Morning Report, June 11: When Social Justice Becomes Your God, A Moratorium on Missions Trips, the World Cup, the Pope Begs Forgiveness, and the Dangers of Lofty Rhetoric

Morning Report, June 11: When Social Justice Becomes Your God, A Moratorium on Missions Trips, the World Cup, the Pope Begs Forgiveness, and the Dangers of Lofty Rhetoric June 11, 2010

Secular and Christian news and commentary that one Christian found important or entertaining this morning:

1.  QUOTES AND COMMENTS.  Our Cross Examinations piece on Evangelicals and Immigration Reform was quoted in the “Quotes of the Day” at yesterday.  I’m happy for the link.  It did, however, bring over some commenters who were not exactly moderate in their criticism of those in the group who advocated a more liberal position.  One comment: “If you’re wondering who the 9 most moronic ‘religious’ leaders in the US are, they’ve been compiled into one handy list for your reading pleasure.”

I believe in the value of bringing people of good mind and heart together to discuss their differences and clarify why they believe the things they believe.   The Cross Examinations group is, actually, about evenly divided between those on the Right and those on the Left, but many are somewhere near the center, and many evangelical centrists are in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform package that includes a “path to citizenship.”

Yet I also think there is another factor.  Christian leaders are afraid of seeming unloving or racist if they take a strong stance against illegal immigration.  Yet the question remains: is there no point where Love must draw a boundary and keep it?

In the meantime, Mark D. Roberts continues his great series of reflections on the immigration debate.

2.  WHAT DOES SOCIAL JUSTICE MEAN?  Yesterday we posted a remarkable interview with Christian Buckley, author of a new book entitled Humanitarian Jesus.  When we hosted our Cross Examinations discussion on the ideal relationship between evangelistic and social justice ministries, one of the problems that bothered me the most was the difficulty of settling on a satisfactory definition of “social justice.”

I am not asking about the history of the term.  Actually, the history of a term can sometimes tell you little about the nuances of meaning it possesses in the present.  It was first used as a term of art by the Sicilian Jesuit, Luigi Tapaelli D’Azeglio, to call upon the ruling classes to tend to the needs of the new industrial poor; it was taken up by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, and made still more political by the notorious Father Couglin, who saw it as a midpoint between laissez-faire capitalism and communism.  But Friedrich Hayek was among the first to note an intrinsic ambiguity in the term: “social” and “justice” can mean many different things individually, and when put together, the composite term can seemingly refer to anything.  Isn’t justice a quality of individuals?–and yet a quality that is always related to their social nature, their interrelatedness with other human beings?  Is social justice, then, a virtue of an individual, or a virtue of a society?  Is it social in its form (people doing things together) or in its goals (serving the good of others)?  If social justice is social in its telos, is it social merely insofar as it seeks the good of other people, or must it seek societal, systemic transformation?  That is, is it social or really societal justice that we are talking about?  And “justice” according to whom?  Must it actually serve justice or merely seek to serve it?  Is the vision of “justice” to which it is committed necessarily Christian, or even religious, or can it apply (as it does in the platform statements of the Green Parties worldwide) to a secular pursuit of the good?

Trying to define the term was like holding a salt cube underwater: the more you turn it over, the more it dissolves between your fingers.  So when I was given the opportunity to interview Christian Buckley, whose book refers to “social justice” in the subtitle, I asked him what he thought social justice is.  Buckley does a great job of describing a balance – or, better, a fullness – of evangelism and social justice.  Jesus was always and primarily about eternity, and we must keep the gospel first and foremost in our lives and not allow our passions for serving others to replace the importance of having a right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Still, I wanted to comment on his statement here: “That term has come under some recent attack from Glenn Beck and others who have read it as a liberal term that connotes wealth redistribution or a political socialist agenda. That reading is extreme and pulls it out of the greater context of its history.”  Now, it’s hard to take the side of Glenn Beck, just because he is viewed as so extreme, and does at times (at times!) seem to be ruled more by paranoia than rationality.  But the truth is that you do often hear the term “social justice” used with regard to advocacy of redistributionist policies.  You do not often hear the pro-life or pro-traditional-family movements, for instance, described as social justice movements.  Nor would you hear a movement for lower taxes, even if that movement aimed at an economy that would be better for everyone, be described as a social justice movement.  What are typically described as social justice issues are living wage, illegal immigration, etc.

There are many evangelicals who are seeking to use the term social justice simply to refer to serving the poor.  I certainly have no qualms with that.  But the term is more common in liberal circles, and sometimes does become a kind of idol that baptizes the pursuit of liberal political goals.  Those who pursue social justice are sainted and those who seek to evangelize are demonized.

For some, I fear, who are no longer sure whether they believe in God, or who don’t know whether they really believe in eternity anymore, social justice becomes their promise of transcendence, of hint of immortality, even their god.

3.  MISSIONS MORATORIUM.  This brings to mind a post I recently came across at the God’s Politics Blog at Sojourners (as an aside: can we stop talking about “God’s Politics”?  I thought we were supposed to stop claiming God for our side of the political debate?), in which Troy Jackson argues that it’s time to call a moratorium on missions trips.  Mission trips, he argues, cost a great deal of money, about $2B per year.  Moreover,

“in some cases, the mission trips reinforce Western paternalism while adding to dependency by indigenous peoples. They often fail to develop sustainable economic engines that will foster a stronger local economy and better job opportunities after the mission team has departed. While mission trips done right can be of benefit for all involved — and there are often very real spiritual blessings — far too many fail to provide any lasting economic development for the destination nation.

