Social Justice is not Social Holiness

imageI attended a very liberal seminary. I don’t mean that pejoratively, nor do I believe it to be an unfair characterization. Many, if not most of the school faculty identify themselves and the school as progressive — which seems to be the preferred nomenclature of the theological left.

I loved my time there. I grew in my own faith; I was nurtured and loved; I discovered and relished the rich intellectual tradition of Mainline Protestantism; heck, I even met my wife there! Given my proclivity for theological orthodoxy, I could relate all the ways I disagree with some of the theological and social positions of the school. But, I don’t want to do that. No doubt any of us who have attended a seminary, theological school, or divinity school could relate all the ways in which we might disagree with aspects of the institution. I am truly indebted to the school. I have maintained numerous relationships there, and I currently serve on the Executive Board of the Alumni Association.

I offer that preamble because I want to be clear that my criticism here is respectful and not offered from spite or ill-will. But I do want to discuss what I perceive as a categorical misappropriation of terms I repeatedly encountered at seminary, a conflation of concepts that, if disentangled and properly understood, might fundamentally alter the way particular warring factions in The United Methodist Church are currently talking to each other. I am speaking of social justice and social holiness.

Now, my alma mater wholeheartedly embraces social justice as a foundational pillar of its institutional identity. Social justice is written into syllabi, into curricula, into lectures, into student organization bylaws, etc. That’s great. I don’t have too much of a problem with that. But, time and again during my studies there, professors and students would make the link between social justice and United Methodism, often referring to it, either explicitly or implicitly, as THE defining task, THE primary thing that United Methodists should be all about. And as I have talked to people from a variety of United Methodist-related institutions, including General & Conference Boards, Boards of Ordained Ministry, District Committees on Ministry, etc, this emphasis on social justice — sometimes at the exclusion of anything else — is seemingly ubiquitous across the denomination.

I posit that social holiness, NOT social justice, is the foundational pillar of United Methodism. There are deep differences between the two. Social justice is the belief that everyone deserves an equal footing; all deserve access to the same sort of political, social, and economic rights and privileges. Depending on where you fall on the theological or political spectrum, social justice is a loaded term. Some see it as code for socialism, while others interpret it as the driving message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I believe both of those perspectives simplistically caricature social justice. Social justice is a good thing. Social holiness, on the other hand, is categorically different.

“Personal and social holiness” is a catchphrase of United Methodism. Even though Wesley never used that exact phrase, holiness is integral to the Wesleyan tradition. In “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” Discourse IV, Wesley poignantly opens with this: “The beauty of holiness, of that inward man of the heart which is renewed after the image of God….this inward religion bears the shape of God so visibly impressed upon it…”1 Fundamental to social holiness, then, is the restoration of the image of God, the “new creation,” in which the old has gone, and the new has come. To bifurcate “personal and social holiness” is to separate something that, according to Wesley, is inseparable. Works of piety and works of mercy cannot be understood apart from each other. He goes on, in his fourth discourse on The Sermon on the Mount, to condemn a religion that would tend toward the solitude, “without living and conversing with other men.”2 For Wesley, social holiness is all about people “going on to perfection” in community; hence, the early band meetings (Kevin Watson deals with this fabulously in his book).

Social holiness is fundamentally different from social justice because inherent in social holiness is the salvation of the individual as the recipient of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, in whom the Imago Dei has been restored, enabling the move toward entire sanctification in community. Without this understanding of God’s gracious activity, social holiness lapses into a sort of vapid social justice, where concern for societal structure and rights is preeminent, where the individual, not God, is the primary actor.

What would happen if our educational institutions, denominational entities, churches, and our clergy and laity emphasized social holiness in all its Wesleyan nuance? What if we moved the conversation over human sexuality (the issue that seems to be prompting talk of schism in The United Methodist Church), and all that goes with it in our current denominational context — marriage, clergy covenant, ethical responsibility — and understood it not in terms of social justice, but social holiness? How might this change how we listen to and understand each other, especially people with whom we find fundamental disagreement? What if discussions on issues of human sexuality were not couched in the Enlightenment-driven language of rights, but instead were talked about in terms of grace and sanctification, about God’s desire for the restoration of the divine image in all creation? Do you believe this would change the conversation? Have you already started having this conversation through the framework of social holiness? If we began to engage this methodology in our communities, I believe that would be deeply faithful to the witness and ethos of historic Wesleyanism, that great tradition of which we United Methodists are part.

