Religion and Social Justice


I am not an Episcopalian, but I have visited Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, a majestic church that sits atop Nob Hill. I even attended an Evensong performance there once--although I have to say that I didn't like it. I was interested to have run across this blog posting by Rev. Warren Cromley, retired rector of Trinity Episcopal church in San Francisco. Rev. Cromley pulls no punches--he calls for the Dean of Grace Cathedral, Alan Jones, to resign. What interested me in particular was the reasoning he gave for this position. Among other things, he writes:

Now my beef with Jones is the lack of a social justice aspect to his preaching, teaching and ministry. He has never made a public statement supporting LGBT rights. He said in a meeting where I was present that isn’t it too bad we have to categorize people by sex? Now he has hired a number of gay and lesbian clergy and lay staff at the Cathedral, and that is good. He remains silent on the human and legal rights of LGBT in church and society. While he has allowed same gender people to hold religious services of commitment in the Cathedral, he has never spoken publicly supporting the rights of same gender people to marry.

A number of years ago he wrote an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle on abortion. He carefully stated both sides of the issue showing knowledge and sympathy for those advocating freedom of choice and those opposing abortion. He failed to tell us readers what his position was. I do not know to this day.

Recently he refused to follow his Bishop, Marc Andrus, in marching to San Francisco’s Federal Building protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have not heard of his making a statement condemning those wars.

He has never marched in the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco along with many members of the Cathedral who do march. This year Bishop Marc Andrus will be the first diocesan Bishop to march in the parade. Jones did not participate this year either.

By putting Jones’ name on these issues, I bring to the foreground that these issues are seldom spoken or written about by Episcopal clergy and lay people in public. I suspect that fear of losing money from conservative Christians and lack of passion for painful issues are at root of this silence. Jones is no different from most Episcopalians who care more about the so-called spiritual life than justice for the poor, the disenfranchised and an end to the wars.
I don't know Alan Jones and I can't comment on these specific criticisms. But I can say that I believe that a spiritual life that lacks a social justice component is an empty faith. In my religious wanderings, I have discovered churches and religions that focused a lot on personal self improvement, to the point where the religion was essentially all about "me". To cite an example, New Thought denominations like Unity and Religious Science, which have been around for a long time, well before the modern-day "prosperity gospel" emerged, are almost entirely devoted to promoting personal prosperity (in every sense of the term, not just financial).

I have nothing against personal transformation and self-improvement. But I think that this should not be the be all and end all of religion. I want to stress that I also think that religion should not be reduced merely to secular politics. Social justice, I believe, should flow naturally from spirituality. I believe in social justice as an expression of God's inclusive love.

Judaism and Christianity have always been religions of social justice. Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again For the First Time, writes of the laws that are spelled out in the Pentateuch:
These laws also include some of the most radical legislation in human history. For example, no interest is to be charged on loans to fellow Israelites. Especially striking are the regulations for the sabbath year and jubilee year. Every sabbath (seventh) year, all agricultural land is to be returned at no cost to the original family of ownership. These laws reflect Israel's origin in Egypt as a radically oppressed and marginalized people. Their purpose was to prevent the emergence of a permanently impoverished class within Israel.
Borg goes on later to say,
This is the world of Egypt and the world of empire--the world that Moses Knew. Israel's "primal narrative" is the story of radical protest against and liberation from such a world, and it affirms that radical criticism of and liberation from such societies is the will of God. Moreover, the radical economic legislation of the Pentateuch was designed to prevent such a world from reemerging. Indeed, early Israel (for roughly the first two hundred years after gaining the promised land) was a remarkably egalitarian society, one with universal land ownership and no monarchy. The message of the Pentateuch was that God's people were to leave the world of Egypt behind. (emphasis added)
This same social justice message lies at the very origins of Christianity. Jesus, of course, also lived the message that God opposed the world of Empires; and as a result of his nonviolent resistance to the greatest Empire of his day, he was executed by it.

In 1975, John Cobb wrote an essay about Pure Land Buddhism that expressed some of his concerns about that faith from the perspective of Christianity. Pure Land Buddhism, in particular Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, can have some resonance with Christianity because of its doctrine of grace, and it is a variant of Buddhism that I myself find interesting. One of the concerns he raised had to do with the social justice message of Western religions traditions that he felt had less of a history in Pure Land Buddhism. I don't know if Cobb later revised his critique after he wrote that essay, but I do know that after he wrote this article he continued to be interested in pursuing a dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, and at one point he wrote an article titled "Can a Christian Be a Buddhist, Too?" Cobb wrote in his 1975 essay that
the idea of salvation in the Bible is by no means limited to the inner achievements of individuals. It often refers to what happens to the Jewish people as a whole. On Jesus' lips the "Realm of God" that constitutes his vision of salvation refers to a world in which God's will is done.

Through Christian history there has been a tension between the aim at realizing justice and righteousness within history and personal salvation either in this life or after death. In the twentieth century the social gospel and the liberation theologies have continued the prophetic emphasis on concrete historical change. Hence, when, as a Christian, I state my belief that God is calling us today to repent of those practices that are leading to the destruction of the Earth and its inhabitants, I find myself in a supportive tradition.
Cobb makes an important point here: there is a tradition in Christianity that aims at "realizing justice and righteousness within history." This is something that should not be forgotten. This does not mean that other faiths, like Buddhism, cannot ground themselves in social justice; I will mention that many peace activists, for example, are Buddhists. But the social justice component of Christianity is something valuable and important. Like any tradition, it should not be trapped in the past, but rather should evolve. Modern social justice movements have extended the principles of inclusive love that are grounded in Jewish and Christian history so that they also include women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and anyone who is denied full equality within the Kingdom of God. This is taking radical Christian inclusion to its ultimate conclusion, and when any form of Christianity focuses solely on personal spirituality without taking into account the broader community and social justice, it rejects not only the best of its heritage but, I think, it also plays safe at the expense of God's Kingdom.