The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.

D2TDy1NWkAINXv2.jpg

In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

Integrated Justice and Equality - A Review

Social justice is a contentious topic among Christians these days. A large reason for that is that the term has many and varied definitions. While the term was originally used to discuss ensuring actual justice within society, it has come to be interpreted as a means to privilege some ideological groups over others, to justify inherently unjust economic systems, and to excuse violence for certain, approved causes.

download (5).jpg

 The corruption of the term has led it to be a polarizing phrase between theological stripes of Christians. Progressives who claim faith in Christ recoil when conservatives attempt to use the term to describe their efforts. Sometimes the affirmation of “social justice” leads Progressives to advocate for causes that undermine true justice. Those on the right often repudiate the term, even when the term is meant appropriately. Often the negative reaction to the term “social justice” leads conservatives to reject important works that are biblically warranted.

 In his book, Integrated Justice and Equality: Biblical Wisdom for Those Who Do Good Works, John Addison Teevan sets out “to encourage the good works of compassion that Christians want to do to make the gospel while differentiating between good works and social justice.” He notes that in order to do that, he must begin by disambiguating his terms. Throughout the text, Teevan is arguing for what he calls integrated justice, which is justice built on a traditional, biblical understanding of justice.

 In Chapter One, Teevan argues toward a biblical notion of justice, which is often significantly different than many perceive. Through historical argument, Teeven establishes his position that social justice is a term that originated outside of the church by those who found the work of the social gospel attractive, but liked even the traces of gospel that were left in the movement. He surveys the recent historical discussion, interacting critically with contemporary, conservative Christians. Chapter Two provides a survey in greater detail of understandings of justice, especially in those traditions that have impacted Western culture. In the third chapter, Teevan outlines the historical evolution of social justice, which he argues is largely rooted in Rawl’s understanding of politics. He also develops his critiques of social justice with the notion of a biblical, integrated justice. These two chapters provide the foundation for the rest of the volume.

 The remaining three chapters offer critiques of social justice, arguing it tends to undermine true justice, and bring the book to a close. In Chapter Four, Teevan critiques the notion that economic inequality is inherently unjust through practical examples of perfectly just inequality and the problems associated with attempts to create equal outcomes. The fifth chapter argues against redistributive economic systems designed for “fairness,” which often do not accomplish their stated goals. At the same time, Teevan is critical of capitalism, because he recognizes the limits of the economic system. All economic systems rely upon the virtue of the people. The final chapter brings together the concepts of the earlier chapters to outline specific warnings, conclusions, and practical applications for the reader. What he produces is a call to activism, but an activism grounded and controlled by the norms of Scripture and a traditional understanding of justice.

 This is a volume much more likely to convince the uncertain that to lead to converts. Those longing for a better society but who are repulsed by the gross depravity of much of the social justice movement will find an outlet to pursue true justice in this volume.

 At the same time, Teevan appears to concede the term social justice too quickly. Notably absent from his volume is a discussion of the development of the early Roman Catholic use of the term social justice, which was much more biblical than present parlance. It may be possible yet to redeem the term and turn it to good use.

 Overall, this is a much needed, accessible volume that is both biblically informed and economically accurate. Teevan provides a helpful critique of the social justice and gives a sound justification for his newly coined term. His critiques are honest and forthright. He does not demean, mock, or dismiss, which make this book a useful resource for the church. Additionally, Teevan moves beyond his critique into encouraging practical application, which is necessary to move conservative Christians from theory to action.

Social Media Justice and the Gospel

One of the common complaints against Christianity—what Tim Keller calls defeater beliefs—is that a good God…a loving God…would not judge sin and wouldn’t punish it if he did. He would just wipe it away and forgive it without judgment. We are taught by culture not to like violence, so we like to believe that a just God would also be non-violent.

