‘It’d be doin’ ’em an unkindness, Hermione,’ he said gravely, threading a massive bone needle with thick yellow yarn. ‘It’s in their nature ter look after humans, that’s what they like, see? Yeh’d be makin’ ’em unhappy ter take away their work, an’ insultin’ ’em if yeh tried ter pay ’em.’Hagrid, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
If you only watched the Harry Potter movies without reading the books, you’d never experience the moral mind-twisting subplot of Hermione and S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare). I credit J.K. Rowling for creating a fictional yet quite realistic debate about rights, social justice and charity. All without actually giving a clear answer about who was right. Hermione thought the house-elves should receive payment for their labor. No one, including all house-elves, save one, agreed with her. Both sides made good points at times. And despite whatever you may want to read back into the text based on Rowling’s Twitter feed, it is hard to reach a rock hard conclusion just from the story.
Or is it H.E.L.F?
House-elves worked for free. Yet they were happy. For that reason, along with the fact they weren’t human, their situation wasn’t nearly as harsh as real-world chattel slavery. Yet they were living beings with more complex wills and emotions than animals. So it still twisted me up in knots to try to think through it. To decide whether Hermione had any ground to stand on.
And this parallels real life quite often to me. Ten years ago, the idea of what I still call “social justice” was not controversial at all. Let me be upfront about that since words and definitions matter, I will define what I am referring to clearly: The concept that there are some people in society who are needy, helpless and without resources to improve their condition. And that it is the moral responsibility of Christians to help them in some way. We can argue the hows and whats. But not the idea itself.
It’s Not Courtroom Justice
Some have rejected the use of the word “social” in front of this concept, owing to the fact that this is merely justice and the qualifying word is redundant. I disagree, as I see this form of justice as different than (though not always completely distinct from) other types of justice. Such as legal justice. The right for a person to receive a fair trial and concepts such as innocent until proven guilty are important. Yet they’re not exactly like what I am discussing here.
Defined as such, the Bible clearly commands social justice. God’s people in both testaments were plainly and repeatedly mandated to care for and fight the oppression of the poor, immigrant, orphan and widow. There are literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of verses about this. Few are quite as bold as God saying through Jeremiah that King Josiah “defended the cause of the poor and needy,” before adding, “Isn’t that what it means to know me?” I’ve written about this on Rambling Ever On before.
Yet several things in American culture have cropped in recent years that have caused me to think deeply about the concept of social justice, as defined above. And to use the term with care and specific definitions. Hermione’s plight above illustrates many of them well. Today I want to dissect two of them.
The Problems with Mission Trips
The first can be neatly defined as Toxic Charity, the title of a brilliant book by Robert D. Lupton that I read years ago. As a youth pastor leading mission trips every year, this book (along with When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Finkert) revolutionized my thinking. There are several potential mistakes churches and youth groups can make in trying to help. Like coming for a week and leaving more work for the host to have to do than before they arrived. Or doing a weeklong project that is merely busywork. But a big one that has stuck with me is that we go to mission fields and want to “Americanize” them. We assume they will not be OK until they have the types of material possessions we have back home. A lot of our stuff is junk and no more lifts people out of poverty than foreign currency would.
That, in particular, reminds me of Hermione. Maybe oppression did blind the house-elves. But considering the voices who went against her, it is at least possible that she was trying to project her myopic ideas of fairness and prosperity onto the house-elves. They were a different species so perhaps their needs were different. They were content as long as they had work to fulfill them. Money was borderline vulgar, and even Dobby when accepting it accepted almost nothing. So I am inclined to think Hermione was more wrong than right.
Keyboard Warriors in the Battle of The Internet
Yet there is another reason why social justice stirs controversy these days. And this one is more complex and more difficult to think through. To me at least. The first time I read the phrase SJW (Social Justice Warrior) used as an insult, it caused me confusion. How could any reasonable person slam someone for caring about the poor? I quickly learned, however, that people (typically political conservatives) use it as a pejorative to those who conflate the individual’s responsibility to the poor with the government’s role.
There can be no doubt that it is no small minority of people who have weaponized social justice to argue for and even shame people into voting for certain candidates and policies. This, to me, is dangerous for a number of reasons. I do not consider what the Christians did in Acts 2:42-47 the same thing as any modern-ism that involves the government mandating its citizens to help those who are in need. They did it voluntarily in obedience to the heart of their (my) God. Hence it’s risky to apply it broadly.
Is Healthcare a Right or a Privilege?
The danger lies in issues others before me have argued well: the government may not have the best strategies for helping those in need and may cause things like dependency on government instead of the higher ideal of helping lift people out of whatever circumstances cause them to be in need. I realize of course that there are times people will always need to be helped. And it is unreasonable to think they can be lifted completely out of their situation. But even then, others argue that individuals should have the right to determine how they help those in need instead of the government taking their money and leaving them with little choice with their taxed income.
The other extreme also has issues. There can be cases where working Americans are allowed to keep their money and do not help. And as a result, some people who cannot provide for themselves may go without basic needs being met. The argument about healthcare being a right or a privilege comes to mind. I will not argue either way here but I have read both sides carefully. And the tension on this topic captures the heart of what I am trying to communicate currently.
Outrage is Often Reactive and Misguided
Ultimately I am writing this, though, to advocate for social justice being an absolute truth for Christians and churches and being much grayer in politics and like issues. I often hear Christians speakers on big platforms tell pastors that if they don’t address Outrage XYZ of the day from their pulpit on Sunday then they are wrong, or cowardly. I also hear and read Christians talk about preaching on social justice as part of the Gospel, when the exact issue they are pontificating about is not truly a “least of these” issue. This is especially true on issues of class–like race, religion and gender. And while there are no doubt injustices in these areas, not every injustice in our country stems from racism or sexism or similar prejudices. And some controversies may not be injustice at all.
Instead, often the argument revolves around something Christians can discuss and debate and disagree about. Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46 are at times wholly different than the issues that divide conservatives and liberals in America. And we need to acknowledge this before we can truly begin to have healthy dialogue. I fear that the crowd of people who deny this, even in Evangelical Christianity, is too forceful to overcome.
The Ideal vs. The Reality
Yet, I remain hopeful. God in Deuteronomy 15 told his people there should not be any poor among them. Yet, in classic biblical tension fashion, God also claimed there would always be poor among them. This encourages me when I realize there is an ideal, but we will never reach it. Whether it is helping the poor or discussing how to help the poor. For the latter, the ideal is to squelch the desire to always mix biblical social justice with every hot button issue our culture faces. They intersect at times, but much more often these are issues of convictions, not absolute truths.
Hermione, even though fictional, was 20 years ahead of her time. The original SJW and probable Toxic Charity felon, she can be seen today. All over social media and in the streets. I know there are some people who are the most extreme and worst version of her; they will never dialogue about the place of social justice. But for the big, often drowned-out army of people in the nuanced middle, I appeal to discussion. And to leave room for disagreement. And to realize that our views of social justice outside of the Bible’s clear commands can be myopic. Just as Hermione’s were.