Christian Faith and Social Justice (McCracken, ed.)

Christian Faith and Social Justice

Vic McCracken, ed., Christian Faith and Social Justice: Five Views

New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014

In a society trapped in a two-party political system it may be surprising to many that there are at least five major streams of thought that can inform any given political discourse from the perspective of faith. I first met Vic McCracken when I worked for him as a graduate assistant. Like many in my generation I was jaded and apathetic about the prospects of political discourse, and Vic helped me in many ways to not only move out of, or really beyond, my “Hauerwas Phase” but also to see the vitality and necessity of social thought and activity. He helped to add a specifically social dimension to my thesis, and although I don’t think I convinced him that 6th century monks have much to say to our present-day political discourse, he at least helped convince me that they should. No matter how right I was or wrong he was about this issue, his new book on social justice and Christian faith does everyone a favor by infusing his care for Christian social thinking into a conversation about the many ways that gets worked out.

The Gist

            This book is one in a series of “Five Views” books that help people to understand a subject by presenting different, often conflicting, perspectives. These views include: Libertarian, Political Liberalism (not to be confused with “liberal” as its commonly used), Liberation Theology, Christian Feminism, and Virtue Ethics. In a way one could think of this as one of those internet-based personality profiles. The test just takes longer and the results will probably be mixed.

McCracken’s genius here is that he introduces a dialogue into the format, where authors respond to each viewpoint, and also have a chance to offer a final word after reading their peers’ remarks. The effect of this dialogue is tremendous, as the reader is given an opportunity to see the complexity of each view in a clearer way. It also helps to understand any given view by allowing each person to suffer criticisms and respond to them. At the end of the day it also makes the book incredibly readable and interesting. Nothing made me giddier than to watch the Libertarian and Liberation theologian go after each other. And it was always exciting to come to the end of a main chapter and flip through to see what the other authors had to say in response.

What Stuck

            The biggest thing that stuck me was how even when I went into a particular chapter convinced of the stupidity of the view at hand, I came away (eventually) with at least some degree of agreement or at least understanding. Lets not get ahead of ourselves and think that said view is any less untenable at the end of the day. I just found myself becoming more charitable because I understood it better.

This book is a primer on Christian social thinking, so unsurprisingly its overall effect on me was to further clarify the basic ideas and presuppositions that are behind these five views. What stuck here was therefore consistent with the point of the book, a solid introduction to a wide-ranging set of ideas about the interaction between Christian faith and social justice.

Memorable Quotes

In short, disagreements about justice often emerge because we disagree about what values are most important in establishing the parameters of a just society. (11, McCracken)

In a sound-bite age dominated by partisan cable news networks, each spinning their respective vision of the world, serious intellectual exchange can be hard to come by. This book aspires to offer readers a window into the constructive possibilities of such exchange. (15)

Libertarianism is a set of claims about the use of violence in society: when it is ethically permissible to resort to violence, and when it is not. (19, Jewell)

It’s as though some modern Christians interpret the command reading “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.” (26)

[Libertarianism] is obviously an ethical motif for Todd, Sarah, Nancy, and Dave and not for Jose, María, Mirta, and Enrique. . . . Those who define freedom as limiting the power of the state never depended on the state to pass laws preventing child labor, slavery, or the infringement of civil rights. (37, de la Torre)

In order to prevent us from tailoring principles of justice to fit our own cases, [Rawls] asks us to deliberate in the original position behind a veil of ignorance. What this means is that, whereas we know crucial facts about ourselves in reality, when we are behind the veil of ignorance we have to think about which principles of justice we would agree to if we had radically different crucial facts about ourselves. (52, Dombrowski)

The important thing to notice here is that the mutually disinterested imaginary agents found in the original position when constrained by the veil of ignorance produce a conception of justice that is very close to what would result if a just society were planned by purely loving agents! (56)

Although the common starting point of liberative theological and ethical reflection remains the existential experience of the marginalized, the ultimate goal remains liberation from the reality of a societal misery. (82, de la Torre)

Because Jesus suffered oppression on the cross, a divine commitment to stand against injustices exists, a stance believers are called to emulate. In short, to know God is to do justice. To stand by while oppression occurs is to profess non-belief, regardless of any private or public confession, or any aisle walked to give one’s heart to Jesus. (87)

The disenfranchised require a “disruptive” ethic that subverts the normative Eurocentric ethic designed to legitimize the bourgeois lifestyle. An ethic para joder (an ethic that “screws with”) is a term I coined to illustrate how the prevailing social order can be de-centered. . . . Note that an ethic para joder does not mean to screw, but to screw with, an important semantic difference. (92)

The starting point for a feminist approach to justice is to begin with the lived experiences of injustice which people on the margins, especially women, face. (109, Stivers)

To keep privileged standpoints from becoming the dominant feminist perspective, Christian feminist theologians and ethicists hold that we must listen to experiences of allow women who suffer injustice, with special attention to the most marginalized because their voices bring forth a different and valuable perspective that is often ignored. . . . hearing each other’s stories with a disposition of openness to challenging our worldviews will give us a more complex understanding of the injustices women face. (115-16)

A virtue approach says that justice is not only about our duties in relation to specific political and social issues; rather justice is about the kinds of relationships we are created to have with one another, and thus the sorts of people we are meant to be. (141, Phillips)

We see here that justice as virtue is not punctiliar; it is not only something that happens or fails to happen at a certain point in time in the process of prosecution and sentencing. Instead it is something that must be cultivated throughout communities and societies from prevention and the roots of crime through to the aftercare of victims and criminals beyond sentences served. (157)

Final Thoughts

            The way in which Christian faith informed a diverse set of often-conflicting viewpoints piqued my interest. As a minister I do my best to not take political sides (which may strike some as novel). I am more interested in how the Gospel takes hold of peoples lives and makes real differences in the way they live. Inevitably that still leads to supposing that some forms of social thought do that in ways that are truer to the living God than others, but the way that gets worked out has a lot do with what that “living God” represents. This book is one step toward clarifying that living God for us. If we are informed about the forms of thought that underlie our own and others’ thoughts on society, then I think we can make important breaks through the hellish mess that is political discourse today.

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