Miroslav Volf, a theologian at Yale and a Croatian who had personal experience with the gross injustices of ethnic cleansing and genocide in former Yugoslavia argues that a God who punishes evil through judgment is necessary to keep people from seeking revenge:

If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence––that God would not be worthy of worship. . . . The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God. . . . My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many . . . in the West . . . [But] it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die . . . [with] other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Our belief in a God who violently judges sin is necessary to restrain our hearts from desiring immediate and exorbitant revenge on the people that seek to do us harm. This is why Habakkuk calls for the judgment of the Lord in chapter 2 of his short book, rather than trying to settle all of the scores with his own hands.

In fact, in the history of Christianity, some of the worst evils that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ have been caused by people not trusting into God’s justice, but trying to bring about their own version of justice in their own time.

Social Media Justice

As Christians living in a world that celebrates injustice, often presenting it under the cloak of goodness or true justice, we find ourselves given a tool to announce our disapproval of everything bad. Thus, we think, we can stand against real injustice, even if it only via posts or tweets.

This is the mentality of the social media warrior. In fact, in our age, the digital assaults on people’s reputations that are perpetrated in the name of injustice are not much different that murder. The goal of many social media warriors is to destroy the life of their victims, but without the shred of mercy that actually killing them would entail.

An example of this is the recent brouhaha over the interaction between the Native American activist Nathan Phillips and a boy from a parochial school. That case itself has turned into a Rorschach test for your political position, so I will leave that unending debate over who was right (if anyone) in that situation to others.

However, what we should not miss is that there was an instantaneous urge to crush, smash, and destroy by those that hated the look on the boy’s face in the initially miscaptioned photo. To be clear, the opposite reaction could have been obtained from the other side if an activist wearing a charged political slogan had been caught in a pose that could have been represented as disgust, smarminess, or disrespect of one of the political right’s favored populations. The problem is not left vs. right, it is the urge to destroy.

And there were calls for destruction. Based on questionable interpretations of the event, which were driven largely by an inflammatory caption on a photo posted by a bot Twitter account run out of Brazil, people who consider themselves good and just and consistent in their pursuit of justice were calling for assault and even execution of the child in the photo. There were dozens of physical threats made against the school itself. All of this in the name of justice. Again, when the tables are turned, there are voices on the right that are just as nasty in their pursuit of justice.

This is exactly the sort of “justice” that Habakkuk is warning against: Justice that is really unjust because it is brought about in our way by our hands, instead of according to God’s judgment.

Conclusion

I believe in a God of judgment because it is the clear expectation of the authors of the Old and New Testaments. The need for a just God of judgment reinforces my belief in the God described by the Bible. The rise of the social media warrior with his virulent, destructive cruelty in the name of justice reminds me why Christianity must be true, else we have no hope.

14027297107_fc31922f2c_z.jpg

We need a just God who will make the wrong things right. That is part of the gospel. Just as is the fact that salvation is available for all who believe in accept the power of the atonement to cover our sins, and put faith only in that for our final redemption. God is just. Our attempts to force justice in this world will bring about injustice. Thank God that he sent Christ to keep those who receive him, who believe in his name, from bearing the deserved wrath for our sins on our own shoulders. Thank God for being a God who is both just and gracious at the same time.

The Storm-Tossed Family - A Review

Families are under attack and the only hope for them is to be reshaped by the cross of Christ.

That might sound like a reactionary statement, which could be accompanied by a decline narrative and commentary on how much worse things are today. However, as a central idea of Russell Moore’s recent book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, he provides evidence that the family has always been critical and has always been a spiritual battle ground.

Moore writes, “Family can enliven us or crush us because family is about more than the just the life cycle of our genetic material. Family is spiritual warfare.”

9781462794805.jpg

The spiritual importance of the family is made evident in the pages of Scripture. Even before one of the Ten Commandments anchors the family in the very character of God, we read of Satan’s attempt to disrupt the first family by tempting Eve to sin. Shortly after that we read of one brother killing another out of jealousy. The Bible is clear that the family is a focal point for satanic attack and that the disruption of the family is one of the clearest evidences of sin in the world.

Logically, we must ask why that is.

Again, Moore helps to explain, “The family is one of the pictures of the gospel that God has embedded in the world around us. Through a really dark glass, we can see flashes in the family of something at the core of the universe itself, of the Fatherhood of God, of the communion of a people with one another.”

