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A letter in response to John MacArthur’s statement against social justice

To my brother John MacArthur,

You recently wrote a post warning the selling out of the gospel for social justice fad. Like Paul did in Galatians, you warn us about this “different gospel.” I tried to keep my mouth shut because I didn’t want to fan the fire your post ignited. But like the jackass whose tongue was loosened by an angel and saved Balaam, I (yes, I’m comparing myself to an ass) can’t keep my jaws clamped. Corrected, Balaam turned a curse into a blessing — so you aren’t beyond meta-noia/repentance. I’m going to take your same no-nonsense approach and warn you that you might be the false prophet, the one “bewitching” people to a “different gospel.”

I’m not arguing here for any social justice commitment you call a threat to the gospel. I’m only pointing out the huge lumber in your eye. I know you can’t see it. I can’t see mine and you are eager to dislodge it from my eyes — and thank you for warning me against identification of any movement with God’s Kingdom and the self-righteousness oozing from such absolutism. With that same compassion and eagerness, I’m returning the favor. You don’t seem to know you also stand in a particular culture and language because you are a human person, like the rest of us, bound to time and space by your flesh. You are part of an American evangelical movement, which is not the Kingdom of God. You are, of course, trying to be faithful to the gospel in your context, but the lumber-in-your-eye is that you don’t think you have a context. That lumber-induced blindspot is more dangerous in you due to your prominence. You have inordinate influence and you are not being careful with that. I will try my best to pull that lumber out by spelling it out. I hope at the least I can give pause to you, if not, a pause to anyone ready to jump into your crusade.

Here are some of the flaws in your argument.

You brandish the word “biblical” as if you have a vantage point guaranteeing your access to the “true” meaning of Scripture(thus you know what “true justice” is in contrast to social justice). By “biblical,” do you mean the original intent? Of course you can’t mean that because originally, every biblical text spoke to an audience distanced from us by language, culture and history. What Isaiah meant by “righteousness” is not what an American Christian means by “righteousness.” We are always translating what the author said. And like any translation, there is a transference, accretion and loss. That is, as much as those advocating for social justice are influenced by the culture of their times, you too are influenced by the culture of our times, only that you have chosen other subcultures. You are translating everything you read in the Bible with the help of your culture, that is, your language which can’t help but be cultural.

What do we mean when we talk about language?“Ahh,” you might retort, “well, I’m going to back to the original language. I’m not working out of English translation, but reading the Bible in its original language.” Did you know that what we consider the “original language” of our New Testament, Koine Greek, was itself a translation language? Jesus never taught in Greek. He taught in Aramaic, and we can never get to Jesus’ original talk, only the translations of it — and mind you, we have four translations of Jesus’ teachings and life! I point this out to say not only that everything is in translation and thus not free from cultural influence, but that this really is the only way of knowing! Translating, and having different translations, in itself is not wrong. To argue for the “biblical” just doesn’t make sense when the Bible itself tells the story of the gospel, in a translated language, and in four different translations. If those first disciples felt they had to fight for the purity of the gospel and crusaded for a single translation, then we would actually have a truncated gospel (meaning we would have no gospel at all).

Translations mean something is lost, and others things are gained.There is no perfect translation, only faithful translations. This is a topic on its own, but I would say faithful translations at least respect the original context by admitting that distance — and then we take leaps of faith on analogies that close that gap. That is, we can best learn people’s behavior in their original context, but we can never replicate them. We act in our context out of being informed of the stories of Bible.

We all have a context. So your accusation that those advocating for a social gospel are being swayed by their culture more than the Bible is one sense correct. They are trying to see what is required of them in their context. But that is also true of you. You are in a context that is quite specific: North American English. And you have a particular political view that colors what you see in Scripture. That is, what you say is Isaiah’s biblical understanding of righteousness might actually be American conservatism’s view of morality, which focuses on individual ethics.

Pride lurks. Even as you know this, I’m afraid there is another danger lurking: not of ignorance, but that of pride, and this is really the greater danger that we American Christians face. Ignorance waits to be enlightened. Pride hates corrections. We American Christians really believe we are the savior of the, well, the savior Jesus. We know in our head that Jesus didn’t speak English, but we believe that if Jesus were to walk the earth again, he would be white, visiting white American churches first and he would speak English, without accent. A few days ago, a pastor admitted before a gathering that all this time he assumed Moses was a white person. I think we assume we know what Isaiah said about justice and what Paul means by the gospel of grace because we assume they are white Americans. We carry that assumption because we believe white American Christianity is the apex of Christian history and culture.

What is protest? Here is a case in point. You say there was no protest in the Bible. And then you challenge us to find it. And of course, you won’t find stories of people organizing and marching with picket signs. Of course protest in those days would take different form. Would you say Isaiah lying on the ground naked was a form of protest? When Jeremiah warned the king that he will be chain-led to Babylon because all the “good people of God” worshipped secure of their salvation while letting the poor rot and die — is that protest? Or what about Moses when he went to Pharaoh and demanded the executive stop working his people everyday. “Give us a day to worship!” Moses demanded. To translate that as union work doesn’t read to me like a faithless translation.

It’s in how we tell our stories. But you might argue that Moses is a Christ-figure, and Exodus is foreshadowing of the salvific work of Christ. Here is where our prejudices are exposed. We don’t like to tell the Exodus story as “real” history when we have the social standing, when we are the Egyptians who have power over other people that we get to tell who they are and the value of their work. When we have privilege, it helps us sleep at night when we turn the Exodus story into a spiritual lesson. It wasn’t liberation but spiritual freedom. At that point, who is being more biblical? The one who sees Moses as freedom fighter in the name of God or just a prototype of Jesus? The one reading Exodus as resistance or as mere allegory?

Could it be that it is your very position of power that drives you to speak against those who seek justice? Could you be the court prophet soothing the king’s ear that he doesn’t have to change anything — just trust Jesus and your household is safely saved? Might you be pushing Jeremiah down the well when you are dismissing social justice prophets?

Using “social justice” doesn’t guarantee you have the gospel.I agree with you on that. But just because you use the word “biblical” doesn’t guarantee you have the gospel either. Since we have four Gospels (stories of Jesus), maybe there are different ways to respond to the gospel (the message of Jesus). And maybe we’ve got much to learn from each other, and much to be corrected by the life of others. To live together without judging is what it means to live by the gospel of grace. The sure sign of legalism is judgment.

I’ve been direct only because, like you, I also worry over the church in America, and whether we are still preaching the gospel.

In Christ,

SAMUEL SON is the manager for diversity and reconciliation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).