What Does Justice Require? — On Racial Reconciliation

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I loathe racism.

I loathe injustice.

And, I loathe so-called “social” or “racial” justice.

How is that consistent? Today’s culture—and increasingly, today’s Church—would tell you that it’s not consistent; that the third statement is entailed by the first two. They would claim that “social” or “racial” justice just is the combination of fighting racism and fighting injustice. The trick is that they mean something very different by the concept of justice than I do. In fact, I suspect that what I mean by justice is what most people would mean by it—if they stopped and thought about it for a moment. But I won’t claim to speak for most people. I’ll just speak for myself, and let you decide.

What is justice1? One thing is certain: justice is important. Justice is integral to the Christian worldview, to the gospel, and to peaceful relationships with other people. It is not optional. Whatever it is, it must be pursued with fervent passion. It must never be compromised. And all that which opposes it must, itself, be opposed. A white-hot commitment to justice is, and must be, at the absolute center of Christian morality. Yes, there’s grace (and how the two relate is an important, but separate, topic). But grace is defined by justice. Justice is the center, the fundamental. This—the grave importance of justice—is what the social justice crowd gets right. Tragically though, I would argue, that’s about all they get right.

If justice is as important as described above, getting it wrong must be tragic. If you get justice wrong, you will end up calling that which is truly unjust “justice,” and calling that which is truly just “injustice.” If you get justice wrong, you will incur upon yourself the WOE of Isaiah 5:20: “WOE to those who call good evil and evil good.” If you get justice wrong, you will get the gospel wrong. You will get God wrong. And you will find yourself waging an apparently righteous war against justice. You will—quite unknowingly—become a zealous pawn in the enemy’s battalions. Such is the tragic fate—I believe—of most Christians today who advocate loudly for “social” or “racial” justice. They are pawns of the enemy. They are warriors for injustice.

Does that sound harsh? Perhaps it is. But remember, they will—they must—think the same thing about me, if they truly care as much about justice as they claim to. That’s because we can’t both be right. If their view of justice is accurate, then I am the enemy’s pawn; I am the warrior for injustice. But if my view of justice is accurate, then they are. It’s one or the other. There is no middle ground when it comes to conflicting visions of justice. And the Church must decide which vision it will adopt.

What are those conflicting visions, and which one is the right one? What does true justice require when it comes to something like racial reconciliation?

 

Justice is Factual

I would suggest that the first thing justice requires is attention to facts above feelings. This does not mean that feelings are irrelevant when it comes to implementing justice. Indeed, we ought to be passionately inflamed against injustice. However, feelings are irrelevant when it comes to identifying justice. That someone feels as though they have been the victim of injustice does not mean that they have in fact been the victim of injustice. And justice demands that we make that distinction. Justice refuses to be swayed by mere emotional appeals.

Suppose a young black man feels as though he has been the victim of racism. If he has, then justice demands extreme moral condemnation against those who have been racist against him. If he hasn’t, then justice demands that no such moral condemnation should be issued. If he’s mistaken about being the victim of racism, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t truly suffered. It simply means that racism was not the cause of his suffering. Love, in this case, would demand counseling him in order to discover what the source of suffering is, and then working to remedy it. But justice must refuse to agree with him about the racism, apart from any evidence of racism, merely for the sake of “affirming” his feelings. Justice is not based on feelings. It is based on fact.

 

Justice Is Specific

That brings us to another aspect of justice: Facts are specific—and so is justice. The sword of justice is too sharp to safely wield against vague accusations. One very common vague accusation today is the accusation of “racism.” There once was a time when everyone knew exactly what racism was, but that is no longer the case. Racism used to mean judging someone based on the color of their skin, rather than on the content of their character. Today, it means almost the opposite. We are told that we must think about people according to their skin color—and then rank them by class according to the relative perceived amount of suffering each racial class has endured. The failure to acknowledge one’s own racial “privilege,” or the lack of racial privilege of others, is now what is meant by racism. Notice the shift, though, from the old definition to the new. Much of the moral outrage against racism comes from the leftover understanding of the old definition. But the content of the old definition does not carry over into the new one. Why, then, should the moral outrage carry over?

The advocates of the new definition of racism rely on an equivocation between the old definition and the new. But such equivocations are unjust. The failure to “recognize” the supposed privilege of having one skin color over another is not the same thing as judging someone based on the color of their skin. Those two things do not deserve to be labeled by the same term. The attempt to conflate those two as one is duplicitous. And justice hates duplicity. Justice is eager to define its terms—and stick to them.

 

Justice is Individual

There’s another problem with the new conception of racism (as far as justice is concerned): it is fundamentally collectivistic. But justice is not collectivistic. Just as the sword of justice is too sharp to wield against vague accusations, it is also too sharp to indiscriminately wave around in a crowd. Justice is not a blunt instrument. It is sharp and specific––to be waged against individuals. That’s because justice is concerned with moral choices and actions, and only individuals make choices and actions. Many individuals might be united in virtue of some common choice or action––in which case they may all, “collectively,” be guilty. But the “collective guilt,” then, is rooted in the common individual choices they all made. Justice does not, however, allow for a collective guilt which is rooted in some non-moral aspect of a collective—like skin color. Thus, justice must reject collectivistic appeals to guilt which are not explicitly based in the choices of the individuals who compose that collective.