The balance of the volume explores the nature of the family, the corrosive ideas that are negatively impacting our families, and offers a better vision for the good of the family.

The Storm-Tossed Family is reasonably comprehensive. After introducing the concept of family being spiritual warfare Moore begins by identifying points where contemporary culture conflicts with a cross shaped vision of the family, tearing down mistaken ideas and offering a better version of the family.

This process begins with Moore’s affirmation that the Kingdom of God is the primary concern of Christians, not the family. Here he is debunking the dangerous idea that the function of the church is somehow social or political—to preserve the nuclear family—rather than spiritual.

The most important distinction in that important, but secondary, concept of the family is that the family is a picture of the gospel, not the gospel itself. No one comes to Christ because they see a strong nuclear family. They come to Christ because they recognize their need for a savior and the hope that he offers.

Additionally, Moore deconstructs one of the ongoing myths of Christian sub-culture by reminding readers that the church is a family. Thus, the hyper-territorial parenting styles that are a fairly common occurrence in children’s church and the preference of “family time” over church activities in all or most cases represents a deviation from the pattern outlined in Scripture, particularly the New Testament.

Subsequently, the place of singles in the body of Christ becomes less questionable. No longer is the local church projected as a way to support the nuclear family in a hostile world. It does that, to be sure, but the primary purpose is to be a family to exemplify the gospel. Thus, singles are an integral part of the body, not a loosely attached appendage consigned to a class of misfits on a Sunday morning.

The themes that Moore tracks down are plentiful, and the above paragraphs provide just a few examples. He also delves into human sexuality, pointing out where the church has conceded a great dal of ground to the world around—we are, as Moore has argued frequently, often simply slow-moving sexual revolutionaries. As long as we are a few decades behind society, we feel like we are being sufficiently conservative. The point, however, is not to be conservative per se, but to be biblically faithful.

The Storm-Tossed Family is an important book for our age. Moore manages to highlight errors prevalent in even the most theologically orthodox churches while holding firm to the positive patterns of family that are indicated (though rarely exemplified) in Scripture. The connection between the gospel and proper function of the family is, without question, the central theme of this book.

The good news in this book is the good news: Christ came to redeem us from our sin. One of the most affirming and reassuring anecdotes in this book is of a man, realizing he had failed often and significantly as a father, being told that Christ would redeem his failures. The message is not that it is ok to fail, as if all the wrong we do will be undone, but that in Christ all things will work together for good. Repentance is real, powerful, and effective. God doesn’t change the past, but he will redeem it through the blood of Christ. That is the sort of hope that all of us imperfect people need to hear about.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 - A Review

9780190864651.jpg

The title of Alan Jacobs’ most recent project, The Year of Our Lord 1943, sets the stage for the book but it does not limit the contents. To many readers, the subtitle offers some clue to the contents, but raises additional questions as well. After all, the word “humanism,” even as it is set in context of the full subtitle—Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis––has competing definitions and in some cases is perceived to be inconsistent with “Christian.”

The crisis of 1943, at least, is obvious to anyone even vaguely aware of World History. This was the year that the Allies became confident that the Axis forces would be defeated. The tenor of the war effort changed, from a hope of survival at great cost, to the expectation of the enemies’ unconditional surrender. It was a time when people began to think beyond the war to what life after the war would look like.

Jacobs focuses on one particular school of thought, which he calls “Christian humanism.” The definition of this movement is complex, but can be summed up as effort to use literature to morally form people into good citizens. This approach to moral formation is built on Christian sentiments, in particular, since Christian humanists saw the Christian faith as the only foundation suitable for a just society.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an ambitious work. It surveys a wide range of sources, but mainly deals with the work of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and W. H. Auden. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and others make appearances, but the first five are the main cast. Not only is this an impressive lineup of writers whose work Jacobs digests and presents, but at many points their vision of the good society is different. They had a common core of ideas, to be sure, but their ideas for what good should look like and how it should be obtained were variegated. The work is also impressive because Jacobs weaves the various streams together rather than using a purely chronological or topical approach.

