The brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25 triggered an explosive response across the nation (and beyond) that has riveted attention on the issue of racism — both personal and systemic. This has profoundly affected the Christian community as well as the larger secular culture. Pastors and lay leaders, bloggers and editors, have felt constrained to make unambiguous statements condemning the social cancer that tends to take the basic human right to move about publicly free and unmolested and turn it into a privilege that tends to be denied to persons of darker skin, a privilege that persons of lighter skin tones enjoy without even being aware of it. It’s too soon to tell with certainty, but it looks like this may turn into a watershed moment, when public opinion reaches the sort of tipping point that can effect permanent structural change in the direction of justice.
But this moment of ferment also invites a question: Is there a hierarchy of “justice” issues? Racism currently enjoys top billing — for understandable reasons, and, arguably, deservedly so. But if white privilege and racially motivated police brutality call for justice to flow like water from a hillside, then how might we think fruitfully about the injustice of 2,000 human lives taken daily by abortion?
What the opponents of the phrase “Black lives matter” seem not to grasp is that it’s not that Black lives matter more than other lives, but since Black lives are inordinately in jeopardy in our society, their value needs to be overtly affirmed. But if Black lives matter, do unborn lives also matter? One could hardly imagine a category of human life more vulnerable than babies in the womb (unless it’s unborn Black babies, who make up a disproportionate percentage of the lives lost to abortion).
In recent years, there has been modest attention paid to the need for reform of our criminal justice system, including and especially how we go about the process of imprisoning convicted criminals. This seems utterly meet and right — truly a matter of justice. What, then, of how our society has evolved in ways that do harm to its normative fundamental building block—the nuclear family of mother, father, and their biological offspring? The majority in our society look on permitting same-sex marriage as the agenda of justice, but the majority of the Christian tradition would understand it rather as a burlesque of the charism of sacramental marriage — and, hence, a distortion of justice.
Before COVID-19 and racial unrest moved to center stage, there was great attention paid to the plight of immigrants seeking asylum being detained at the border under astonishingly harsh conditions, compounded by the cruelty of separating young children from their parents. The moral sensibilities of tens of millions of Americans were justly offended. But where is the moral outcry on behalf of those — often vulnerable members of minority groups themselves — whose property — and, hence, their livelihoods — were taken from them as a result of the quite understandable civil unrest (which is itself among the fruits of endemic racism) in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death?
One might argue that these comparisons are not equivalent as to scale or degree of offensiveness. None of this is not to detract at all from the moral urgency of dealing with racism, but to suggest that no issue of justice can be considered in a vacuum. God’s justice, ultimately, is a seamless garment. Justice is a matter of giving every person that which is legitimately due to them, at whatever scale or degree. How, then, might we disentangle Christian witness of justice from the political polarization of the society in which we are incarnate? How can Christians resist the urge to heed the prophet’s admonition to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) by resorting to mere virtue-signaling toward one another and the world? I’m going to offer four possibilities:
First, avoid “confessing” the sins of others. It is so tempting to do so because it’s so easy and purports to offer an immediate salve to a troubled conscience. From time to time there are calls for a “season of repentance” or a “liturgy of lament” on the part of a church or a diocese, usually as a proxy for the actual perpetrators of bad behavior who have been dead for generations. Yes, collective trans-generational responsibility may often be a notion worth examining, especially by those persons and institutions that enjoy material benefits from the ill-gotten gains of their institutional forebears. It is entirely meet and right that we take proper inventory of the extent to which our current institutional life is funded by “blood money,” and to take make plausible efforts toward remediation.
In my own diocese, there’s a parish that has a particularly unsavory history around race relations, and there is a broad consensus that we need to marshal resources to remain robustly present in that community. Yet, such territory needs to be navigated with great care and nuance, lest it become just another exercise in virtue-signaling. It can’t be merely about easing our consciences or making symbolic gestures. Corporate repentance must be concretely incarnate.
Second, timeliness may be a contra-indicator for the advisability of putting one’s energy into an issue. Fighting racism is timely now. Recently it has been the treatment of immigrant children at our southern border. But racism was a problem then, and the treatment of refugees is still a problem now. The entire criminal justice and prison system needs to be gutted and rebuilt. Abortion is always a problem; it’s a silent holocaust because its victims cannot protest. (Future generations will judge us the same way, and under that same terms, that we judge those who defended slavery, or opposed it lukewarmly.) The injustice done in the name of supposed justice by the redefinition of marriage continues to damage the fabric of our society. Various circumstances conspire to bring various issue to the fore at different times. What we need is a consistent witness to justice, not merely a timely one.
Third, use uniquely Christian categories and vocabulary, and eschew those of the secular conversation. Yes, such attempts can be facile (“we can only defeat racism by changing people’s hearts one at a time”), but they don’t have to be. If praying indeed shapes believing, then there is no escaping the notion that it is the “most gracious rule” of Christ our King (collect for Proper 29) that alone can free and bring together those who are “divided and enslaved by sin.” Can it be put more compellingly than by St. Peter?:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Pet. 2:9–10)
In this, Peter’s apostolic colleague concurs:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph. 2:14–16)
As the Christian community, as purveyor of the gospel of the risen Jesus, this is our story and this is our song. These are the categories and the vocabulary in which our struggle for justice must be incarnate.
Finally, we do well to ever realize that it is not in our remit to permanently fix anything. It seems sometimes that the social gospel — the idea that the effort of Christians, individually and collectively, will gradually usher in the fully realized Kingdom of God, absent any decisive cataclysmic crisis that can be attributed to the sovereign action of God alone — is like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the Terminator movies: every time you think it’s dead, it finds a way to come back to life. One would think that the combined ravages of two world wars and the murderous reigns of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot would have permanently put to rest the image of the eschaton being confected by the efforts of Christian disciples. But, alas, the hope is still among us, particularly with Christian communities that comfortably wear a “progressive” label.
To be sure, there are interim measures of communal justice that are worthy of the efforts of Christian disciples. Structures that end up incarcerating African-American men at an alarmingly higher rate, and for longer periods of time, than members of other demographic groups who commit the same crime, can be successfully reformed. With the right kind of focused effort, the lives of tens of thousands of at-risk children in utero can be saved from abortion.
Careful attention to both Scripture and history, however, will demonstrate that our primary job is to announce the coming Kingdom of God, to bear witness to its character, model that character in our life with one another, and invite everyone to repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, and discipleship. We have never, in any generation, lived up to those ideals, fallible sinners that we are. Nonetheless, that’s what our pursuit of justice looks like.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.