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01.02.2024

Wisdom Lab: Working out justice | Listen (1/4)

You don’t have to spend long with friends or colleagues or scroll far through social media to find people making passionate pleas for justice to be done for a cause, person, or issue that matters deeply to them.

We feel the effects of injustice incredibly strongly, particularly when it’s perpetrated directly against us or those we care about. There’s something innate within all of us that wants to see wrongs made right, victims protected, and the guilty held to account. 

But when it comes to issues like reparations, climate justice, or migration – and their everyday expressions in our spending, work policies, and pub conversations – what does justice actually look like and how can we be part of bringing it about?

That’s the question this blog series explores. In four articles, four authors will have a conversation, responding to each other’s work and ‘triple listening’ to wisdom from the word of God, the world, and one another. Together, and at the Wisdom Lab: Working Out Justice event, they’ll help you ‘to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly’ (Micah 6:8), wherever he’s placed you, alongside the people he’s put you with.

In this piece, Matt Jolley from LICC’s Culture & Discipleship Team helps us listen to our culture, understand why this is such a prevalent issue, and consider what exactly the people around us are asking for when they demand ‘justice’. In the rest of the series, we’ll imagine what a biblical theology of justice says, learn to create a healing response in how we live and work, and think about how to communicate the good news of the gospel to a watching world instinctively bent on seeing wrong things made right. 

My frontline story

A couple of months ago, I went to a friend’s wedding. It was a beautiful day, helped in no small part by unseasonably warm September weather. As we took our seats for the reception, I found I’d been placed next to a group of people who I vaguely remembered meeting about four years ago through a mutual friend. Channelling my extroverted, ENFP-type energy, I launched into conversation with the kind of enthusiasm which suggested I knew them far better than I actually did (that’s what you’re meant to do at weddings, after all).

As we chatted for the next couple of hours, one thing became incredibly clear. These people, all in their mid-to-late 20s and none of them Christians, were determined to live their lives, and particularly their careers, in pursuit of an overarching purpose. In fact, nothing short of that would satisfy. And that purpose had a specific bent: protecting the environment, ending inequality, caring for the most vulnerable. In a word, justice. Okay, all these people have the privilege of relatively wealthy backgrounds and a high-class education – they had the luxury of free rein over how and where they entered the job market. But, to them, it was intuitively obvious that they shouldn’t simply pursue a larger paycheck but rather the safeguarding of people and planet.

It was with that conversation ringing in my ears that I went back to university a month later, where I study International Development (turns out my priorities aren’t too different to theirs). People come to this course from all over the world, and there’s a good chance that in years to come many of them will go on to shape national and global attempts to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time: refugees and migration, conflict, poverty, racial and gender discrimination, and climate change.

The cry of their hearts mirrors the cry of a generation emerging into adulthood deeply dissatisfied with the way the world looks: we want justice, we want change, and we want it now. It’s a cry that wells up not just in study and future career prospects, but in the protests over lecturers’ pay, anti-war class boycotts, and campaigns to raise money for humanitarian assistance that regularly sweep across campus. Sometimes hopeful for the world that could be, sometimes characterised by angry, divisive, and frenzied activism.

There’s a good chance that the young adults you know aren’t too dissimilar. Some of them know Jesus, but the vast majority don’t. Some of the causes they’re passionate about I find deep resonance with, but in other cases I’m more reluctant to join in the chorus. These are the people I’ll eventually work alongside.

But, before then, they’re my classmates and friends – and i’m even doing a group project with a few of them. As part of this, we have to choose a particular issue or topic, analyse what’s gone wrong, and plot a course together to seek change and see justice done. But what if their idea of an important cause is completely different to mine? What if their method of seeking justice is foreign to me? And what if we have fundamentally different visions of what a just world would look like? How do we go about partnering, in a distinctively Christian way, to see God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness come on earth as in heaven?

Learning to listen

The first thing we need to do, before we jump in with answers or solutions or criticisms of the methods and causes people pursue, is to truly listen to what’s going on here. In the words of John Stott, ‘every true disciple is a listener’, as we first seek to understand before we try to be understood. Having spent over a year alongside my fellow students, beginning to understand what gets them out of bed in the morning and what keeps them up at night, I can begin to guess what they love, what they hate, and what they hope for – things which shape the culture of this place and the lens through which they see the world.

From looking at the particular causes they prioritise, people here love self-expression and the equality that allows everyone to flourish as the person they deeply want to be. This is autonomy in the truest sense of the word – literally self-law, where you get to define the rules by which you live. As we’re all different and unique individuals, that self-expression will be incredibly diverse, and as long as you’re living authentically as you’d like, it’s all good. Hence progress and development are seen in terms of equipping people with the freedom and capability to live as they want.