This book is important because it recounts the debate of that day and documents the thinking of the side whose ideas were generally not implemented. Thus, this book helps tie together what are now prophetic themes about how society could have been better ordered.

In 1941, the great choice would have been whether or not to do what it took to survive. Nearly any means is deemed acceptable when a nation is staring down destruction or enslavement. However, as the tide of World War II was turning, the question of whether the technocratic policies and processes that were used to help organize the war effort would become permanent fixtures of society was a more pertinent one.

The question the thinkers discussed in this book were wrestling is still a pivotal one today: What does it look like to be human in a modern world?

This is what many of Jacobs’ projects have been about, especially in recent years. It also marks a perennial question that humanity has traditionally debated, but has lately seemed to get buried beneath a wave of social media, constant entertainment, and unthinking busyness. If nothing else, this book is a call for people to wake up and begin to question whether they are asking the right questions.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an excellent book. For those that are intrigued by the ferment of thought that comes from Christians exploring the good society in the early- to mid-twentieth century, this book will prove to be a helpful reference. It combines history, literary analysis, and thoughtful critique in a readable text that both enlightens and invites further study. For those who are simply interested in a well-told intellectual history, this volume will provide an enjoyable experience. Those who are trying to figure out how to relate their Christianity to the idea of a good society will find this book useful, as well, as Jacobs helps expose readers to old books by writing a new book about the authors of some of the most important, but often unconsidered, texts of the modern age.

Welcoming Justice - A Review

John Perkins will be remembered as a significant figure in the 20th century, mainly because of his practical work toward racial reconciliation and community development. Perkins is a man who has had every reason to reject the pursuit of reconciliation, and yet has doggedly invested his life in those efforts.

3479.jpg

Charles Marsh is a professor at the University of Virginia, whose book God’s Long Summer offers several biographical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, especially how the faith of its supporters was essential to their motivation and its prosecution.

IVP has recently issued an expanded edition of Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community that combines the practical experience of Perkins with the historiography of Marsh. It is framed in light of ugly rise of white supremacy, especially through the Alt-Right. Marsh’s preface to this new edition specifically frames it in like of the riots and violence at Charlottesville in 2017.

This volume speaks to people in two directions. Marsh, a moderate theological revisionist, speaks to the need of the work of the Civil Rights movement to continue. He notes that faith has been a central part of that movement, and should remain at the center of it. His plea functions most clearly to entice those in the majority—those who are tempted to ignore or minimize to continue pursuing racial justice–to remain engaged and faithful. Perkins, who is theologically evangelical, communicates both the need for patience and continued engagement by the offended, as well as the possibility of work toward racial reconciliation by the theologically orthodox. In other words, Perkins offers a reminder that one does not have to abandon historical doctrines of the faith to pursue justice.

As a textbook for action or a firm theological foundation for a movement toward racial justice, this book falls short. There is evident discontinuity between the theology of Perkins and Marsh, which leads to a somewhat garbled message. However, as an example of the ability to cooperate for a common cause despite theological differences, this is a very helpful book. The succinct volume functions largely as an artifact of collegial co-labor.

Although not earth shattering in its intellectual heft, this brief book fills a distinct need. Given the increasing polarization between racial, political, economic, and religious tribes, the cooperation of these men and the similar message they share is a reminder that a great deal can be done in this world despite our disagreements.

It is certain that there is a great deal left to do with racial reconciliation. I am hopeful that Welcoming Justice falls into the hands of readers that need to hear the message that unity is possible without unanimity, that the pursuit of a just society is a way to honor Christ, and that this issue is altogether too important to be ignored.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Rethinking Incarceration - A Review

Mass incarceration is a significant problem in the United States. The sheer number of people who are currently in the custody of the various levels of government is staggering. According to one advocacy group, approximately 2.3 million Americans were in some form of corrective custody in 2017. This is a dramatic burden to the population through expended tax revenue, but has an even greater cost for the families of those behind bars, for the communities decimated by this phenomenon, and the individuals who will be permanently marked with the status of ex-con or felon.

