Back to Griffiths index
Previous page

The Christian Faith and the Financial Crisis
Part One: The Christian Faith (10)

POSTSCRIPT: ON SOCIAL JUSTICE

In the discussion that followed after I had given this talk in Llaneglwys I heard myself saying, somewhat to my own surprise, that Christianity has nothing to do with social justice. This naturally provoked disagreement but I think it is a defensible proposition.

Let us take the example of someone we would all agree was a great Christian champion of social justice - Martin Luther King. It would be difficult to find anything that could be said in praise of King as a champion of social justice that could not equally be said of A. Philip Randolph, who led the 1963 march on Washington, or Bayard Rustin, who organised it. Neither Randolph nor Rustin were notably Christian - Randolph defined himself as a humanist. Rustin was a Quaker but this was not a prominent part of his public personality. King pioneered a process by which Christians worked with non-Christians but, prior to this, the running was made by the non-Christians, often very critical of the black Christian churches who made the oppression of their flock bearable by involving them emotionally in the great drama of sin and salvation (and let those who have not experienced this themselves not regard it with scorn. The spiritual experience of black Christianity has a great deal to do with black music, which I think most people would agree is the most humanly profound element in North American culture).

Jesus's commandments do not amount to good advice for living in the world, nor are they meant to. The world prefers the virtues of St Martha to those of St Mary, contrary to the teaching of Jesus (Luke 10.42) and the world believes, contrary to the commandments of Jesus (Matt 5.39), that evil should be resisted. But the world has its own logic, in which good and evil are inseparable. Resistance to evil can result in the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo. We all (monks and nuns included) live in the world and we all have to submit to some degree, larger or smaller, to its logic - powerfully expressed as it is throughout the whole Old Testament (and formulated in a philosophical manner in the Book of Ecclesiastes). As Christians we may have an interest in social justice. Our motivation may - at least we may feel it to be - the impossibility of walking by on the other side when we see human suffering. (16) But we will find ourselves in the company of large numbers of people who have the same feelings but who aren't necessarily Christian. And when we try to devise policies to address social issues we will find ourselves in exactly the same position as our non-Christian comrades. As Christians we may have an advantage through the social connections we can mobilise in the church - that was one of the great assets Martin Luther King could bring to the essentially non-Christian civil rights movement. But we have no particular advantage through our knowledge of the Bible or our commitment to the teachings of Jesus.

(16) On the day of writing this I have just heard on the radio not 'walking by on the other side' used as a justification for the bombing of Syria in response to the chemical attack in August 2013.

If anyone doubts this - if anyone feels Christians have an edge in political matters through being Christians - I would remind them that for over a thousand years the world has had experience of Christian kingdoms - whole political societies supposedly committed to the teachings of Christ. Most Christians, I think, regard that history with embarrassment. I don't, because so far as I am concerned, an earthly kingdom is always an earthly kingdom and as such is obliged to follow the logic of the world whether it calls itself Christian or not. What distinguishes a Christian culture from a non-Christian culture is that space is given for those who want to live the commandments of Christ as integrally as possible. To that end they have to withdraw from 'the world'. But that does not mean they are of no service to the world. They are the leaven that raises the lump. To some extent they (or at least the saints among them) carry the rest of us, in a logic that is foolishness to the world but which is the logic of that Kingdom that is not this world and which is a matter, not of social justice (the good that is always mixed with evil, the evil that is always mixed with good) but of Eternal Life.