[Revised for clarity, 4/8/2021]
Three-quarters of the way through this book, I hated it (1/5 stars). Now that I finished it, I hate it a little bit less (2/5 stars). The author is highly critical of the new social justice ideology and highly critical of evangelicals who support the movement because they are ignorant of its roots, or worse, complicit in spreading an unbiblical worldview. The new social justice movement “distorts how Americans – Christians included – understand justice” (13). Let me list the cons, then the pros.
First, a major, overarching critique of this book is that he applies a biblical standard very selectively, ruling out cooperation with organizations like BLM because they have unbiblical views (when I use BLM, I am referring to Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc, the organization, not the broader movement). I agree, many of their views are unbiblical (for example, their “queer affirming” stance and commitment to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement”, both affirmed in the BLM ‘What we Believe’ page that has been taken down recently). But, I’d assert, so are the Greenpeace’s, the NRA’s, or either political party’s platform, etc. For example, he is right in his assertion that [secular] ideological social justice proponents hold that our fundamental problem is oppression. [Clarification: most Christian advocates of social justice would view oppression as one expression of mankind’s sinfulness played out at the societal level, not as the main ill plaguing human societies. The author does not make this important distinction]. Allen also is correct when he contends that the Bible sees our fundamental problem as rebellion against God. But, should we insist that all organizations we support or partner with align themselves with biblical teachings? What would representatives of the Republican party say is our nation’s fundamental problem? Probably big government, the erosion of our rights, encroachment of socialism, etc. The fact that social justice proponents are wrong in seeing oppression as the fundamental problem doesn’t mean oppression isn’t a problem. Nor does it mean I cannot partner with them, when appropriate, to fight oppression. Another example of this selectivity in applying a biblical standard comes when discussing the Bible’s revolutionary concepts of power and authority. He writes, “This revolutionary biblical concept of power and authority is completely alien to ideological social justice, just as it is to every other worldview in our fallen world” (93). Agreed! But why then can we cooperate with other institutions or movements but not the ideological social justice movement? This concept of power is, as he admitted, foreign to both political parties, but that doesn’t mean we can’t support them to a degree.
Second, another overarching critique is the selective naivete of the author. He insists that, while our society is broken (all are) and unjust to a degree (again, all are), the only way to address these injustices and brokenness is through heart change. He writes, “Injustice exists because we are all fallen, sinful, selfish, people. The only solution is a personal, heart-level transformation, not just for a particular group of so-called ‘oppressors’, but for everyone” (73). Don’t get me wrong, I am all for heart change! We need it. But is that the only way we fight injustice? The author repeatedly rails against the injustice of abortion (which I also hate). Would he be content to fight the injustice of abortion simply through preaching for heart change? Or, does he hope that there are state and federal laws that prohibit this evil? (I wish he would read James Davidson Hunter’s book, To Change the World. Hunter makes it clear that cultures change not from the bottom up, but from the top down – winning elites, changing power structures, repairing broken institutions, etc.). He writes later, “Certainly, institutional evils such as slavery, abortion, pornography, and sex trafficking are real and must be opposed.” Ok, so these evils should be opposed, but not racism or sexism? Similarly, he levels the accusation, “The social justice worldview has no place for a final judgment” (95). Certainly, advocacy groups like BLM don’t say “justice now, but if not, God will give it to us at the end of the age.” That would be weird for any advocacy group, including a pro-life group. He uses the parable of the weeds and the wheat to suggest that some injustices just need to be tolerated till the end when God pulls the weeds up and burns them. This is a misuse of this passage which I am certain he would not apply consistently.
Third, Allen will not allow himself to see systemic racism or sexism. When confronted with statistics about higher expulsion rates of black students he retorts “is it possible that the actions of the black students themselves might play a role?” (101) Well, obviously they do. But why are black students prone to commit acts that will get them expelled at a higher rate than white students. Is it how inappropriate actions are defined – are some cultural expressions common in black culture deemed inappropriate when similar expressions among white students are not? Is it how rules are enforced – do white students skate by committing the same offenses but without expulsion? Why are the black students more likely to rebel against an authority – were they demeaned, talked down to, etc? I’m not saying any of these are necessarily the case, but they could be contributing factors that shouldn’t be ignored. This same weakness appears in his discussions of policing and the criminal justice system.
Fourth, Allen has an infuriating tendency to want to “balance the books” when it comes to American history. His approach seems to be, “Oh yes, slavery and Jim Crow were horrible. But we have done a lot of good too.” He consistently tells the reader we should be grateful for the good things western culture has given us. This is tantamount to telling an abused child to remember the good times with dad and how he bought you a baseball glove when you were ten. He cites, approvingly, Bo Winegard, “Today, [the U.S.] is laudable cosmopolitan and largely free from grotesque forms of discrimination and bigotry” (115). I would think that is a fairly subjective criterion and doubt an African American who believes police brutalize black men would agree. And, even if we agree that there aren’t grotesque forms of bigotry, should we be patting ourselves on the back that there are still many less than grotesque forms that thrive in our culture.
