The “social justice debate” is not a debate about theology. Not primarily. In the first instance, it’s a debate about competing political visions and priorities.

Most people who have been paying attention to these exchanges would likely identify its origin with either the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson or perhaps earlier protests following the killing of Trayvon Martin. Following those events, the debate picked up steam as a long line of video-recorded police-involved shootings took place between 2014 and 2016. With the presidential election of 2016, the conflict reached its peak, and the split between Black and White Christians was felt most sharply.

Something broke in 2016, but it wasn’t theology.

We See Things Differently

Indeed, the current iteration of the “debate” is simply a long-standing difference in political viewpoints between African-Americans and White Americans, both outside and inside the church. It’s the same competing political visions that on the one hand birthed pro-slavery Christianity among many White Americans and, on the other hand, pro-freedom Christianity among nearly all African Americans. It’s the same competing political visions that forced the founding of independent African-American congregations and denominations as White Christians opted for segregated services and memberships. It’s the same competing political visions that faced-off during civil-rights marches and sit-ins. One group with quiet resolve protested for full inclusion as human beings and citizens, while some others in loud and sometimes violent opposition fought to retain the former way of racial hierarchy, exclusion, and Black quiescence or called for gradualism.

It’s a sad historical fact, but the social ethics of Black and White Christians differ dramatically. That difference in social ethics results from differences in social position.

To generalize 350 years of history from slavery to the end of Jim Crow: Too many White Americans, including Christians, defined Black Americans, including Christians, not as neighbors (or, siblings in the case of Christians) but as “others” and sometimes even as “animals.” Too many White Americans once defined Black Americans as “chattel” or “property,” and by that dehumanizing standard justified the most inhumane treatment imaginable, including an inhumane indifference when compassion was needed.

After centuries of such thinking, and following centuries of protest, things have changed remarkably. In many respects, today’s America looks nothing like America from 1619 to 1969. But the country’s ugly thinking still rears its head from time-to-time, especially in Black-White exchanges about racial progress, inclusion, equity, and justice. As an illustration, consider the rise of white supremacist propaganda and violence in the last couple of years. The country has made progress, but we’ve not reached perfection.

Ethical Issue

At the bottom of the competing ethical visions of Black and White Americans is a deceptively simple but radical command from the Lord Jesus: “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:33; Rom. 13:9-10).

Our practice of neighbor love depends on (1) who we define as neighbors and (2) who we think worthy of our compassion (Luke 10:25-38). If our definition of “neighbor” is small, constricted to only people “like us,” then the reach of our compassion will be short. If our definition of “neighbor” is expansive, crossing cultural and ethnic boundaries to include strangers and “the wrong kind of people” like the good Samaritan, then the reach of our compassion will likewise be expansive.

Our conceptions of “neighbor love” determine our political visions and priorities.

It’s Politics

That’s why the flash point for Black and White differences in social ethics isn’t theology proper. Check the statements of faith for both branches of the faith and you’ll find identical creeds and confessions. After all, both traditions are Christian traditions with overlapping origins in the evangelical revivals of the 18th century. So the flash point, the site of the most flagrant conflicts, is almost always politics. Not theology.

By politics, I simply mean the expression of social ethics in the arena of public policy priorities, debate, and action. Politics is how we decide what constitutes “the good” in American life and culture.

Black and White Christians disagree about politics. We sometimes argue our politics in the language of theology. But, in my opinion, that’s the wrong language, and the choice of that language as a political tool suggests too much confidence about the Christian’s ability to draw a dark, thick line from their theology directly to policy prescriptions. (For more on this, see Robert Benne, Good and Bad Ways to Think About Politics and Religion).

The discussions would be healthier if we simply framed them as competing political visions that grow out of differing emphases in social ethics, both with biblical antecedents, neither sufficient alone to represent total reality.

Or, to put it another way, we tend to emphasize in our social ethics the biblical teachings that most comport with our social location. Those who are advantaged relative to others, tend to think about maintaining their advantages (or “blessings,” if you will). Those who are disadvantaged relative to others, tend to think about relieving their disadvantages (or “oppressions,” if you will).

