By Matthew Boulter
For many Episcopalians, among the most beloved sections of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the Baptismal Covenant, rehearsed and proclaimed in the Service of Holy Baptism. After we commit ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” to repentance, and to proclaiming and practicing the good news, we encounter these liturgical lines:
Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.
I count myself among those for whom this covenantal commitment is of massive import. Indeed, this tenet of the prayer book, implied by the gospel itself, played a key role in drawing me into the Episcopal Church over a decade ago.
And yet, as important as it is, it would be a grave mistake to view this implication of the gospel — which is the death and resurrection of Christ as the world’s reconciliation with God and hence the beginning of the new creation — as the sum total of the Christian kerygma itself.
And yet for many in our culture — particularly those in more progressive contexts, including prominent currents of the Episcopal Church — this is precisely the assumption that seems to hold sway. No need to bother with the cross, with the human condition in all its distortion, with the costly demands of discipleship. Even the ostensibly kindlier historic emphasis on mystical communion with the risen Christ is pushed to the margins, in favor of the sole dominance of social justice.
If in evangelical culture, the dog tends to be wagged by the tail of “mission,” in certain forms of liberal Protestantism it is wagged by social justice.
My aim in this brief essay, however, is not so much to point fingers or to throw stones, but rather to ask the question, “How did this state of affairs come about?” How did we, secular denizens who nonetheless struggle to live out the vision of the prayer book, come to assume that social justice is the “be all and end all”? How did we become social justice reductionists?
For these cultural assumptions we have Immanuel Kant to thank. It is Kant who, primarily in his “second critique,” The Critique of Practical Reason, reduces all religion to ethics alone. Among all dimensions of the Christian faith, the ethical alone, Kant thinks, can justify itself before the epistemological court of necessary and universal reason. Ethics alone — amounting for our purposes to “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”; “strive for justice among all people” — is the sum total of human religion.
Now, most social justice reductionists have not actually read much Kant. Yet, his ideas, received and transmitted by subsequent generations, beginning with his student Johann Gottlieb Fichte, have reverberated throughout our culture like the very air we breathe.
One particularly persuasive commentator on such issues is 20th-century Russian sophiologist Sergei Bulgakov, who said:
[Kant] did not see in religion an independent realm of the spirit and did not consider religious consciousness to be an entirely special, distinctive element of consciousness in general, but regarded religion exclusively on the plane of ethics, considering it apparently as the music of morality and perhaps its completion. According to Kant, outside of ethics, religion does not have and could not have a particular existence; Religiousness independent of morality, the immediate reverence of God connected with positive religion, is invariably branded by Kant as Abgötterei, Fetischmachen, Afterdiest [idolatry, fetishism, pseudo-worship]. (Unfading Light, 5)
Does the Kantian provenance of Christianity-as-social-justice infallibly refute the position of the social justice reductionists? By no means. Still, I wonder how many of them are aware of — how many would feel comfortable with — the historical origin of their assumptions in the thought of Immanuel Kant?
Now, don’t get me wrong: Kant’s exaltation of human freedom, expressed in his rejection of any heteronomous, external law, has deep resonances with certain Christian themes (many of them Lutheran in inspiration). Yet if Kant is correct, one must admit that there is no such thing as revelation. No such thing, that is, as the actual human experience of divine reality and presence in the world of space and time. No such thing as a historical event which is rightly interpreted as an act or a word from God. No burning bush, no Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, no actual apprehension by anyone of the risen Christ. If Kant is correct, we cannot say that Christ is risen, and the Christian faith becomes ethics, ethics of a particular variety to boot, and that alone.
From here, I’d like to provide two actual criticisms of this reductive stance, and then one corrective suggestion.
The first is an application of the Hauerwasian refrain “let the Church be the Church!” Alas, if other groups/institutions/communities can be and usually are more effective at advocating for social justice, then why hold that the Church be in that “business” at all? Just as the Church should not compete in the pop music industry, or in the teen-entertainment market (in these domains it will inevitably fail, for its product is inevitably inferior), so also here in the struggle for justice. This is certainly not the “unique ability” of the Church.
What is its unique ability, then? Hinted at above, I’d argue that it is the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant. Indeed, these are the underpinnings of authentic Christian advocacy for justice (as well as mission, on the evangelical church front). But without this foundation of the objective good news achieved and received, in the rising tide of nihilism so characteristic of our culture, social justice will eventually evaporate, ceasing to be a social/political value in our bottomed-out culture. The demand for social justice presupposes all manner of metaphysical claims, consciously acknowledged or not: right and wrong, good and evil, human beings as the imago dei, etc.
This leads to my final point, a corrective prescription for how to think theologically and “Christianly” about social justice: social justice is the living out “horizontally” of the reconciliation we have been granted in Christ. It is a participation — relationally, in the lives of one another — in our union in Christ.
What precedes social justice? What undergirds the baptismal covenant? The same reality that grounds mission: communion with God. Nothing other, that is, than the gospel: union with the risen Christ.