4529.jpg

The problem of mass incarceration is complicated by unequal racial outcomes, which indicate that approximately 1 in 3 ethnic minorities will pass through the judicial system and spend time in some form of corrective custody. This inequity helps continue the perpetuation of negative images of minorities and accelerates what amounts to a downward spiral in some communities. A large number of minorities are imprisoned; therefore, they are perceived to be dangerous, then they are watched more closely and given fewer breaks, which leads to a larger number of incarcerations. This has negative effects of the general population’s perception of minorities and the perception of the judicial system and police force by minorities. Add in some cases of real corruption and legitimate hostility on both sides and you have something like the stand off we find ourselves in now with people arguing about the importance of black lives versus blue lives.

With that background, the recent volume by Dominique Dubois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, is timely and takes on a very important topic. The book consists of two parts.

Part one lays out various aspects that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, with chapters on the war on drugs, a history of racial bias in law enforcement, an overzealous enforcement of law, issues with mental health and immigration, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This portion of the volume is largely sociological and helpful in highlighting important elements of a significant source of injustice in our nation.

Part two is a theological argument intended to move readers of the volume to a doctrinal foundation that Gilliard believes will undermine mass incarceration. In this section, Gilliard offers chapters on Quaker involvement in American prisons, prison chaplaincy, penal substitutionary atonement, restorative justice, and a concluding plea for activism in dismantling mass incarceration. This section of the volume is less helpful and less well done.

There are two apparent theses in this book. First, that mass incarceration is a problem with underlying systemic injustices in the American legal system. Gilliard handles that element of the book well. He researched that section well and puts together a solid argument that has potential to convince a skeptical reader.

The second thesis of the book is that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the cause of the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, Gilliard’s attempt at supporting this thesis is, at best, poor. By any fair measure, the theological argumentation of this section of the book is anemic and riddled with fundamental methodological errors, many of which should have been corrected prior to this book’s publication. These errors and the nature of Gilliard’s plea for rejecting the substitutionary atonement significantly diminish the value of this volume, in some cases making it more likely to cement bias against judicial reform among some conservative Christians than convince anyone of the issue’s importance.

Rethinking Incarceration is a useful book in that it raises awareness of a significant issue of systemic injustice. The work Gilliard does in highlighting the racial aspects of the history of mass incarceration is helpful. Unfortunately, by introducing a second thesis and calling for a rejection of a common, orthodox theory of the atonement and by doing so very poorly, Gilliard undermines the good work he does in the beginning of the book. My hope is that a better book from a more careful author will follow this book and lead to a continuing and more theologically robust discussion of this vital topic.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Dream with Me - A Review

John Perkins is a hero of the faith. I have little doubt that within a few decades he will be featured in biographies written for children as an example of someone who did a great work for the glory of God.

His is far from a household name in many circles, unfortunately. In fact, it has only been in recent years that I’ve encountered his story which typically isn’t flashy, but exudes the powerful, life-changing reality of the gospel.

For those new to John Perkins’ story, he is an African American man from Mississippi. If that doesn’t tell you enough, know that his brother was killed by police officers decades ago, he himself was severely beaten while in police custody, and his son suffered mightily as one of the forerunners of the school integration efforts in the ‘60s.

This is a man who has every reason to be bitter, angry, and to despise whites. He’s been given reason upon reason to reject the offers of reconciliation and partnership from the ethnic groups who were responsible for so much of his pain.

He has not reacted that way, though. Perkins came to Christ as the result of his son’s invitation to attend Sunday School. Hearing the gospel turned his heart away from the natural bitterness of his experience and led to the changed heart who has influenced many for Christ. It also set in motion the work Perkins has done in making society more just.

His recent book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, is an autobiography. At 86 years old, Perkins offers this book as a self-conscious reflection on how God has worked in and through him for decades. The volume has fourteen chapters, which move in roughly chronological fashion. The chapters are thematic, telling pieces of Perkins’ story, along with a great deal of thoughtful reflection along the way.