Because of the country’s racial history, this basic political truism (self-interest) plays itself out along racial lines. That means African Americans tend to advocate for policies that remedy their oppression, grant full inclusion in American society, and redress historical wrongs. The rightness of doing this is self-evident. But since freedom and enfranchisement are very new realities for African Americans (54 years if we date it to the 1965 Voting Rights Act), there’s been very little time for any significant diversification in African-American opinion or rearrangement of political affinities. So we look like a voting block beholden to a certain view of the good life. That can be mistaken for ideological liberalism. But it’s grittier than that, less sophisticated, more existential. We want to be free. So we side with freedom. It’s primarily an ethical vision.

Meanwhile, White Americans tend to advocate for policies that protect individual liberty and property ownership, emphasize personal responsibility for success or failure, and seek to maintain “American” competitive advantage. Since civic freedom and power have always been realities for White Americans, there’s been plenty of time for them to develop diverse political opinions and affinities. But for the same reason (the constancy of participating in civic freedom and power), there’s been a disincentive to re-examine power and resource distribution, or the historical factors that have produced the current state of things. Here’s how Frederick Douglass put it more than 100 years ago:

Slavery is indeed gone, but its shadow still lingers over the country and poisons more or less the moral atmosphere of all sections of the republic. The money motive for assailing the negro which slavery represented is indeed absent, but love of power and dominion, strengthened by two centuries of irresponsible power, still remains.

HT: Brad Mason for the Douglass quote.

So White Americans look like a voting block beholden to a certain view of the good life. That can be mistaken for an ideological conservatism. But it too is grittier than that, less sophisticated, more existential. Since the American Revolution, many White Americans have not wanted to be “enslaved.” So, many side with power. That, too, is primarily an ethical vision.

But if as citizens we imagine that one person’s or group’s freedom challenges or takes away from another person’s or group’s power, then we will be in conflict. If as citizens we imagine that one group’s power can only be maintained at the expense of another group’s freedom, then we will be in conflict. We lock ourselves into a binary from which there can be no escape as long as we construe a non-correspondent outcome. If there must be winners and losers in our most basic political aim, our politics will continue to be a kind of unarmed warfare. We will conquer one another rather than cooperate with one another. As Christian citizens, we will do this in the language and categories of theology because we often feel “politics” to be beneath proper Christian conduct.

The Church

My description of political gridlock is admittedly simple. Yet we’ve grown pretty accustomed to political gridlock. Some people even like to warm themselves by the fire of anger that our political tribalism produces. Consequently, we may not be that distressed when we see these things playing out in the world. But we ought to be distressed any time we see political tribalism, gridlock, or division playing out in the church.

Should we continue practicing our bifurcated social ethics? Can we not muster a fuller ethical vision, more comprehensive and more complex, so that we can witness on the multiple levels and in the multiple ways the Bible requires? How might “you shall not lord it over one another” (Matt. 20:24-26) inform our political advocacy as a Christian people rather than a natural ethnic people? How might “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor. 7:21) define our political strategy as a Christian people reconciled in Christ?

In the church, Black, White, Caribbean, Asian, and Hispanic Christians should be grappling with each other in order to arrive at a more mature Christian social ethics that galvanizes us rather than divides us. To do that, we have to stop shoehorning our political differences into theological dress. We distract and disorient ourselves when we do that. We have to recognize that either (a) we simply disagree politically (which Christians of good conscience will sometimes do) and/or (b) we haven’t done the constructive ethical work we need in order to bear faithful witness. Indeed, we have to learn to interrogate our underlying political assumptions and values with a wider reading of Scripture than merely our own.

Where would we be in the cause of Christ if all the energy poured into the “social justice debate” as a theological disagreement instead had been poured into a constructive discussion of our political differences, the ethical visions underpinning those differences, and a way forward together?

We’re missing what actually divides us and thereby missing an opportunity to glorify Christ.