The following may be difficult to read and may even anger a few. So I should say that it is prompted by a good conversation between Esau McCaulley and Matt Kennedy on Facebook. The exchange furthered understanding, and I write this in hopes of furthering understanding that much more even among those who will surely disagree.
There is much expressed desire in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) to become more of a multiethnic church. Certainly we should seek to minister to all the people from all ethnicities that God enables us to. We should seek to reflect that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” and worshipping the Lord with joy. (Rev. 7:9 ESV)
Yet even the most right and desirable aims can be pursued in wrong and destructive ways. ACNA is involved in such an errant pursuit when it pushes “social justice” as part of its efforts to become more diverse. For example, the Anglican Multiethnic Network, supported by ACNA, has posted a glowing review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, posted “The Destructive Power of White Privilege” by Canon Greg Goebel, and co-signed a statement opposing the revocation of DACA. The ACNA-backed Anglican Compass* [See clarification below.] has also recommended The Color of Compromise. The Matthew 25 Initiative supported by ACNA and by Archbishop Foley Beach has been involved in much commendable charity. At the same time, its Gatherings have been wokefests as reflected by its speakers. Higher up, several ACNA bishops have stated they make “justice” a priority of their dioceses. It is safe to say they do not mean bringing back church prisons.
Within ACNA it has been argued that pursuing “social justice” is not only right in itself, but is necessary if we wish to become more multiethnic and to avoid repelling people of color in an American context. For, say, Black Christians as a group tend to be more concerned about social justice and the church’s role in it than, say, White evangelicals. This is understandable given past American history in the area of race. Dr. McCaulley himself has argued this, though in a careful and nuanced manner. And we should be aware of these and other cultural differences.
But let’s do a thought experiment. What if “social justice” ideologies are mostly wrong? I am convinced they are mostly wrong but will not argue that here lest this post become overly long. Some readers may think social justice ideologies are mostly right, but let’s do a thought experiment anyway and consider what is pushed as social justice to be wrong in significant ways. Would it still be right to push social justice as part of multiethnic outreach?
St. Paul faced a similar question in Athens in Acts 17:16ff. As he walked around the city, he noticed idolatry everywhere. He saw that idolatry was very much a part of Athenian culture. So when he spoke to the Athenians, did he incorporate idolatry into his message to facilitate outreach to them?
No, Paul did not. He showed understanding of and even empathy for their culture with its idolatry. But he clearly taught that God was unlike their idols. He went further against the grain of Greek culture by teaching the resurrection of Christ. Or at least he began to preach it before the audience laughed at that truth and cut his address short.
Yet God used Paul’s faithful preaching to bring a number to faith. That is how God has chosen to grow his church across any number of ethnic and cultural lines – by the proclamation of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit bringing people to faith in this Gospel, not by adopting the various mistaken ideas prevalent among various ethnicities and cultures.
Now I will acknowledge that the blatant idolatry of ancient Athens goes more against the nature of God than social justice ideologies (although these often display an idolatry of the state). And, yes, although a faithful Christian cannot worship Zeus and Mars and the rest, there are faithful Christians with social justice agendas even if those agendas are mistaken. For there is hardly any Christian who does not have blind spots that are errant but do not amount to apostasy. I am sure I have mine. And throwing off the blind spots of one’s culture is no easy thing.
So at this point, let us do another thought experiment – what if social justice ideologies and agendas are not quite as wrong-headed as I think they are?
I would still contend a church pushing “social justice,” even with the commendable aim of a more multiethnic church, is errant in practice at least. And I will use myself as an example why. My political views, which come out of Christian convictions, are strongly held and are slightly right of center, just slightly. Yet when I preach I am loath to tread on politics. The closest I have so done is to oppose anti-semitism. I am even careful about my conversations at church as there are people of political opinions different than mine – imagine that! – whom I do not want to offend. I guess you could say I want church to be a safe space to a large degree.
Am I careful because my political convictions are weak or incompatible with Christian faith? No, they are just the opposite. I am careful because, as strong as my political convictions are, I place more importance on the unity of the church, on us growing together in him though we come from different backgrounds with different convictions on various matters.
At the same time, I expect the same courtesy. I especially do not want to be put in a position in which supporting my church would also mean supporting political positions I find repugnant. I receive the same courtesy at my parish, but not so much in ACNA. Which begs the question of how long those of us who oppose “social justice” agendas will tolerate that situation. If ACNA is not careful, it will end up with a less diverse and less committed church.
I do not expect ACNA people oriented around “social justice” to jettison their convictions and their activism, and I am not going to jettison mine. But they should not use ACNA auspices to push, say, open borders, just as I will not use ACNA auspices to “build the wall.” They can do their political activism apart from church auspices just as I do mine. We should allow a great degree of freedom in individual political convictions, and we should exercise restraint on controversial political opinions and activism in church settings for the sake of evangelism and church peace and unity.
(Of course, there are a few exceptions in which such restraint is less appropriate. For example, scripture and tradition are very clear about abortion, and we as a church body are unified against elective abortion. So we contend together accordingly.)
Circling back, it is doubtful it is necessary to have a social justice orientation to grow as a multiethnic church anyway. Oh sure, some out there may expect their church to be woke or else. I guess a few somewhere instead want services to be open carry and for the liturgical color to be red every Sunday. Such groups should not drive our witness or practice, especially when doing so risks dividing the church. Maybe we lose a few whose politics is their gospel. But we will lose much more if we are the ones who are too prone to make politics our gospel, particularly who make “social justice” a “gospel issue.”
The funny thing is the Lord is doing quite well at making his church a “great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” without the assistance of social justice ideologies. We do not need the assistance of these questionable and divisive ideologies either.
I’ve been graciously approached with a clarification: The Anglican Compass is a web project by several ACNA people. Archbishop Foley Beach has been commending it as a COVID Resource hub, but it is an independent organization.