Social Schmustice || Ben Tertin

Posted on September 3rd, by Ben Tertin in Head. 11 comments

Social Schmustice || Ben Tertin

Like every other British-accent lover with an Amazon Prime account, I watched Downton Abbey the other day with rapt attention. Who knew the story would blindside me with an excellent picture of true-to-life social justice? Nobody knew. But alas, here we are.

This rich TV moment evaded the bland “justice schmustice” abstraction we have recently seen adorning pulpits and countless FB rants, an abstraction that drives believers into perpetual self-loathing. Instead, those British geniuses absolutely nailed that raw, risky, real social justice that our Creator has been known to boogie down with for some time now.

The Story

So there my wife and I are, drifting deeper into Downton’s drama about a lavish estate with its ultra-wealthy aristocratic successors, and bam(!), a servant girl named Anna hits us with the most beautiful picture of Christian social justice I could imagine.

The scene involves a former colleague of Anna’s, a butler, who lost his job. His life takes a real dive, and he finds himself barely scraping by, working low-paying, dirty-collar jobs. Anna is running errands one afternoon and sees him shoveling stinky tar and gravel with the road crew, and she has compassion for the ex-butler who can barely afford to eat, much less pay for a place to live. On her own, unattached to any program or organization or Twitter #justice campaign or movement of any kind, she simply offers to lend the poor guy some of her own cash.

The marginalized butler frowns. “I would not be able to pay you back,” he mutters, downcast and depressed.

She briefly pauses, thinking, quickly calculating the family finances in her head. “We [my husband and I] will just give it then,” she says. “It’s not much, but it is something.”

That, my friends, is raw, risky, real social justice.

The Contemporary Reflection

Today, I imagine the big boys of pop-culture Christianity might respond to servant-girl Anna with something like, “Psssh! So what? Who cares? She helps one dude.” Heck, she did not even print any well-designed posters or set up an online donation Website.

Had Anna been conditioned by our current social-justice climate, I believe that the experience of seeing her downtrodden friend would have driven her to at least three deeply felt yet fruitless convictions:

First, the ex-butler’s employment dilemma stems from a larger, more sinister issue with structural evil, meaning that no real progress toward true justice can be made until that issue is publicly exposed, mocked, condemned and radically overthrown.

Second, there is unfortunately no way to understand structural evil in concrete terms that lead to real personal action; it simply too vast an abstraction — way, way too cray cray — to comprehend. This relegates it to an emotionally charged conversation about equity, fairness, power, and so forth, which are all topics that ends up quite useful for judging people, listening to the way they talk about “justice” to see if they should be grouped with the enlightened crowd or the losers (usually associated with some brand of conservatism and accused of being too ignorant to properly care).

And third, because issues of social justice are so huge, so pervasive, so unthinkable, it will take a huge, pervasive, mind-blowing movement to make progress toward real justice. As such, the individual’s role is to “support” big professional organizations, popular non-profits, or crowd-sourced initiatives, as well as to “raise lots of awareness” in some way.

Based on these conclusions, the experience of seeing her downtrodden friend would have driven her to one simple action:

She would have passed him by, angered by the injustice and inequity of it all, considering ways to expose and bring down the evil system.

Perhaps an obligatory “Hello” might have stumbled from a concerned grin as Anna quickly passed by her ex-butler  friend, all while she felt a genuine emotional pain for him. She may have updated her status to a charge against the atrocities of wealthy, aristocratic power structures and the oppressive, male-dominated systems of exclusion and privilege for the few at the expense of the many, those like her friend. A chorus of supportive commenters and self-professing visioneers might have echoed with rage the same complaints and offered even more, even worse, examples of similarly massive social justice issues. And the butler would have watched her pass by, still hoping a real person would actually care for him.

But Anna was not conditioned by our contemporary social-justice climate, which left her well prepared to simply notice a man in need and to help that man in need with cash from her own savings. She actually, literally helped him — for real.

She expressed no outrage with the sinister, inequitable system of aristocratic and monarchical economics; she simply helped her neighbor in need.

She made no complaint…sorry, “critique”…about the evil oppressors who delivered him an unjust hand in life and blocked his rightful access to community resources; she simply helped her neighbor in need.