“Ironically, many of those who are so committed to investing thousands of dollars to bring the good news of Jesus to another part of the world are vigorously supporting a harsh crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States. Eight to 14 days with people from another nation is worth thousands of dollars for these Christians.

“But 365 days of an undocumented immigrant in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? Forget the gospel! Time for a harsh dose of Law and Order! After all, we can share Jesus with them better when they are farther away and we have to make a costly financial investment in their souls!

So missions trips are costly, imperialistic, paternalistic, and do not actually convey much lasting economic benefit to the nations they serve.  The solution: call a moratorium.  Still raise the $2 billion, “but invest that money in economic development and community development projects led by the indigenous peoples themselves.”

What about sharing the gospel?  What about building churches?  What about transforming people from the inside out?  In my first mission trip to China, I had the extraordinary joy of leading several people to faith in Christ.  One of them went on to convert her family members and friends, and to pour a lot of time into working at orphanages.  Was that not a worthwhile investment?

But seriously: What about the eternal destiny of the unreached?   My goodness.  I am pleased when missions trips bring economic benefits to local economies, and missionary movements have been behind countless thousands of hospitals and orphanages and refuges for sex-trafficked women and so on.  A moratorium on missions?  Are you serious?!  And this is coming from Sojourners

4.  SOCCER PRIMER.  I pretended to enjoy soccer for a long time, because I thought it made me seem, you know, international and sophisticated.  Eventually I did come to like it, at least a little.  I enjoy watching it live, at least for brief periods of time.  I enjoy American sports more — if you ask me, the simple answer to the question of why Americans are not as into soccer as the rest of the world is because we have developed better sports — but I appreciate the beauty of a curved corner kick that is headed into the net.

This cheat sheet for the World Cup comes with the recommendation of Andy Crouch.

5.  CLEAR SAILING.  Abby Sunderland, 16, was attempting to be the youngest person to sail around the world solo and nonstop.  Through a twist of fate, mechanical failures (i.e., through no fault of her own) required that she make a stop in Cape Town, and since then she has continued in the hopes, at least, of being the youngest to sail around the world solo.  In a storm Thursday, contact with Abby was lost.  The family had reason to be optimistic that she had survived, but everyone knew as well that the worst was possible.

Thankfully, a jet airliner found Abby alive and well, and spoke with her by short-range radio.  Several times her yacht had been battered over sideward, and the jet saw her mast snapped and dragging the sail through the water.

Question: would you let your 16-year-old daughter do this?  Is it responsible parenting?  Is it allowing a child to follow her dream, or is it letting your pride get carried away with you, and failing to provide the shelter a child needs to make it to adulthood?

6.  PRESIDENT”PRESENT”?  Whatever you might think of his history, Karl Rove is a pretty darn effective political columnist.  He writes that Obama is still, after it all, Senator Present.  Or rather, he is a strange admixture of radicalism and passivity…like Jimmy Carter.  This narrative is really gaining steam.

7.  MINORITY MAJORITY.  We have very nearly reached the point where more “minority” children are born every year than white children in the United States.  I’m sure there are some people out there who care, but it is a helpful reminder of one thing driving the immigration problem in the United States and Europe.  Why is it such a big issue both in our own political atmosphere and in virtually every western European nation?  Because of low birth rates among the native populations.

When you have a low birth rate, there are more open jobs, and you need more immigration to keep your economy growing.  Yet you get such a flood of immigration that parties arise like that of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, parties that want to hold onto the traditional culture of the nation and dramatically cut down on the flow of immigrants.  We don’t have a Geert Wilders here yet; and in the United States, any Wilders would be accused of racism and xenophobia, since the great majority of our illegal immigration problem comes from Mexico.  If we had a more equal flow of ‘brown’ and ‘white’ illegal immigrants, however, would we have more people taking a radical anti-immigrant stance, since they would need less fear the charge of racism?

8.  PAPAL CONFESSION.  Isn’t this what everyone was clamoring for?: “Pope Benedict XVI begged forgiveness Friday from clerical abuse victims for the sins of priests and promised to “do everything possible” to ensure prelates don’t rape or molest children ever again.”  The Roman Catholic Church has had very few cases of abuse in recent years (they have had many cases come to light from previous decades, but few cases actually occur recently), and those cases have been dealt with harshly and expeditiously.  The Catholic church is moving in the right direction, and Benedict is helping it get there.

9.  IS THE BLACK CHURCH DEAD?  This was published in February, but just came across my desk via a Princeton Seminary alumni bulletin: Edward Glaude, a professor at PTS, argues that the Black Church as we have known it is dead.  He writes, “the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.”  This is very much worth considering: read the article.

10.  A RHETORICAL QUESTION.  As I pointed out during the campaign, Obama was using the kind of rhetoric that would help him get elected but which would lead invariably to dashed hopes once he was President.  The language around Obama, and even the language Obama used about himself, was so impossibly elevated that it inspired hopes that could never be met.  The question is whether Obama and his circle understood this, and acted cynically, in order to get elected.  Or whether they bought into their own hype.  Or whether it was both, as I suspect, depending on the time of day.

The danger of exaggerated rhetoric is that you can never meet those expectations; and from dashed hopes come disenchantment, and from disenchantment comes disengagement.  The kind of disengagement that threatens to slaughter the Democrats in the 2010 midterms.

11.  TODAY’S TWO-SIDES.  On Obama’s foreign policy, and particularly Iran, the inimitable Charles Krauthammer for the Right, and the gifted Peter Beinart for the Left.  Enjoy.

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