Fifth, the author engages in horribly unfair comparisons between the worst of the one side with the best of another. On page 116 he compares the stream of secularized society and all the horrors of the French Revolution, Marxism, and ideological social justice with another stream that “emerged from the German Reformation” and “supplied nutrients that gave rise to the freedoms, tolerance, respect for the individual, the rule o law, due process, and prosperity that the West has enjoyed.” Ok, it also gave us slavery, the Holocaust, racism, etc…You simply cannot compare the worst of one stream with the best of another – it is intellectually dishonest. I believe the same is true when he compares “The Revolutionary Narrative” which he opposes with the “Preservation Narrative” which he supports (pages 144-160).
Sixth, the trite and infuriating phrase “all lives matter” appears several times throughout the book. We know all lives matter, but when people say “Black Lives Matter,” it is because they believe black lives are being treated as if they don’t matter (agree or disagree, at least be honest and not dismissive). Most evangelicals wouldn’t be angered by a pro-lifer saying “Unborn Lives Matter!” or reply, “Well, so do born lives!” He seems to have no ability to grasp that advocacy groups can exist for a sole purpose, or an author write for a sole purpose. He accuses BLM of being “very discriminatory in its advocacy of black lives” (157) because they only care about black lives brutalized by police. Allen criticizes Eric Mason, author of Woke Church, for not lamenting abortion in his book (162). But the book was about racism! You get the feeling that everything that ever gets written should mention abortion, or every advocacy group should be about abortion. Free School Lunches for Hungry Kids & Stop Abortion!
Seventh, His discussion of ‘biblical justice’ is not wrong, but incomplete. He is correct in asserting that injustice is a failure to comply with God’s moral law, but he defines this in a way that seems to categorically exclude non-Christians societies from being just. “He is the moral plumbline who determines who determines what is good and for all peoples, in all eras…This excludes the Allah of Islam who is ultimately unknowable” (19). I think this runs counter to much OT teaching and negates the common grace of God. In summary, he says justice is living the Ten Commandments in every area of our lives. This version of justice he refers to as communicative justice and is highly individualistic. Distributive justice, he contends, requires that injustices be punished.
Because this is already long, here’s a final flurry. He (along with Voddie Baukman, etc) have said, in essence, we can’t use the term “social justice” because it doesn’t mean what we think it means – culture has redefined it. I find this an odd argument from people who would almost certainly say we should fight for the definition of marriage as a covenant between a man and woman and not allow culture to redefine it. At times, the author seems to be selling a version of a societal level prosperity gospel. “It was the power of biblical truth,” he suggests, “that lifted people out of poverty and built free, prosperous nations” (7). He provides an overly simplistic summary of political parties and racism. He seems to deny that things like white supremacy or toxic masculinity even exist. He accuses those evangelicals who support social justice of “further dividing and weakening and already splintered church” (181) and you wonder if he’d accuse those on the right of doing the same. Allen also employs a very narrow definition of oppression, dismissing “dignity harm” and only considering “material harm.” So making some feel less than equal (calling a black man ‘boy’, for example), isn’t a bid deal as long as you haven’t harmed him materially.
- This side of Christ’s return, no society will be perfectly just. But, “without justice, human flourishing is impossible” (36). I think Allen does an adequate job of establishing some pillars of society that are more just, including 1) an acknowledgment of a transcendent lawgiver, 2) respect for rule of law, 3) sense of human dignity, 4) a check on corruption, 5) establishment of due process, and 6) entrusting final judgment to God. Of these, I’m a bit suspicious of number one (can a society, say France, establish some semblance of justice without acknowledging a lawgiver?) and six (seems to encourage complacency).
- He does accurately expose deep flaws in aspects of the new social justice ideology [especially the secular versions of SJ theory]. Christians should be aware that there are aspects of the social justice ideology that are antithetical to a Christian worldview. In part, this is tied, as the author contends, to the movement’s roots in postmodernism. He also gives a decent overview of how Marxism has morphed into neo-Marxism, less concerned with economics and class, and obsessed with oppression, privilege and race/sex/sexual-orientation (versus class).
- Though three-quarters of the book the author displays all the qualities of an old-school fundamentalist, focused on heart transformation and how secular institutions are out of step with biblical principles. In the last chapter or two he distances himself from fundamentalists, even John MacArthur, and calls for engagement by Christians to fight injustices. It gave me a bit of whiplash, but I was happy to read it.