Surrounded by pervasive poverty, just a few blocks from the town’s “poor house” filled with financially ruined folks, Anna did not resolve to panic and scream about the immensity of societal injustices; she simply made a decision in the moment to help her neighbor in need.

The petite servant girl Anna may indeed have sensed that the world was jacked up, that it was broken and unfair and saturated with injustice, but she did not let that overwhelming reality prevent her from looking with perceptive eyes at a person in her own life who needed help. Without hesitation, and at significant cost to her and her spouse, she simply offered what she had for the sake of a colleague.

Notice, as well, that even with her exceedingly minuscule servant-girl wages, she wisely managed her finances in such a way that enabled her to be generous with money. She no doubt worked harder than any of her ultra wealthy employers and yet received narry a fraction of the income they enjoyed, yet she remained thankful for what she had and saw it as a resource for assisting others.

The Convo with My Wife

“That right there is real Christian social justice,” I said to my wife, sitting beside me on the couch. “Why is that simple story so compelling these days?” I asked.

She smirked and said, “I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”

I offered two long-winded reasons because I talk to much and think every detail is unbelievably important.

1. The example Anna gives is actually doable. Every single day, someone else bombards me with nonsense like “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!” or “Care deeply about everything that I care about!” or “If you really love Jesus, then you will necessarily be outraged about this or that.” I simply cannot keep up. Can you? Can anybody?

Who can genuinely care about that many things and still be a real human being with his or her family and friends in his or her own town? I’d have to become a Twitter maniac condemning and supporting the endless recently-gone-viral claptrap thousands of times per minute. Anna’s gift reminded me that Jesus asks me to be faithful in normal, wise, daily decisions. He doesn’t ask me to change the world; indeed, he promises that he will.

2. It is also biblical. I cannot find any kind of instruction from Jesus or the apostolic witnesses that suggests we should complain about or directly fight against the establishment. Over and again, though, it instructs us to examine our own lives, to remove the plank in our own eye, to mind our own business, to recognize our own sin and deal with it. I think many will disagree on this, but take it up with the apostle Peter, who tells us that God establishes rulers, both good and bad — both just and unjust. Our job is to show them due respect and live faithfully with a kind generosity toward all. Here are his own words:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 1 Peter 2:18-19

The Christian is to forgive racists, not to demand that they change before we can respect and love them. We are invited to live the infinite life of Jesus Christ by forgiving the greedy, the oppressive, the environmental destroyers and the sexually oppressive. Didn’t he? The Greek word for forgive literally means “to let go” of. We do not keep track of the oppressive transgressor’s actions; we let go.

This is not a call to turn blind eyes with optimistic naivete. Nor is it a condemnation of those who work to stop evil. But it is an invitation to examine our voice and our witness. As a pastor, my concern is that the pop-social-justice movement is motivated by more angsty and fruitless outrage than concrete Christian forgiveness, and as such, it lessens clear biblical justice to ambiguous social schmustice.

It is unlikely that the biblical exhortation leads us to lifestyles of showing angst and outrage toward secular perpetrators of injustice.

I am not God, for real, and I am not claiming infallibility for the conclusions I’ve set forth. But I hereby issue a challenge to anyone who can demonstrate from the biblical witness that the Christian calling involves fighting against those who practice injustice. Instead, from the Scriptures, I understand God as one who calls all believers to practice justice themselves, with their own neighbors, in their own lives; this very act is our “fight” against widespread social injustice.

Our “fight” is to forgive those who trespass against us, to “let go” of the unjust practices that others commit and to bear up under the sorrows that unjust suffering produces. If you can demonstrate how I am mistaken on this, I will be willing to scrap such thinking in favor of the truth. And if you cannot, if what I’m saying is truthful, then maybe it is time for a course correction, one that leads us back to trust in God to bring about eternal justice, not by fighting and screaming and crying foul against the injustices that others embrace, but through our daily, real, risky faithfulness to him.

