Just as our concept of mishpat and tzedakah is flawed (see the previous essay), so our concept of social justice has been twisted by historical trends, and as a result, our confidence in its efficacy is flawed. This twisting of perceptions can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution which not only led to change but also to a change in the pace of change. Things happened so quickly that negative unintended consequences overwhelmed societal structures and norms. These unintended consequences were addressed under the name of social reform and life got better for most people. We now think of social reform (and later, the Social Gospel, and after that, Social Justice) driven by ordinary citizens as normative. But historically this conclusion is hard to defend.
The 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of previously unimaginable change. The pace of change and the creation of wealth (both results of the Industrial Revolution) so far exceeded anything that had come before that people’s experience were outpacing their imagination. On the one hand the level of human horror that was created in places like industrialized London was beyond anything we thought possible prior to the Industrial Revolution. At the same time the achievements that were occurring which led to wealth creation and human comfort were also beyond anything we thought possible. So it is that a single reality that was beyond reasonable explanation was understood as simultaneously dystopian and utopian.
The Industrial Revolution also interconnected society and societies across Europe and North America in a manner not seen before. Change in London and Manchester led to change in rural England. Change in Europe resulted in change in the Americas. Increasingly nothing was viewed in isolation. Grand systems (either utopian or dystopian) were created to explain what was happening.
These utopian sensibilities shaped the politico-economic philosophies of the day (both Adam Smith’s invisible hand on the right and Karl Marx’s Communism on the left are typical of this tendency). The same forces led to millenarian religious movements (Adventism, Dispensationalism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism). The millenarian movements all tended to be escapist. As the whole world became intertwined there was an increasing despair that the world could not be fixed. (This is the dystopian side of the new cultural sensibility, more Marx and less Adam Smith.) The only “solution” was to await Jesus Christ’s return and his rescue of Christians from the terrible conditions and terrible world in which they found themselves.
On the utopian side of the coin, this new world also brought about aid societies the sort of which had never been seen before. Some simply sought to provide relief to the destitute, but for the most part, these new movements also tried to understand their role in terms of the intertwined world. This was the era of the Social Gospel (Walter Rauschenbusch being its most famous proponent). It was also the era of utopian communities such as Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida, and the Amana Communities which began popping up seemingly everywhere. The early days of reform were remarkably successful. Even the powerful industrialists recognized that the system could not continue in its present state and so it took little urging from the reformers to bring about massive change. The reform was so successful that it became the model of Christian activism. Thus contemporary social justice is a continuation of the Social Gospel and the sensibility that we must address problems systemically rather than individually.
Whether the early success of these reform movements continued is a matter of significant debate. Industrial society outpaced our political system by many decades, but eventually governments caught up and established laws, rules, and guidelines to protect their citizens. Labor unions were created. A new relationship between business, government, and labor evolved that reflected the new reality of an industrialized world. In the United States this new relationship was consummated with the Great Society legislation of the 1960s. Efforts for reform have continued since then, but the necessity of reform is not as obvious and so there is an ebb and flow of regulations.
What is clear in the last half century is that while there is a minimum standard of decency which society demands beyond which there is outrage, the fundamental reality of poverty and oppression has not changed. Those inclined to take advantage of others (whether in the camp of business, labor, or government) will, given the chance, continue to take advantage. Unless things pass beyond that ill-defined minimum standard of decency, most people are inclined to look the other way. New legislation is always accompanied by new loopholes. New protections always result in new ways to take advantage of the disadvantaged. It’s the same chess board, the pieces merely get rearranged.
This leaves us with some hard questions. Was the success of efforts toward systemic change in the previous century a fluke? Were those changes largely inevitable as the industrial revolution matured into a newly ordered society with far more powerful central governments and brand new labor unions to balance out the power of industry? Or, was this new societal order not at all inevitable and instead the result of reform movements that focused on systemic change? The history of social movements (from initial success tied rather specifically to fast-paced societal change to more recent stagnation) indicates that such systemic reform movements are not normative. Rather they are as much a product of the Industrial Revolution as the squalid conditions and terrible injustice that brought about the reform movements in the first place.
One of the results of this history is that we now see social justice through a binary of escapism or activism. Either we get involved in social justice efforts or settle for a private morality where one walks in the garden alone with Jesus, not letting the cares of the world intrude. The second effect of this binary thinking is that we tend to assume that the only way the world can change is through (binary 1) a world ending climax (the return of Jesus Christ or a nuclear war, for instance) or (binary 2) social reform and social justice movements that will improve the plight of the oppressed and bring the oppressors to justice.
Like all binaries, this one blinds us to both the challenges we face and the opportunities that we have. I will come to the opportunities in a later essay, but the next essay will take a close look at the challenges that face us and why the social justice model is ill equipped to face those challenges.
Next essay: The Schism of Systems: Culture in Crisis
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