Christian Social Justice Warriors are a Legalistic Sect

It’s been a few months since the Metanoia Collective began – enough time for some feedback to start filtering back to the collective’s contributors. I heard recently from a good friend of mine and an alumnus from my evangelical undergraduate. He accused us at Metanoia – “Christian social justice warriors” – of being a “legalistic sect.”

willworkforsalvationpageA legalistic sect. My friend felt towards us something like Paul’s fury towards the Judaizers in Galatians, who had added burdensome requirements to the simplicity of the Christian gospel. Jesus commands his followers to love God and love neighbor. So for Paul: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6 NIV). To this essential minimum, we at Metanoia have (in his view) demanded as necessary to Christian faithfulness that other white evangelicals join us in pursuit of racial justice. We also give the impression of looking down on white Christians who do not share our commitment – the condescending hallmark of legalism. We alone know the narrow way – a sure sign of sectarianism.

A strong charge, and one we are working to digest.

A few considerations:

  •  The first and only remedy for legalism, real or perceived, is to prioritize God’s love. “We love” – God and our neighbor – “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We take it as a good challenge to us as writers and thinkers that one of our readers has found the ethical cost of following Christ far more in evidence at Metanoia than the good news of God’s love. Unless our writing and advocacy and obedience radiate out from gratitude for God’s gift, we will only be weighting people down with “a cumbersome load” (Mt 23:4). We can certainly strive to keep these better proportioned: the good news front and center and the shape of a thankful life in its wake.
  •  The solution to sectarianism is to emphasize that there are other ways besides our own to love and obey God. We acknowledge this; loving God and neighbor looks different depending on the time and place. We at Metanoia are concerned about faithfulness in one time and place and context: ours, as white American Christians living after slavery, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights, and now living through a resurgence of the Civil Rights struggle. We realize that the form Christian love takes in our generation will not be the same as in other times and places.

As we try to discern what loving God and neighbor looks like in our own moment, we keep in mind a few biblical trend-lines. Jesus calls each generation afresh, but because he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Heb 13:8), we can expect him to make demands of us consistent with those he made of our forebears in faith. The first pattern, then, is: faithfulness for the privileged looks like divestment. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to give up his possessions and the Pharisees to give up their pride of place. Paul tells the rich in faith to consider the weak (Rom 15:1), and those with plenty to share with the poor (1 Cor 11). As white people, we are the safe, secure, and privileged in American history.

Second, that faithfulness is public; it isn’t just for the private spaces and places of prayer and church, interpersonal friendships, or community cookouts. Jesus Christ led a public ministry and was executed by the public authorities. The early church set a similar pattern of engagement. Loving neighbor cannot be set apart from social justice; in the words of Cornel West, “justice is what love looks like in public.” Conversely, the word for someone who is friendly and loving on an individual level but acts for his own best interest on the public plane is hypocrite. There were plenty of individually kind slavemasters who had no intention of ceasing to profit from the public institution of slavery – just as today there are plenty of individually caring evangelical Christians who will do nothing to cut off our flow of privileges or to join in struggle with black people seeking survival and equity. The black theologian James Cone writes that “it seems that whites forget about the necessary interrelatedness of love, justice, and power when they encounter black people. Love becomes emotional and sentimental.” [1]

Third, faithfulness looks like prioritizing the voices that we and “the crowd” tend to ignore. Jesus Christ welcomed the children when his disciples thought they were beneath him, and he healed blind Bartimaeaus when the crowd tried to hush his cries. Paul tuned in to the voice of him whom he had been persecuting. In the same way, we as white people have been trained not to listen to black and brown voices. We must begin in earnest.

[1] James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power. 12th ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 54, 53.



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