Because of this, it follows that people hate the systems, structures, and forces that prevent others from accessing this kind of freedom and autonomy. Discrimination against anyone based on their race, gender, sexuality, or any other kind of marker is a form of oppression because it prevents that person from being who they want to be, free from judgment or fear. And where contradicting narratives about restraint and self-denial are internalised, that’s a form of repression from within. There’s a similar hatred for the structural disadvantages that constrain people’s opportunities and limit their potential, like poverty, violence, inadequate education or healthcare, or a lack of access to key resources like food and water. As powerful institutions – including the government, the police, and the church – are often at the heart of these unjust structures, they are often the target of wrath. As a UK general election looms, for instance, class discussions of the various political options are characterised by a scepticism over whether any party can actually make a positive difference.

If you want to know what these people hope for, look at what’s written on banners at protest rallies and at the stories they tell. Often, these rallying cries express horror where people inflict suffering, violence, and abuse upon others. Stories convey solidarity with an underdog, a formerly powerless victim who broke free from inner repression or outer oppression to become their authentic self and claim their agency. Just look at the #MeToo movement, where victims of sexual harassment speak out against powerful perpetrators of abuse. Or think of how people are celebrated at Pride events when they’ve come out as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Or Greta Thunberg, a single Swedish schoolchild taking on the might of the fossil fuel lobby to protect the environment. Or Malala Yousafzai, a single Pakistani schoolchild taking on the Taliban to defend the right of girls to go to school. These stories point to a vision of a world rid of ‘evil’, where powerful oppressors are forced to repent, the planet is cared for, and all people are free to access their rights, find acceptance, and reach their potential. And people aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty in working to bring that world about.

Digging deeper

I wonder if any of that sounded familiar to you? Of course, it’s important that you listen to the cries for justice of the people around you too, as they’ll have a specific sound. But there are also underlying cultural narratives that are shaping this cultural context more widely, which help explain why a desire for justice is such a prevalent theme among emerging activist generations.

For several decades now, Christianity has been on the decline in the West, and Christians are now officially a minority in the UK (particularly among younger generations). So, it might appear odd to explain this drive for justice in terms of the Christian story. However, anyone familiar with the Bible will recall just how many times justice is mentioned – more on that in part two of this series. And anyone familiar with the history of the West will recall the role that Christianity has played in shaping the Western mind, including the values that we often take for granted as a society: defending the victim, helping the powerless, and even advocating for freedom for individuals to follow the dictates of their conscience.

These values, central to God’s kingdom, persist even as we’ve tried to dethrone its king. And, whether explicitly or not, the Christian story has also shaped many of the organisations fighting for justice today. Go watch a local marathon and you’ll see jersey after jersey of runners representing charities that were started by Christians: The British Red Cross, Shelter, Oxfam, Crisis, the Salvation Army, Samaritans, YMCA. The Christian story and our society’s search for justice have always gone hand in hand.

As historian Tom Holland put it in the 2022 Theos Annual Lecture, secular humanism is a Christian heresy. But that heresy has now grown legs and become a religion all of its own.[1] People who are seen as progressive and enlightened are the elect. Protest marches are worship services providing a like-minded community. Social and political leaders are the clergy. And the essential dogma is strongly influenced by critical theory.

To understand critical theory, you need to trace a bit further back to the emergence of post-modernism in the mid-20thcentury.[2] The promise of modernism – that we’re progressing towards a better future through the wisdom of experts and leaders – was cracking beneath the weight of two World Wars, gender and racial discrimination, and economic strife. To that, you can now add leadership hypocrisy, a mental health epidemic, and environmental collapse. So instead, post-modernism advocated a deep scepticism of experts and overarching explanations for how the world works (religious beliefs included) – I can only trust myself and people in my tribe who think like me and share my experience of suffering.[3] And now, with social media, finding those people is easier than ever. Among my progressive university classmates, for example, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t echo this story and reinforce that perspective.

This scepticism then got turned back on the powerful institutions and systems that failed us. Postmodern despair was combined with anger and applied into action: that action took the form of critical theory. As the name suggests, this is deeply critical of systems of power and privilege and distrustful of objective forms of knowledge. Instead, it amplifies the voices and experiences of the powerless to achieve equality, rejects traditional identity boundaries and binaries, and replaces universal truth with groups categorised under different identity markers, which has come to shape so-called ‘identity politics’.[4] At this point, what started as a desire to protect the vulnerable risks fracturing any vision of a shared future into competing factions – justice becomes just-us.[5]

Of course, people can be simultaneously part of multiple groups, for example according to their race, gender, (dis)ability, or religion.[6] This causes intersections: the more oppressed groups you’re part of, the greater the discrimination you experience, and the more your voice needs amplifying. As such, when choosing which cause or group to advocate for in the class assignment, it’s no coincidence that these multiply oppressed people are common choices. It also explains the way that victims and underdogs are turned into heroes by fellow students and why there’s an existential fervour to the social justice activism.