51pj9DbbegL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Like most autobiographies, the best parts of this book are not the histories that he recounts, but his explanation of his perspective. Listening to an aging man explain why he did some things and not others, and what he would have done differently is pure gold. This is distilled, bottled wisdom for those who are fortunate and diligent enough to read it.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Perkins’ reflection on some of the sources of the vicious discrimination African Americans faced prior to and during the civil rights movement, when public displays of racism were tolerated and encouraged. Perkins notes that some of the worst racial violence came from poor whites in the South—people who were in much the same economic straits that many blacks were in during that time. However, those poor whites had something that the blacks didn’t—white skin.

Instead of commiserating and cooperating with people in similar economic straits, some poor whites cashed in on the only asset they possessed—the cultural cache of being white—using it to gain positions of relative power, like prison guard, deputy sheriff, etc. They also took opportunities to reinforce their “superiority” over people of color, living out the idea that pushing someone else down could lift them up. The reality, of course, is that such actions simply made everything worse for everyone.

Perkins is able to reflect on this condition retrospectively with grace. He’s a better man than I am, I’m sure. Instead of being angry about how poorly he was treated and how much pain many whites caused his family and friends, Perkins demonstrates a gospel-fueled love.

That’s a big piece of Perkins’ life message and the message of this book. Love, the sort of love that comes from the regeneration of hearts by the love of Christ and the power of the gospel, has the power to change things. It’s easy to forget that. Or, perhaps it’s hard to believe that when crowds are shouting at you, death threats are coming, and you simply want the equal justice the law requires. In Dream with Me, Perkins gives an example of what it looks like.

I’m not always a fan of autobiographies, but this is a book that deserves to be read. It will serve as an encouragement and lodestar for many engaged in the slow moving process of gospel reconciliation.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Toxic Inequality - A Review

In the last decade or so, economic discourse on the left has begun to focus on inequality rather than poverty alleviation. Thomas Shapiro’s recent book, Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future, explores that theme. Analysis like that in Shapiro’s volume relies on catching people at the stage after the Great Recession before they had fully recovered and blaming their lot on insufficiency of government regulation. Books like this do well for their cause to claim a crisis for their advantage.

51N71QJlUEL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

There are basic ideas that Shapiro relies upon that are flawed. He speaks of “tax expenditures” when dealing with exemptions, cuts, and other deductions in the tax code. This is indicative of an underlying assumption that the state is the primary owner of all property and has the right to determine who should get to keep it or not. He also simply assumes that inequality is fundamentally immoral, which he makes no effort to defend.

Despite these assumptions, the book does highlight problems that deserve common concern, even if the solutions differ from those that are likely to be successful in the long run. The fundamental problem is not that rich people have too much, but that the poor are significantly disadvantaged by their poverty. The poor are, in many cases, cut off from adequate (there will never be equal) opportunity to flourish merely because of their poverty.

That should raise concerns among people across the political spectrum. Some of the case studies that Shapiro highlights reflect the logical outcomes of choices made by the subjects of the study. There are several instances that his subjects made irrational decisions and reaped the whirlwind during the financial crisis. However, there are many more cases where circumstances beyond the control of the individual or family drove negative outcomes or closed doors.

Shapiro’s book emphasizes the ongoing changes in the job market, which should be a significant concern to us all. Upper and lower skill jobs are increasing in number while middle skill jobs are largely being outsourced or automated. This is creating a narrower window for people to climb the social ladder, as the gap between low and high skill often involves a significant capital investment for a college education. This represents a challenge our factory-style schools need to adapt to, but also one which lower income, lower funding districts will increasing have difficulty overcoming.

The data in this book is sound and points toward the need for meaningful action on the part of society to seek to increase opportunities for success for those on the bottom end of the financial spectrum and their children. Some of the means that Shapiro suggests to solve the dilemma are likely to lead to worse conditions and be financially unsustainable. For example, Shapiro argues for the creation of make-work jobs by the government designed to inspire full employment. He also argues for increasing the already often unsustainable defined benefit pension plans, like those offered by many municipalities. Additionally, increasing the ability for unions to force people to join is a proposed solution. This assumes that unions always use their dues well, represent the interests of their members effectively, and facilitate authentic human flourishing. In short, many of Shapiro’s suggestions are more likely to exacerbate the negative attributes of our present economy, though they are well-intentioned.

