is just about what men have always said women’s role is.” Women, in fact, are relatively unimportant in the white supremacist movement. Abortion also is a major concern. They believe that the white race is being targeted by Jews who control the abortion industry in America. A third issue of concern for the movement is immigration. They believe that immigration from the first arrival of an African slave on American soil, is the product of Jewish conspiracy against whites. The immigrants, though somewhat neutral pawns in the phenomenon, nevertheless, “hate white people, and envy them, and want to destroy them.” Another issue important to the white supremacist movement is homosexuality. “The white supremacist movement hates homosexuals.” There is an “extreme hyper-homophobia” that has resulted in violent acts against gays and lesbians. They believe that the “gay rights” movement is a “conspiratorial attempt to diminish, weaken, destroy the white race.”

Again, within these discussions, the researchers have pointed to actions and ideas that all Christians should oppose. Indeed, in light of a salvation that satisfies the perfect justice of God (Romans 3:26), what could be more central to the concerns of Christians than a true implementation of gospel/biblical justice among our fellow image-bearers? The undercurrent of the discussion, however, and the probable reason for selecting these particular issues, is the prominence they had then (as even now they continue to have) in matters of Social Justice. It is particularly intensified by the unifying aspects of intersectionality—the uniting of otherwise diverse oppressed groups under a common umbrella of seeking justice from the oppressive class. The oppressive group is constituted by white supremacist organizations in particular, but by the “subterranean” prejudices that are endemic to whiteness in general.

Christians of all hues and both genders who might have clear theological, biblical, and moral reasons not based on hate or an oppressive attitudes or pretensions to superiority on certain aspects of women’s political and social movements will be seen as sympathizers with white supremacists. Likewise, in considering abortion, including the supposed right of a woman over her own body, any opposition even when based based on relevant and substantial theological reasoning will be seen as establishing an alliance with the white supremacist movement. A clear presentation of exegetical reasons that homosexuality is sinful and is both an expression of and an object of divine judgment will be classified as arising from homophobic hate, again an extension of white supremacist attitudes with the added oppressive status of straightness. Any attempt to develop theories of immigration with some degree of urgency based on serious consideration of just and merciful measures will be seen as sympathetic with white supremacy.

Social justice tends to describe the gospel in terms of immediate cultural engagement with perceptions of justice as defined in political and sociological terms of equity between classes rather than personal responsibility before the moral law of God as displayed in the cross of Christ.  Thus, Christianity is social activism and Christian theologians are those who have been most successful in organizing social protest or supporting benevolent ministries. Liberation theologians of various intensities may be celebrated as the true prophets of the age irrespective of their views of the inspiration of Scripture, an orthodox view of the person of Christ, substitutionary atonement, or justification by faith. Charles Spurgeon noted that it was always easier to raise money for the orphanage than for training Christian ministers or the colportage society. Justice is defined in terms of social and economic equity and the defining points of justice in Christian revelation—the moral law, the atonement, and the final judgment—are gradually pressed to the perimeter and made marginally relevant to meaningful Christian ministry today.

2019 National Founders Conference 

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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