 

The point of this post is not to offer concrete examples or practices for engaging the issue of human sexuality, or any issue, through the lens of social holiness rather than social justice, or to scrap social justice altogether. The point of this post is simply to propose the framework for a methodology, one that the author believes is more faithfully Wesleyan, and to invite others into the conversation. Future posts will develop this methodology and move into praxis.

 

1. Outler, Albert C. and Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1991. p. 194.

2. Ibid, p. 196

Advertisements

29 thoughts on “Social Justice is not Social Holiness

  1. While I appreciate what you say in this article, what you leave unsaid is troubling and dissatisfying. You led me to believe you were going to offer some great clarifying principle that would shine new light on the rocky path on which we UM’s are currently journeying and show us a better way to proceed. Instead, you left me with only a vaguely articulated question: “What would it be like if we went about this whole business differently?”

    OK, I’ll bite. What would it be like? What are the ways in which you feel this change would be an improvement? But then you give me nothing. Not even a single example. No great clarifying principle, but only a tease. Perhaps you feel the changes that would result from switching from a perspective of “social justice” to one of “social holiness” are so self-evident that you don’t need to spell them out. If that were truly the case, why even write the article in the first place? Just tell us to switch one word for the other and all will instantly be clear.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am disappointed by what I see as a failure of nerve on your part. You apparently feel you have something new to say on this well-worn issue, but you never actually say it. In fact, you never actually say anything. Well, strictly speaking, that’s not true. You offer a lovely description of Wesley’s views on social holiness, and I thank you for that. But you only assert the distinction you draw between social justice and social holiness, rather than demonstrating any real difference between them in any convincing way. And your distinction rests upon an unfair caricature of social justice by linking it to an Enlightenment worldview. Most advocates of social justice I know trace the concept back to the OT prophetic tradition, in which justice does not rest upon the idea of “human rights,” but rather is God’s activity, God’s demand, God’s vision for creation. Then, most disappointing of all, you insinuate that adopting this distinction you have asserted will revolutionize how we look at current divisive issues like sexual orientation, but you never share any of your own vision of what this new perspective might look like.

    1. Keith,

      Let me draw your attention to one of the closing lines of my piece: “Do you believe this would change the conversation? Have you already started having this conversation through the framework of social holiness?”

      What I am doing is just beginning the conversation to propose the framework for a methodology – that framework being to begin to shift one particular conversation (and hopefully, more from there) from notions of “social justice” to the rich theological and social praxis contained in “social holiness.” I invite readers to share with us at VMM if they are doing this. I am not yet offering any examples or practices, although I could, and future posts will attempt to articulate those; what I am doing is beginning to start a conversation and invite others into it. To characterize my attempt here as “failure of nerve” is, I feel, unfair and incredibly short-sighted, since this is an on-going conversation and blog project. Cut me some slack! I’ll be writing more about this.

      Let me talk about another couple of points you make.

      First, you say “And your distinction rests upon an unfair caricature of social justice by linking it to an Enlightenment worldview. Most advocates of social justice I know trace the concept back to the OT prophetic tradition, in which justice does not rest upon the idea of “human rights,” but rather is God’s activity, God’s demand, God’s vision for creation.”

      While I can only speak from my own experience, almost every encounter I’ve had with folks talking about “social justice” has translated to good social programs, equality, fairness, etc. I have no problem with that, as I’ve stated in the article. But that’s not at all the OT prophetic tradition. The OT prophetic tradition constantly and continually calls people back to a renewed relationship with God and each other. That’s holiness. Justice flows from that – or at least it should. But I rarely hear people talking about social justice in those terms.

      Second, “then, most disappointing of all, you insinuate that adopting this distinction you have asserted will revolutionize how we look at current divisive issues like sexual orientation, but you never share any of your own vision of what this new perspective might look like.”

      I hardly think I’ve attempting something so grand as to “revolutionize” the conversation. Steps for living into this will be discussed and developed; in fact, if you’ve taken the time to read anything else on this blog, I and the others who contribute have not only proposed methodology, but also praxis.

      1. Perhaps I was unfair to call your article a “failure of nerve,” but I said this out of a sense of disappointment, because I felt your article over-promised and under-delivered.

        Yes, any new perspective on such a divisive issue would be welcome–if it is truly a new perspective. Clearly, I didn’t feel you had made your case for its newness adequately because you never actually spelled out what would be involved in viewing the issue from the perspective of “social holiness” rather than “social justice,” or how the former would differ from the latter.