Why? Peter gives the best possible answer by pointing to the bravest, most heroic person — ever:

For to this [suffering injustice for doing good] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly…. 1 Peter 2:21-23

Ben Tertin Ben Tertin, M.Div.T.S., Th.M., is a pastor at Imago Dei Community in Portland, OR, and a doctoral candidate under Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. He and his wife hang out on the beaches and in the woods with their two kids, camping and exploring. He's a writer, teacher, fisherman and bluegrass lover. Connect with him on FB or Twitter: @bentertin.
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11 Responses to “Social Schmustice || Ben Tertin”

  1. Bryan Halferty Bryan Halferty says:

    It reminds me of a line from Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear. It read something like: It’s a lot easier to love humanity than it is to love an actual human. I think it’s easier to love a cause than it is to love a neighbor. But the struggling neighbor needs so much more than a dollar, they need a web of relationships.

    That said, I think there is a lot to be said for systems of sin that haunt all cultures. This seems to be in part what the Bible speaks of when it refers to “the world.” Eh?

  2. Alvin Rapien says:

    Hey Ben, I appreciate and enjoy your thoughts here (as with some of your other articles as well). I definitely see where you’re coming from, and resonate with you as I’ve seen this outworking in the lives of others as well.

    However, the picture you’re painting is, I believe, a false dichotomy. You’re pitting the “social justice” on the structural level against the “social justice” on the personal level. Rather than seeing these two things as opposite attitudes, or somehow incompatible, it would be healthier to see them as two sides of the same coin.

    Yes, there are many “social justice warriors/critics” who want to tear everything down from the top-down. There is, sometimes, more word than deed. However, those who work within social justice on the personal level should be informed of the structural issues. For example, it’s been noted in certain missional work that sends laborers to build a house/school/orphanage, etc., that it actually hurts the economic situations of those native workers, because that is a job the native workers could have actually been payed for. Rather, while you have the good-intentioned “personal” social justice of these missionaries doing some good, it is actually taking away another job from them. See Tony Campolo’s critiques (which corroborate with statements from others) of the massive mission work in Haiti from a few years back (

    Oscar Wilde brings this up as well:
    “People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But the remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it; indeed the remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive. Or in the case of a very advanced school by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution it is an aggravation of the difficulty.”

    While this is where some may get the sentiments of structural vs. personal level social justice, we can read Wilde’s critique in a different way: rather than just trying to come up with the supposed ‘common-sense’ solution to fix the immediate issue (a curse of American pragmatism), we can offer to help others on a personal level that will also challenge structural norms. Going back to the Haiti: it would have been better to work with the natives and provide them with resources and get them sustainable jobs (and help create more of a sustainable economy) rather than pumping so much money into airlines and trips. Am I saying that all the trips out there were bad? No. But were all the trips necessary and benefited the long-term? Definitely not.

    Another example is the sex trade movement. It is not enough to simply get these girls out of these movements, but it’s a matter of re-integrating them into society. This personal level (helping the victims) affects the structural level (reducing the amount of people in the sex trade), but also contributes to the positivity of both the victim’s life and society. But, there also needs to be public critique of the sex trade movement as well, on the big level. Awareness and critique at the structural level helps bring awareness and action at the personal level.

    The most common example that most will be concerned with is the homeless in our cities. Yes, we should definitely feed them. We should definitely make sure they have clothes during the crazy winters. But can’t we do more? Can’t we speak about the abuse of the homeless, especially the recent laws in several states that try to limit feeding them? Some churches near the city I live in are involved in re-integrating homeless people back into society. It helps them on a personal level, and it teaches the congregations about the structural issues of homelessness.

    We should also remember that we cannot apply passages of suffering to others (which I know you’re not doing). Christian ideas about justice should always be self-sacrificing: thinking about the Other, especially when they have no idea who Christ is and cannot emulate him.

    I also cannot help but always reflect on Acts 19:21-41. The preaching of St. Paul to the city of Ephesus caused personal changes in the lives of the Ephesians that affected the business of buying idols, so much that it caused a riot. Was that St. Paul’s intention? Probably not, but this “disturbance broke out concerning the Way.” The collective personal issues affected the structure of idol-buying in Ephesus.

    Again, I enjoy your thoughts, Ben. However, there is a harmony that needs to be brought out here and there is no need for false dichotomies. Forgive me if my tone was harsh or if I have said anything that is incorrect. There are plenty more thoughts I have not written for the sake of brevity (such as Christian attitude, which is very important), as well as the Early Church Fathers (especially St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great) and their discussions about wealth and poverty.

