I get it. We all are concerned with that monolithic and often misunderstood thing called “social justice.” I get it, we all want what is best for not only ourselves, but for each other and indeed for our world in general. I even get that we are all going to often have differing opinions about how to get to the point we are all traveling toward. I especially understand the desire to, as a matter of civil law, try to ban those things which we find offensive and hurtful. We have no desire to harm people, to marginalize people with our public policies and laws, to restrict rights, etc. Some things make sense to ban. Even while I was a smoker, I supported the ban on smoking in public buildings. When you go to a court house, a public school, etc. you should not have to deal with cigarette smoke. Public government buildings are places that, in theory, any and all of us may have to visit, so no one should be subjected to the bad habit, let alone the health risks associated with it. In private business however, I did not support it. We live in a country that values freedom. Should you desire to go to a restaurant where there is no smoking, then do so. If the restaurants in your area allow smoking then gather like minded people, form a boycott and stop going. Given that those who smoke are in the minority, the effect desired can be attained without legislation. Private business should be able to make those decisions for itself. I support allowing same sex couples to marry under civil law because committed couples should have equal protections under the law.
The latest is calls for banning the Confederate battle flag. Some have called for the ban legally, which is really a terrible idea. We, as the church, should look to our own beliefs and history and realize that. When and where the Christian church has been banned and actively persecuted, it has flourished. When and where the symbols of the Christian church have been banned, new symbols arise. If we think that racism is not a belief system so powerful to not survive under bans, then we have not studied history well at all. Banning symbols of an idea does not ban the idea, and often actually helps the idea gain traction and grow. It has also been suggested by some that the flag is somehow inherently a racist symbol and that anyone who has one must be somehow nominally racist. Yes, I agree that there is a huge negative connotation to the flag and that connotation has everything to do with slavery and how vile it was (and in some places still is). I also understand that there is a culture that has grown around the confederate battle flag that has nothing to do with race. We need to recognize and understand both. What if the calls to legally ban the symbols of an idea only results in the proliferation of the idea? What if, out of the best of intentions, we are making the problem worse by calling for the ban of this that or something else?
Now, this is not to say that we, as people of faith, should turn a blind eye to the evils of the world that we live in. In fact, quite the opposite. Due to market pressure (public, not legislative) several retailers have decided they will no longer sell confederate merchandise. Perhaps we can continue that pressure to convince them to stop selling memorabilia glamorizing other oppressive regimes and dictators as well. That is, after all, our power as consumers. Think now of how much money Christians actually spend on everything from food to entertainment, etc. Think of the enormous power that gives us in this market as consumers. What if instead of demanding that there be a higher minimum wage for example, we simply quit going to the places that do not support what we believe to be a living wage (whatever that is). What if we, as Christians simply said to, say Walmart, we will no longer shop here because of how you treat your workers. We believe they should make a minimum of $9 an hour (for sake of argument only) and until they do, our business will go elsewhere. What if, instead of calling for banning this that or something else, we, as Christians, simply said these things are so far outside of what we find acceptable, we will not give you our business while you sell them or engage in the practices. Let’s face it, calling for an end to child labor in a blog typed on our Apple product is not just ineffective but also hypocritical.
There is, of course, the danger that we will need to spend more money somewhere else. It would require for Christians to actually have to share resources with each other I imagine. There is the danger that we might actually have to go without some of our comforts. Don’t think McDonald’s pays enough? Stop going, and beyond that, actually organize your Christian brothers and sisters to do the same. Think that a Starbucks barista is underpaid? Stop getting your latte. Organize your brothers and sisters to do the same. What if, we as Christians, are calling for bans, for wage increases, etc. because we are unwilling to exert the pressure ourselves? What if we are trying to get the world to do what we should be doing on our own? What if we simply don’t want to give up our comforts to bring about change? What if we by calling for bans, etc. we are trying to force our belief on the world instead of sharing our belief with it? What if by calling for this that and the other, we are using the ways of the world and not the ways of God?
Now, certainly there is a need for balance in this. The civil rights movement is a good example. There are, on occasion, laws that actively discriminate and cause harm. Christians should speak out against those laws and stand in solidarity with the people who suffer under those laws. The act of protest has deep roots in American history and I suspect will always be deeply rooted in our identity. The question then becomes what is the balance between law and moral action. I defer to R.M. MacIver (1882–1970), Scottish sociologist and what he said in his work “The Modern State”
“What then is the relation of law to morality? Law cannot prescribe morality, it can prescribe only external actions and therefore it should prescribe only those actions whose mere fulfillment, from whatever motive, the state adjudges to be conducive to welfare. What actions are these? Obviously such actions as promote the physical and social conditions requisite for the expression and development of free—or moral—personality…. Law does not and cannot cover all the ground of morality. To turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality. Happily it is impossible. No code of law can envisage the myriad changing situations that determine moral obligations. Moreover, there must be one legal code for all, but moral codes vary as much as the individual characters of which they are the expression. To legislate against the moral codes of one’s fellows is a very grave act, requiring for its justification the most indubitable and universally admitted of social gains, for it is to steal their moral codes, to suppress their characters.”
What if our responsibility as Christians is not to ban things under law, but rather to live in such a way as to encourage what we know to be correct moral behavior? What if all we need to do is, as an expression of what we have been taught as proper moral behavior, act like Christians? What if that is actually how we are supposed to go about making disciples for the transformation of the world? What if what we need to do as Christians is simply ban banning and start doing the work ourselves?