Dead ends, social justice, and the gospel


In a couple previous posts (here and here) I've been meditating on how the gospel—the good news of Jesus—is the solution to all human problems. In the last post I traced one "pattern" of how the gospel might work to address a given problem that someone is dealing with. In this post I'll sketch two more patterns.

The gospel as the third way

The gospel solves our problems as the unexpected third way that transcends two common, bipolar alternatives to dealing with our problems. (What follows contains much of my own language, but the schema itself is heavily derived from Timothy Keller and others who write in the same vein.)

The first method people use is moralism. (I want to stress that this is an attitude of the mind and heart that generally operates below the level of consciousness and direct discourse. There are many people who would not conventionally be considered or consider themselves moralistic, but they still have a moralistic instinct that they bring to bear on life's problems.)

The moralist operates on an implicit belief that the universe is fair to all. Therefore, if they follow the rules of wisdom and justice built into the universe, they will escape what hurts and satisfy or eliminate their cravings.

Unfortunately, if a moralist discovers they are incapable of following the rules adequately, they are harassed by guilt, try harder to no avail, and eventually settle into despair. On the other hand, even when a moralist believes themselves to have followed the rules adequately, things still often don't work out right. That makes them indignant—especially when they compare themselves to someone else who appears to be doing better. They bitterly conclude that the universe is not fair, but they struggle to find an alternative way to live.

The other common approach is relativism (which again may be found in those who wouldn't consider themselves relativists). The relativist implicitly believes that the universe is benevolent to all—that nature is constituted so as to lead people into a happy ending. Therefore, if they follow their heart down their own unique path that comes naturally to them, they will escape what hurts and satisfy or eliminate their cravings.

Unfortunately, when they make the choices that seem right to them but still do not get their desired results, they become frustrated or desperate over not being able to crack the code, and they zigzag wildly in mind and life trying to find something that works. On the other hand, they may conclude from their failure that there actually is no path out of pain or that the universe is not actually concerned about their satisfaction. To avoid despair, they try vainly to make peace with the status quo, even by trying to convince themselves that everything (including betrayal, cancer, child abuse, etc.) is actually "good" from some enlightened perspective.

Both moralism and relativism lead to dead ends, and these are the only options humans have come up with. Fortunately, the gospel is a third option that comes from the outside, from God.

The gospel announces that the God of the universe is more fair than we thought—so fair that when he applies the perfect standard of his law perfectly, every one of us fails and none of us deserves allowance or pardon. The gospel also announces that the God of the universe is more benevolent than we thought—so benevolent that he is willing to rearrange everything in the universe at a cost to himself that we cannot conceive in order to bring us to the perfect home we've been longing for. Consequently, the gospel calls us to follow Christ, at whose cross God's fairness and benevolence perfectly come together.

Our moralistic solution to our problems is a problem itself, because it makes the story about our rule-following rather than about God, who is actually the answer. Jesus Christ died on the cross to absorb the cost of both our rule-breaking that offends God and our proud and selfish rule-keeping that offends God even more.

Our relativistic solution to our problems is also our problem, because it makes the story about our heart-following rather than about God. Jesus Christ rose from the dead to be our our way in place of our own way by living his life in and through us by the Spirit of Christ.

Christ replaces and will replace our hurts by giving us God’s just kingdom; Christ satisfies and will satisfy our cravings by giving us God’s abundant life. All we have to do—literally—is to surrender our inadequate solutions and embrace the gospel solution so that it transforms us from the inside out.

Social problems

My focus in these posts has been on problems faced by individuals, but many of those problems come from or are influenced by societal problems and injustices.

Following from my previous categorization of "hurts" and "cravings" above (see here for more detail), social evils generally proceed from cravings that have become idolatrous in some members of a society, not infrequently as an overreaction to hurts they previously suffered. These members have disproportionate power, and that allows them to pursue their cravings in a way that causes hurt for many other members of the society. The idolatry and the hurtful consequences become embedded in the culture and routinized to the point that they become virtually invisible—they are simply how things are.

The three solutions delineated above also apply to social problems. The moralistic solution is to urge or force on the oppressors what ought to be. It assumes that the oppressors are the bad guys and the oppressed are the good guys who have the right and the wisdom to mete out justice to the bad guys. The moralistic solution, being highly adversarial, often fails because of the power concentrated in the hands of the oppressors, yet when the oppressed do succeed, they have a pernicious tendency to become new oppressors either against their former oppressors, against their former comrades, or against some other marginalized group.

The relativistic solution is basically escapist. It either accepts what is and tries through philosophizing to make it palatable, or it else attempts to flee physically or mentally to somewhere preferable. Habitual self-anesthetizing through drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, and the like is one version of the relativistic solution to the problem of social evil.

The gospel solution is to assert that what ought to be is becoming what is by God's doing—both in the world and in individuals who believe it, partially now wherever the Spirit of Christ is but completely in the future when Christ returns.

The implications of the gospel for those trapped in an unjust system (which is every system on this earth to some degree) are subtle but profound. Reform, even revolution, of the current system is possible not by fighting in a conventional manner (moralism) or by surrendering to the status quo (relativism) but by confidently living out the reality of the coming kingdom in the midst of this oppressive world that is passing away.

The Civil Rights Movement was a telling example of this. It was a stunning demonstration of oppressed people refusing to be complicit in their own oppression yet maintaining love toward their oppressors. Eventually it pushed things to a tipping point at which those who saw racial injustice as someone else's problem finally, grudgingly could not help but support equal rights regardless of race and at which other powers (such as the Supreme Court of the United States) were willing to come to the aid of the oppressed.

A key motivator in the movement was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s proclamation, derived from nineteenth-century abolitionist Theodore Parker, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I do not know enough about King's perspective on how the world gets from what it is to perfect justice to know if I agree with him—as I read the Bible it does not describe a smooth arc but a jagged line to a cataclysmic climax at which Christ personally and visibly intervenes. But the roots of King and Parker's statement are indeed in the gospel, which asserts that because of Christ, justice is already an accomplished fact, which motivates us to live out now what is inexorably coming.

Critically, the gospel makes it possible for oppressors to give up their power, privilege, and wealth in order to gain infinitely more. It extends forgiveness from God and from neighbor; it promises reconciliation rather than retaliation by their victims. It proposes an end to oppression for the sake of a better beginning for everyone, together, not for the devastation and exclusion of the condemned (unless they insist on it—and sadly sometimes they/we do). The gospel makes possible a peaceful, if stressful, avenue from where we are to where we ought to go as an alternative to bloodshed, which even when it accomplishes its goal causes hurts that sometimes never go away, even for generations, and gives rise to new forms of injustice.

So once again, the solution to all problems really is the gospel—Jesus.

#gospel #problems #socialjustice #CivilRightsMovement #moralism #relativism

© 2020 by Cory Hartman