        I don’t mean to say that you don’t spell out the difference between “sh” and “sj,” which you do (tho’ as you have noted, we differ in how we view “sj”), but rather that you never spell out how the conversation would be different and better and more faithful to our heritage if conducted from the “sh” perspective, as opposed to the “sj.” In the absence of thoughtful examples of how one would be better than the other, I found your call for a new kind of conversation less than compelling . . . i.e. I was disappointed in it.

      2. Keith,
        Continue to follow our project here, and we will follow up this post with examples. Perhaps now, you might take me up on my question that I had hoped would open the conversation (which it seems it did not do for you), and start to encourage readers to enter the conversation by giving examples.

        Keep following along…

  2. Well said, thank you… “Social holiness is fundamentally different from social justice because inherent in social holiness is the salvation of the individual as the recipient of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, in whom the Imago Dei has been restored, enabling the move toward entire sanctification in community. Without this understanding of God’s gracious activity, social holiness lapses into a sort of vapid social justice, where concern for societal structure and rights is preeminent, where the individual, not God, is the primary actor.”

  3. Good word, Evan. I agree that there is a key difference between sj and sh, and we Methodists have forgotten the latter in favor of the former. I’m not optimistic that discussions over this will change much, though, without radical repentance.

    When I hear many of our “progressive” bishops stating they desire to see us all get back to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, I do not believe we are speaking the same language, and your post helps me articulate what that language needs to be. When Bishop Talbert, for example, says we need to be about making disciples what I hear him saying is “We need to get back to forming people into social justice advocates.” I do not hear them speaking of an inward heart transformation, of a holiness of heart AND life, or of a call to repent from not just systemic, social sin but also personal, even private immorality. How the Talbert’s of our denomination would go about making disciples seems to me radically different from how I would, and I think it’s because we see SJ and SH differently.

    1. Thank you, Chad, for pointing out the tendency to brush aside sh, as if it were some little extraneous thing we could overlook as we work on getting those disciples made! In my days at seminary I tried to start a spirituality group, but there were only a few folks there interested in engaging in that conversation. Somehow, advocating spiritual holiness was considered too loosy-goosy, a little light headed, no help for those studying a rigorous diet of theological discourse and meaty exigesis. It was as iff the General Rules did not exist . . .

  4. I understand that SJ and SH are not the same thing. One is internal the other is communal in nature. You could say in an oversimplified manner that social justice requires social holiness as a precursor. What I am wondering if I am hearing, though, is kind of a back door way of saying that if you are right with God, and if you have prayed enough, and if you are disciplined, and if you are truly going on to perfection…then social justice would not be an issue that divides us on the issue of sexuality.

    This is nothing new. This is essentially what Good News is saying…that if you practiced and believed as we do, you would obviously see what we see and believe as we do concerning sexuality and the rights of people to serve as United Methodists. Another thing I am hearing is that if you are coming from a position of social justice on the sexuality issue, that approach may even indicate that holiness is not a concern of people who think that way. In essence, it is a spiritual judgement of some kind upon the progressives in the UMC. That is the same kind of right-wing circular thinking I have heard in the past.

    If I have heard this correctly, then, to me, this makes about as much sense and is just about as insulting as the time I left a systematic theology class at Perkins and there were students in the hallway outside from Dallas Theological Seminary that were there to witness to us about the “Real Jesus” …that we didn’t really know who Jesus was and they wanted to “save” us.

    On the positive side, I like to toss around ideas like anyone else and communication between disagreeing parties is good…but, like I said, I don’t hear anything new here.

    1. Richard, I heard similar undertones in the original article, though I went back and deleted that part of my first response, because I thought I was already coming on pretty strong. Maybe it has something to do with how Texans or SU grads hear things.

      I think what sounded off-key to me is that while social justice is clearly associated with “liberals,” social holiness is what good, faithful Wesleyan Methodists do. And what’s even better, while social justice is just some misguided Enlightenment-produced human effort, social holiness is what God does, so of course we want to be on God’s side!

      Despite the author’s effort to make his idea sound open and inviting, it isn’t just 2 different perspectives being compared and 1 of them found wanting. It is also 2 different groups of people being compared . . . with a similar outcome. And though the group associated with social holiness isn’t overtly named, as in the case of the “social justice” group, it’s pretty clear who it is. So, if the players haven’t really changed, and the strategy seems to be little more than finding new, ostensibly less offensive terms with which to reject the faith and practice of the other side, why should anyone think the outcome will be different?

