The Trouble with Social Action

Eco-justice is a movement that is growing in popularity and importance.  And there are other justice issues that have already become nearly established.  Some of them would be homelessness, bullying, hunger, domestic violence, LGBT issues, and others.  Social justice organizations have been created to address these issues.  There are homeless shelters, soup kitchens, shelters for abused women, and bullying is a matter of consciousness raising.  Religions as far back as the ’60’s became active in social issues.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one prominent theologian who championed social justice as a religious issue.  Another was Reinhold Niebuhr.  Niebuhr once said that theology should be done with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

But there are problems with religion understood as social justice.  In its history, religion has also been concerned with character development.  Moses, Jesus, Paul, and Mohammed have all taught that a person needs to be moral and good.  For instance, Moses gave us the 10 Commandments, which are all moral rules.  And Jesus and Paul both teach a religion of love.  These teachings are about character virtues, or becoming a good person.

The trouble, then, with religion as social justice is that becoming a morally good person can be forgotten in social action.  One doesn’t need to be loving to be an advocate for ecology.  The worst case view of eco-justice is that a person can be concerned with ecology for selfish reasons.  We save ourselves when we save the environment.  Or we save our children or grand children when we save the environment.  We certainly do need to take dramatic action to save nature, but does doing so make a person loving, and good?  The same can be said for other social programs.  I know many self-righteous Christians who are all in favour of homeless shelters–as long as they aren’t  built in their own neighbourhoods.

A morally good person, a loving person, will care about his or her neighbour.  Such a person will want impoverished and homeless persons to have warm, safe homes and enough to eat.  Such a person will care about God’s created order–Nature.  But social issues will be one action flowing forth from a good-natured heart.  Just as honesty, sincerity, and friendliness will inform their relationships with others.  But the converse may not necessarily be the case.  I’m not sure that social consciousness will render a person loving and morally good.

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