Buzzwords & Buzzkills
By George Elerick
When Karl Marx considered religion in light of the global ills that surrounded him, his response wasn’t that one act of kindness would fix it all, but that something was deeply wrong with the system itself. That somehow people bought the lie that their single act of kindness would eventually change the system. Religion was, for Marx, a band-aid on a tumor, an opiate for the masses. I think he was on to something.
Social justice seems to be the new cool thing. Some famous Christian said social justice was cool; some famously uncool commentator said it was dangerous. And now we all have social justice bumper stickers on our bandwagons, right over the tailpipe belching exhaust fumes into our delicate environment.
Feeding the poor. Befriending prisoners. Finding ways to restore gender and race equality. Repairing ecological systems. Restoring dignity to humanity. As altruistic as these ideas are, the major flaw with them all is that they are subject to a system that is inherently flawed. It might be an act of compassion to give someone $10 for a meal or to even give them a room for the night, but it doesn’t give them a room to call home for as long as they need it. It might be aesthetically pleasing to not throw trash on the ground, but what about finding a way to sustainably implement procedures in place that respond to the bigger questions of ecology?
Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate of social justice—it’s what I do for a living—but what happens when justice ceases to be a value and becomes a buzzword? If we’re a part of a flawed system, then we need to condemn the system, not simply the policies within it. We’re called to turn the tables on systems that don’t work, to inaugurate systems better suited to the kingdom Jesus was announcing. “Social justice” is nothing more than a buzzword that doesn’t deal directly with the main issues at hand.
A few Bible verses on social justice and some prayers, as important as those are, don’t revolutionize systems. There is a reason why God came in the flesh: incarnation challenges the system in ways that words simply can’t.
Jesus seemed to have no issues challenging the Pharisees not just on their theology but also on how their theology played out in their lives.
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?”
And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
Notice who is asking the question. This lawyer would have known the laws and customs of the Jewish world like the back of his hand. Lawyers were the system; they represented something that had been established for years and years. They were for all intents and purposes the Big Other. You don’t question the Big Other, so the question is rightly understood as a test, a tool for measurement.
Jesus’ reply is likewise a question. This is the key. Where the lawyer practices indoctrination (reciting the Shema), Jesus practices incarnation—taking his place in the midst of the lawyer’s situation, in the midst of a flawed system, and demonstrating its flaws and offering a way forward. He goes on to tell the parable of the good Samaritan—a direct assault on the lawyer’s beloved system—and redirect the lawyer’s path from a pursuit of justification to a lifestyle of mercy. For the lawyer, a biblical command had become a buzzword; in challenging the buzzword, Jesus became a buzzkill.
To follow Jesus is to be this kind of reflective mirror—a body of people committed to asking uncomfortable questions and throwing over tables if need be, so that the system might fold in on itself and recognize its own flaws, quirks and pimples.
The thing is, the system doesn’t want us to know it’s there. It puts forth the appearance of peace, and if all is not well, it blames its followers (us). The system requires a scapegoat—someone to blame for its inherent problems, to distract from the need for something better.
We must begin to see “social justice” in its current cultural cache for what it is—a a quick-fix for the masses to make us feel better about ourselves while the system stays the same. Rather than pursuing “social justice,” we should follow Jesus in deconstructing the systems we find ourselves in, and going on to making the world a better place for everyone.
George Elerick is a cultural theorist, author and human rights worker. He is the UK representative for the Network of Spiritual Progressives and writes for publications including The Huffington Post and Open Magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming book Jesus Bootlegged.