Consider the racism of the 50’s & 60’s, for instance. Thabiti Anyabwile suggests that all white people who were alive at that time were responsible for the acts of racism during that era—and especially, the racist act of assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While I think Thabiti is likely correct that many more people were complicit in such atrocities than the immediate actors, justice prevents me from concluding that such complicity extends to all white people who were alive at that time. It may extend to all people (whether white, or otherwise) who agreed with the racist mentality. It may even extend to all people (whether white, or otherwise) who did not do what they could to speak out against the evil of racism. But it cannot, and must not, extend to a certain group of people merely based on their “whiteness,” as Mr. Anyabwile would have us believe. Complicity—which is a form of guilt—tracks with actions (or lack thereof), not skin tone. At least, that is what justice should conclude.

 

Justice is Objective

There’s a reason that the advocates of the new forms of so-called “justice” elevate feelings over facts, redefine concepts like racism, and dismiss the individual for the sake of the collective. It all comes from a fundamentally new conception of reality which teaches that there is no shared, objective, vantage point on reality. There is a great chasm—this view teaches—between “the white experience” and “the black experience,” such that one can never fully understand the other. There is white life, and there is black life; there are white ideas, and black ideas; there is white theology, and black theology; white justice, and black justice. And while the two may try to live in “harmony,” they can never fully agree, because they can never fully understand each other. Understanding is impossible, they say, but not empathy.

This is why feelings must be elevated above facts: there are no common facts. There are white facts and black facts, and no common ground between them. Facts cannot unite us. Only feelings can. This is also why racism, and everything else (like justice), must be redefined in collectivistic terms. Your view of reality is not your view of reality, as an individual; it is your collective’s view of reality, of which you are merely a blind follower. Your collective, white, view of reality is in opposition to the collective, black, view of reality. And racism, then, means the failure to reject your white view of reality in favor of the black view of reality. To exercise “racial justice,” then, you must reject your white view of reality and support the black view of reality—whether you understand it or not, whether you agree with it or not.

Remember that understanding and agreement are impossible. There are only warring, pre-determined, collectivistic views of reality—and your only choice is whether you will selfishly hold to your collective’s view of reality, or give it up for the sake of another collective’s view of reality. This, I submit, is wicked.

If this racialized and collectivized relativism is true, then there can be no justice. Thankfully, it’s not true. Relativism—whether collective, or individual—by definition, cannot be true. And since justice is concerned with truth, justice demands that this racialized relativism be rejected. Justice demands that we affirm objective reality—and everyone’s ability to objectively access it. This does not mean ignoring one’s bias. It means objectively identifying one’s bias, and correcting it according to objective reality. Justice must always be concerned with truth—which means that it must always be concerned with objectivity. If the contemporary “warriors” of so-called “justice” deny the possibility of objectivity, then the war they are waging is against the possibility of justice. And justice demands that they be stopped.

 

Justice Redeemed

If what I’ve said above is true, then many of the contemporary voices which cry so loudly for things like “racial justice” today are imposters when it comes to true justice. (Before you condemn a given voice as an imposter, make sure that you justly confirm the facts about what that voice is teaching!) If what I’ve said above is true, then much of the growing division in the Church today has a lot more to do with conflicting visions of justice than it does with conflicting values on race. The solution, then, is not primarily “racial reconciliation” (though that certainly needs to happen where true racism is still taking place). The solution is the rediscovery of justice. If the concept of justice has been distorted, then no division can be mended until the true concept of justice has been redeemed.

This is the conversation the Church desperately needs to have: a conversation, not about race, but about justice. Is justice based on feelings or on facts? Is justice vague or specific when it comes to accusations of things like racism? Is justice collectivistic and based merely on things like skin color, or individual and based on choices and actions? Is justice objective or relativistic? These are the questions that need to be asked, and explicitly answered. These are the lines that need to be drawn if we want to truly fight for justice.

If you agree with me about justice—that it is factual, specific, individual, and objective—then do not cede the language of justice to those who are its enemies. Do not grant them the title of a “warrior” for justice. They are warriors, alright, but only for injustice. If someone claims to be for “racial justice,” or “social justice,” ask them what they mean. The extent to which their concept of “justice” is unjust is the extent to which you must not allow them a claim to justice. Do not call them “social justice warriors.” Call them “social injustice warriors.” Do not say that they want “racial justice.” They want racial injustice. Call them on it. In the name of justice, do not allow the concept of justice to be perverted by those who wage war against it. Redeem it. By doing so, you may be maligned. You may be condemned as “unjust.” You may have all kinds of evil spoken against you falsely, but you will be blessed, because you will be defending true justice (Mt. 5:10-11).

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Notes:

1 - My aim in what follows is not to provide an exact, academic style, definition of justice. To do so, I would have to also provide the same type of definition of the competing theory of justice, and then analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each. That's certainly a worthy project (and possibly another upcoming article), but it's not the goal of this article. Instead, my aim here is simply to outline the general major features of the competing views of justice in order to indicate that there are indeed competing theories at play, and to show what is at stake in taking them seriously.

Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.