      I have the benefit of having read EWR-D’s reply to you as well, Richard, in which he disavows any such intention as you have suggested, and he says he is sorry “if his language isn’t clear enough.” Since it clearly seems that the original post may be worded in such a way as to leave the door open to misconstruction, I hope he will consider revising and expanding it.

      1. Richard, you continue to misconstrue and misrepresent my intention with this post. If you are unclear as to my intention somewhere, I kindly ask that you refer to it in a comment and ask for clarification. Your statement “and though the group associated with social holiness isn’t overtly named, as in the case of the “social justice” group, it’s pretty clear who it is” is absolutely unfounded. I have no particular “groups” in mind with this post, and if I did, I would not vaguely refer to them without naming them.
        So, I will ask you to refrain from commenting unless you can do so in a way that opens the conversation, asks for clarity, and then proceeds from there, instead of continuing to misrepresent me.

        It is absolutely true that the current language of “rights,” “equality,” “fairness,” etc, in the context of 21-st century America, has its roots in the Enlightenment. But to say “And what’s even better, while social justice is just some misguided Enlightenment-produced human effort, social holiness is what God does, so of course we want to be on God’s side” is hyperbolic in the extreme and very unhelpful.

  5. Reblogged this on God is Love Christian Blog — Pyrotheology by Mike Ford and commented:
    This is a very interesting post from a seminary-trained United Methodist who briefly contrasts “social justice” with “social holiness.” As one who believes very strongly in social justice, I have to say I appreciate the challenge imbedded here. “Social justice” is politically-charged language that leaves we who emphasize it running a great risk of going the same route the religious right has taken, where politics commandeers religion. This can happen in the mainline churches where social justice is emphasized because it focuses on rights with the person or group at the center of the discussion. Whereas, what if the conversation were returned to a theologically-driven model, where social justice were fully and completely addressed, but in a context that restores it to its place as a component of the restoration of all creation that Paul wrote about in Romans 8?

  6. If we were really having a conversation on the basis of social holiness, then all the posturing around sexuality would disappear because social holiness is a contextualized journey of discipleship, not the ideological grandstanding and litmus-testing which today’s platform-builders have substituted for discipleship.

    1. Excellent Morgan! I agree, for me SJ springs from SH, so it was with Wesley’s work with the poor, against slavery, and for the colonies, and so it is with many progressive Methodists today.

    1. No. Say you disagree with it, but don’t say SJ doesn’t have a basis in scripture, at the least, say your interpretation of scripture doesn’t contain SJ.
      SJ can draw directly from the words of Christ — Matt. 25:36, for example.

      1. Evan, can’t reply to your thread, my response was to Chuck, not you (apologies if I hit the wrong reply!), I believe I understand the problem of confusing SJ and SH, some progressives (at least perceived) as forgetting God who moves first, with us, and as worthy of our worship and praise. Seems a bit of the old orthodoxy versus orthopraxy issue.

  7. Evan, there are always going to be folks who just want to throw rocks, pointing out where you stumbled or could have said something better. Alas, they are just critics and critics don’t count. I say that to say (no soup for critics and) thank you for the lovely article brother. I’m digging the long-sighted approach and appreciate this perspective which costs us all something(s). Holiness calls us all to repentance. It has been said that pain is weakness leaving the body. One could suggest that the pain of oblation (literal and figurative) is worth the healing and wholeness in the Body of Christ and that we should boast in struggle. Seems like I heard that somewhere. Anyway, good work. Keep it up.

  8. Dear Evan, et al.,

    I appreciate the observations you’ve made in your post, Evan, and the subsequent conversation in the comments shows if nothing else how entrenched ideas about social justice and social holiness tend to be (regardless of how historically accurate or inaccurate they may be).

    I actually wrote an essay a few years ago on exactly this issue—i.e., the way in which the terms social justice and social holiness have become conflated in Wesleyan/Methodist contexts (incl. the dimensions of how & why “personal and social holiness” gets erroneously attributed to Wesley). I mention this not to be self-promoting, but rather that you might find some of the historical and theological analysis in the essay of some interest. (I am not aware of another published example devoted to a comparison between the two that attempts an historical genealogy in the way I’ve tried to do.) If you would like to see that essay, it can be accessed at the link below or directly from Methodist Review, which is open-source:

    http://www.andrewthompson.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Thompson_From-Societies-to-Society_MR.pdf

    Sincerely,
    Andrew Thompson

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s