Although the solutions are questionable, Shapiro reveals are real societal problems that need to be addressed. These are just the sorts of issues Ben Sasse was attempting to address in his recent book, The Vanishing American Adult. This conversation needs to continue as we work together across political lines to address the significant problem of the dissociative impact of poverty in our society.

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is

You can’t go far on the internet without bumping into someone talking about social justice. For some, social justice is a positive term that indicates their desire to see the world become better. For others, social justice is an epithet for those who seek absolute domination of private lives through government and personal tyranny.

The trouble is that both definitions are accurate in some circumstances.

A bigger problem is that people nearly always use the term “social justice” without explaining what they mean by it. As a result, the blogger writing about social justice in terms of eliminating overt racism, the anarchist calling for the end of credit ratings, and the socialist calling for massive hikes in personal income taxes to create a utopian nanny state all use the term, but mean radically different things. Social justice with one definition can be a moral imperative that Christians should support. By another definition is may be a debatable concept on which good people can disagree. And, used in another way, it may be a morally reprehensible concept that actually enforces injustice under an Orwellian label.

The ambiguity of the definition of social justice is only enhanced in Christian conversations because the term originated in Catholic social teachings. Due to ignorance about the fundamental lack of authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium and anachronistic readings of contemporary uses of “social justice,” the idea of social justice is often used as a club by Christians who claim that socialism is a necessary corollary to biblical Christianity or that affirming immorality is a moral duty.

In his most recent book, Michael Novak seeks to define social justice, reveal the confusion in the popular use of the term, and show why Catholic social teaching does not actually require supporting socialist economics and whatever the latest version of identity theory happens to be. This book relies on essays Novak had previously written with some additional framing to make it cogent. The book has a co-author, Paul Adams, and an additional contributor, which reflects the efforts to get some of this helpful teaching into the public square by friends of Novak.

Summary

The aptly titled book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, has two distinct parts. Part One was written by Novak and includes seven chapters that define social justice, six chapters on Catholic Social Teaching on social justice, and two chapters that critique the theological difficulties with misapplication of Catholic Social Teaching. Part Two consists of five chapters of practical application by co-author, Paul Adams.

The contributions of this book to the ongoing conversation are significant. Novak’s systematic outline of six common uses of the term “social justice” help reveal and explain the confusion of contemporary public dialog. As a careful thinker, Novak shows why demanding a definition is so very important. Novak also outlines a better and helpful meaning for the term social justice that is consistent with actual Catholic Social Teaching. At the same time, Novak offers a cogent response to socialists that try to claim Catholic Social Teaching as providing authoritative support for their position. There is sometimes resonance, but his exposition reveals that many the claims made by anti-market crusaders are built on misrepresentations of what popes actually wrote.

Paul Adam’s section of this book is helpful, as well, as he shows how social justice, properly defined, can be applied to real situations to bring about real justice. As a professor emeritus of social work, he offers historical case studies and theoretical examples of positive outcomes based on applying a rational concept of social justice to real world problems.

Analysis and Conclusion

This volume offers an important entry in the conversation on social justice. The first chapters are universally applicable and instructive in understanding the contemporary debate. For non-Catholics, the remainder of the Part One is instructive and helpful, but limited since it relies on the assumed authority of the Roman Catholic church. There are, however, valuable principles that can be evaluated against Scripture, many of which are directly applicable beyond the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic denomination. The inclusion of Adams’ applications is helpful, since a common and valid criticism of much of the conservative rebuttal of various versions of social justice is that there is too little evidence of application of conservative principles of social justice.

The most significant benefit of this volume is that it clears the way for legitimate discussions about the nature of social justice. I’m not convinced that attempting to redeem the term that has been so successfully coopted and confused is the best way forward, but Novak and Adams make it at least possible. That is an important contribution that makes this book an important entry into a vital conversation.

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is
$16.81
By Michael Novak, Paul Adams

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.