Across a range of fronts, represented in the variety of issues that the people around you care about, critical theory has been applied to ask how power relationships play out, where discrimination and oppression exist, and what can be done to shift this power.[7] What was previously characterised by doubt about what we can know has been replaced by a new moralism with regained certainty about the route to that better future modernism promised us. It looks like trusting ourselves and gaining the agency to authentically live out our desires – hence self-expression and autonomy are key priorities for the people around me. And that’s reflected in social and corporate policies across our nation.

However, there are still question marks over the real authenticity of much advocacy today. Given the value placed on autonomy and self-expression, where is the place for sacrifice in campaigning for the rights of the other, for restraining my desires for the sake of the common good? Do I simply get involved as far as is comfortable through an online petition or social media post that joins in the chorus of my tribe? Is this a genuine attempt at addressing injustice and transforming society or simply virtue signalling so I remain part of the in-crowd? And, perhaps more fundamentally, what is the basis for asserting equality, human rights, and freedom as objective goods? What larger story makes sense of the strong moral intuitions that so many of my classmates, and the people around you, carry?

What about me?

All of this brings us to the obvious question as Christians: where is the church in all this? A 2020 Tearfund report suggests that many young people don’t feel it’s engaging enough, particularly on many of the issues raised in this piece. [8] There’s often confusion about where modern social justice movements fit alongside biblical justice – are they rivals, identical twins, or something else? And tragically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s haemorrhaging the same emerging generations who are passionate about these issues: between 2015–2020, 20% of 0–16 year olds left the Church of England, and 73% of those who grow up Christian will leave by their 30s.[9] In fact, rather than being part of the solution, the church is frequently seen as the problem, a bastion of repressive and antiquated morality, judgmental, and yet also deeply hypocritical given the failings of those in leadership.[10] This is everything critical theory, and many young people today, have come to find most objectionable. But, perhaps, these people are ‘not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34) and actually have a prophetic critique to offer?

And that begs another, more specific, question: at my university, alongside people passionate about justice, and in this group project that I’m part of, how would Jesus have me respond? What should be going on here, and how can I be part of bringing that about? More on that in part two.

Matt Jolley
Research and Implementation Manager, LICC

Discussion Questions

  1. Think about the people on your frontline – particularly those among Emerging Generations. What are the justice issues they’re passionate about?
  2. Consider these issues and the people they involve. What vision do they point to of how the world should be?
  3. Do you see critical theory, identity politics, or a new moralism underpinning this vision? If so, where are these narratives at work?

References

[1] Former Catholic Helen Lewis has explored the religious nature of contemporary social justice movements, in print and through a BBC radio broadcast.

[2] For a longer explanation of how critical theory emerged from post-modernism, see Christopher Watkins, ‘Christianity and Critical Race Theory’. This is unpacked at length in Biblical Critical Theory (Zondervan, 2022).

[3] Trevin Wax looks more at the rise of expressive individualism, authenticity, and how this has shaped our approach to individual and collective identity. For more detail, particularly for the political ramifications of this, see Francis Fukuyama, Identity (Profile Books, 2019).

[4] A deeper analysis of the cultural and philosophical trends that led us towards identity politics, as well as suggestions for how the church can respond, is offered by Brian Rosner in How to Find Yourself (Crossway, 2022).

[5] In The Once and Future Liberal (HarperCollins, 2017), Humanities Professor and political scientist, Mark Lilla, argues that individualism and a desire for equality have combined to produce identity politics, leading to a fragmenting of and contempt for the idea of the common good. For more, see LICC’s Wisdom Lab on ‘The Common Good.’

[6] Interestingly, many of these different labels went on to become protected characteristics as defined under the UK’s 2010 Equality Act.

[7] In Cynical Theories (Swift, 2020), Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay critique critical theory through exploring its application to a range of issues, arguing for a return to a more inclusive liberalism in its place.

[8] Tearfund’s Burning Down the House report found that 9/10 young people are concerned about the climate crisis, but only 1 in 10 think their church is doing enough about it.

[9] Barna, The Connected Generation: United Kingdom Report (2019).

[10] For more on how we got to this place, see Stephen McAlpine’s Being the Bad Guys (The Good Book Company, 2021).

Helpful Resources

Listen to or read Helen Lewis’ take on the religious nature of contemporary social justice movements, explaining their fervour, evangelistic zeal, and call for guilty parties to repent of their evil.

In a relatively short and accessible blog series, Trevin Wax looks at the rise of expressive individualism, how this affects our approach to identity, and how the church should respond.

Brian Rosner takes this further, analysing the cultural and philosophical trends that led us from expressive individualism towards identity politics, as well as providing suggestions for a biblical way forward, in How to Find Yourself (Crossway, 2022).

For a book-length critique of critical theory, explaining where it came from and where we see it at work in a university context in particular, read Cynical Theories (Swift, 2020) by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. They argue for a return to a more inclusive liberalism in its place.

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