In our day, the phrase “social justice” has become a political buzzword. Unfortunately, this is also echoed by a lot of mainstream churches and preachers. For some Christians it has become the new standard of “postmodern righteousness” that should be pursued. The phrase “social justice” begs the question: Why do we feel the need to define a concept such as “justice” by an adjective? When did this paradigm shift happen? The answer to these questions will help us identify the deformation within our societies so that we can act to reform.
This post-Christian society desperately calls for reform. As believers we cannot be indifferent to this as if it were a mere political issue.
In the introduction to his book Politics after Christendom, David VanDrunen explains how the West was characterized mainly by a Christian societal structure from the period between the Middle Ages until well into the modern era. Even though it was possible to distinguish church, state, and other social institutions on a technical level, they were bound together by their common goal and enthusiasm toward building a society marked by a definitive Christian culture. Even though the Reformation of the sixteenth century profoundly changed the character of Christendom, it did not end Christendom altogether.
The way in which a city such as Geneva (during the sixteenth century) was reformed by John Calvin serves as a good example of such a Christian society. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were banned from the city as the city fathers disapproved of the reforms they suggested – among other things the implementation of church discipline. Two years later (1540) they begged Calvin to return, as they needed a solution for the immorality and licentiousness that plagued the city. After his return in 1541, Calvin dedicated himself to the implementation of Christian principles and church discipline in order to reform the city to be holy and to function in accordance with the will of God.
Such was his success that the Italian refugee, Bernardino Ochino, who visited the city remarked with admiration: “Cursing and swearing, unchastity, sacrilege, adultery, and impure living, such as prevail in many places where I have lived, are here unknown. There are no pimps and harlots. The people do not know what rouge is, and they are all clad in seemly fashion. Games of chance are not customary. Benevolence is so great that the poor need not beg. The people admonish one another in brotherly fashion, as Christ prescribes. Lawsuits are banished from the city, nor is there any simony, murder, or party spirit, but only peace and charity. On the other hand, there are no organs here, no voice of bells, no showy songs, no burning candles or lamps [in the churches], no relics, pictures, statues, canopies, or splendid robes, no farces or cold ceremonies. The churches are quite free from idolatry.”
Rise of liberalism
With the advent of the so-called modern age, things started to change. The rise of the enlightenment and the awakening of liberalism, resulted in the challenging of traditional theological positions. The church’s civil influence came under particular suspicion. VanDrunen points out that Christian societies did not end abruptly, but rather, “slowly but surely the habits, assumptions, and structures of Christendom withered away”.
The seductive words spoken by Satan in the Garden of Eden, “you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5), can be described as the slogan of and the driving force behind liberalism. Man, with his carnal, sinful needs and desires, increasingly replaced God as the center of everything.
This also impacted the message of the church. In his article entitled Do We Believe the Whole Gospel, Dr. R.C. Sproul draws attention to the way that liberalism sought to de-supernaturalize the Christian faith. This led to the Christian faith being restricted “to ethical considerations, particularly with respect to the needs of human beings, and especially with respect to their material needs.” It resulted in a shift in focus with regards to concepts such as “righteousness” or “justice.” The emphasis shifted away from the traditional view, namely to be right with God (which also impacts our interpersonal relationships), to a one-sided emphasis on the rights and needs of the community. Dr. Sproul thus rightly reminds us that the Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, once judged liberalism as unbelief.
Equality becomes the new right and society the new judge.
The thorns and thistles which sprout from this liberal soil are the post-Christian society we find ourselves in today. According to VanDrunen, it is a society characterized by “the rise of violent ideologies, worldwide wars, upheavals in moral standards, and a decline in church attendance throughout the West.” Where man takes center stage and his desires and carnal instincts become the standard, this outcome is to be expected.
Although concepts such as “righteousness” will still be around in a post-Christian secular society, it will be imbued with new meaning. As it is redefined, the need also arises for it to be regulated by an adjective such as “social.” Equality becomes the new right and society the new judge.
Righteousness in the hands of society
People are so often swept up in the hype created by the actions of social justice activists that the matter is sometimes reduced to the practical aspects of the “fair treatment” of the community. In other words, we often tend to focus so much on justice for the community that we miss the basic assumption of this notion: namely, that it also demands justice by the community. Where God’s place in society is substituted by man, it inevitably follows that his righteousness must make way for a new kind of “justice.”
As a result of this, righteousness or justice is entrusted to society, which implies that society should also determine the norm for what is right and just. Such a society is often impatient and rebellious, either sweeping you along or kicking you out of the way. It is for this reason that groups like the Black Lives Matter movement, which regard itself as social justice warriors, can do whatever they want and get away with it. Because an objective principle for justice no longer exists (even judicial systems in countries like South Africa reek of the current social justice rhetoric), groups like these set their own ethical standards. They give themselves the right to loot and destroy, while the liberal media often praise their actions as “justified.”
Although it creates the impression of freedom (as determined by society), it becomes the breeding ground for tyranny and a new, crueler kind of oppression. What is considered to be right by one group is often wrong for another. Ultimately it becomes a power struggle in which the strongest group will emerge victorious. Mob justice triumphs. Oppression by way of policies aimed at affirmative action becomes “just principles” in service of the dominant group’s unique take on righteousness.
Back in the hands of the Righteous One
This post-Christian society desperately calls for reform. As believers, we cannot be indifferent to this as if it were a mere political issue. Politics, after all, is derived from what one confesses, and is therefore a result of who or what we worship. Rigorous reform requires more than replacing one group with another, as it will ultimately have the same fatal result. What our society needs is a change in the object of our worship. When this happens, it will have a cumulative effect on our culture and our politics.
This alternative entails that justice again be placed in the hands of the Righteous One. It requires belief in the supernatural and bending the knee before the Almighty, who will ultimately judge us all. It requires the destruction of our humanistic heights and social altars, but it also necessitates that it be replaced with something else. As in the days of King Josiah (II Kings 22), it requires the restoration of the places of worship and the reading of the “Book of the Law” in order for society to be reformed in correspondence with it.
Citations & References1. David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020), pp. 15-16.
2. Cited in Will Durant, The Story of Civilization vol. 6: The Reformation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 476.
Schalk StraussSee More Essays
Schalk Strauss is a minister of religion in South Africa in a reformed and conservative church, called The Afrikaans Protestant Church. He obtained a master’s degree from the University of the North West (Potchefstroom, South Africa) and is a Ph.D. student at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, under the guidance of proff. Willem van Vlastuin and Adriaan Neele (PRTS).