    Grace and Peace,

  3. This is just wonderful. Thank you, Ben. Reminds me of some commentary Dale Ahlquist made of GK Chesterton… he says,

    “He seems so frivolous and so careless, but he gives money to beggars, not frivolously or carelessly, but because he believes in giving money to beggars, and giving it to them “where they stand”. He says he knows perfectly well all the arguments against giving money to beggars. But he finds those to be precisely the arguments for giving money to them. If beggars are lazy or deceptive or wanting a drink, he knows only too well his own lack of motivation, his own dishonesty, his own thirst. He doesn’t believe in “scientific charity” because that is too easy, as easy as writing a check. He believes in “promiscuous charity” because that is really difficult. “It means the most dark and terrible of all human actions—talking to a man. In fact, I know of nothing more difficult than really talking to the poor men we meet.” He says that if we really believed in democracy, we would not be debating about what we should do with the poor; the poor would be debating about what to do with us.”

    Promiscuous charity. Now we’re talking…

  4. Derrick says:

    Very well written article Ben! I have to humbly disagree with your juxtaposition of social justice vs individual acts, however. I think you rightly excoriate much of the superficial Facebook mimicry of critical theory that goes on, but it remains a caricature and so to defeat it isn’t yet to engage the real thing. Analysis of structure etc… is certainly vulnerable to the ever looming threat of abstraction, or the need for some unrealistic titanism to implement, but to say a priori that this must be the case is itself nothing but an abstraction. J Kameron Carter’s book on race, or Piketty’s recent monster of a book, “Capital” about increasing wealth differentiation, or Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” can certainly paralyze individual action overawed now by the sheer size of structural deficiencies. But for someone like Foucault power is not a pure binary between structure or system and individual, he describes it in a series of metaphors as a vast network of “capillaries,” and webs, by which he means that a single action can reverberate through the whole. The single action of Rosa Parks comes to mind. Or I think there is at least some merit to Rene Gerard’s “scapegoat” interpretation of the cross, where the singular action of Christs sacrifice manifests the sacrificial apparatus of the roman cult of empire. All of this is a long winded way to say you’re right to criticize the vague, armchair “social justice” that goes on, but I think your very nice blog posts compliments true critical theory about social justice rather than merely presenting an alternative

  5. Anonymous says:

    Ben, I think you need to moderate your critique of Christian social justice. Either that, or define what you’re aiming at more clearly — pop social justice, or what? It’s a false dichotomy to distinguish individual efforts such as Anna’s, which are great, as ‘biblical,’ versus all work to transform oppressive systems. That encompasses a huge amount of ministry. Many would be surprised to hear that work characterized as “complaining, fighting, showing angst, outrage, screaming,” and “crying foul.”

    As I read point #2, it makes me wonder how you react to Jesus’s public critiques of the establishment, such as in Matthew 23.


  6. Alan Rutherford says:

    Scot McKnight said the heart of sin cannot be exposed simply by blaming sectors of society. But he holds that we’re called to fight systemic evil, too. I prefer this both-and understanding.

    As middle class people in a capitalist, democratic world power, we are part of the system. We’re imbued with more power than Jesus’s audience or the exiles and slaves Peter addressed. I’m a little wary of the conclusion that we aren’t called to fight against those who practice injustice at all — are Christians confined to fighting justice only by being nice? :)

    McKnight link:

  7. […] The Son Who Chases the Father by Joshua Zarzana Articles: Social Schmustice by Ben Tertin (The Unitive) Christian Survival Kits in a Post-Christendom Society Part 1 and Part 2 by Paul Louis Metzger […]

  8. Ally says:

    I guess finding useful, reliable inoimratfon on the internet isn’t hopeless after all.

  9. Ethica says:

    Stay inomafrtive, San Diego, yeah boy!

  10. Every white-boy nerd who gets turned down by his dream-date for the prom (who chooses a jock or goth or non-white or…another girl, instead), reads Atlas Shrugged and thinks "This is my story! I'm being held-back by genetic inferiors!" Oh, Poor Paul. Poor Mittens.

  11. privatkredit says:

    Znaczy chorujesz na bulimie! No wiesz, ale Pan Urban pewnie przytulać Ciebie nie chce. Także od odpychaniu mowy być nie może. Jakie znaczenie ma, na co umrze Pan Urban? Właśnie to, że jako jedyny ujawniasz twarz, jest raczej podejrzane

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