The term ‘social justice’ used to be associated with words such as ‘equality’, ‘compassion’ and ‘tolerance’. In the 1960s and 1970s, ‘the brotherhood of man’ might be the stated goal, the language almost biblical. Heroes of this movement included Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell, outspoken campaigners for the rights of women and gay people.
But this narrative has undergone a radical change in recent years. Words such as ‘privilege’, ‘power’ and ‘patriarchy’ are now weapons. People who claim to represent minority or oppressed social groups are angry – and they’re in the headlines like never before.
The fate of Greer and Tatchell gives a clear illustration of the change. Both of these former heroes have recently been accused of ‘transphobia’, and been disinvited from speaking at events (‘no platformed’) – Tatchell because he supported the free speech of critics of transgenderism, even though he didn’t support their views. Greer because she said men who ‘identify as women’ cannot be considered the same as women.
Considered the same as women. To try to articulate what’s happening, many use the term ‘identity politics’. The battle lines are being formed on the basis of social characteristics – gender, ethnicity, ability/disability, religion and sexuality.
In its broadest and most positive sense, the movement has existed for decades. “Identity politics is basically gearing our political choices based upon what we think is best for our chosen master identity,” says sociology professor George Yancey, who has studied both racism and prejudice against Christians. “Thus if I saw being black as my master identity then I would make my political decisions based on what I thought was best for blacks.
“In the best sense it is a response to injustice and inequality. Those with an identity tied to a marginalised group would have motivations to consider how to use politics to fight that marginalisation.”
It’s a fraught and complex cultural phenomenon
Another example of the shift is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign, which has gained support in the US following shocking videos of police killing black suspects. BLM has garnered international support and been heralded as a new civil rights movement. But the movement’s strident tone and tactics – angry and provocative demonstrations, for example – have been rejected by some older 1960s-era activists, such as Rev Barbara Reynolds. In The Washington Post, she wrote: “We were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity. BLM seems intent on rejecting our proven methods.”
Some feel a strong pressure to conform within a particular identity group. “[Identity politics] is the idea that because my skin colour is black, there is a group I think I have to follow, and if I step out of that, I’m selling out my race, I’m contributing towards people not being emancipated,” said Tamara Chabe, a blogger for Conservative Women who is critical of the movement.
It’s a fraught and complex cultural phenomenon, linked to a number of related shifts: increased political polarisation and extremism, the rise of social media and postmodern philosophy.
An example of the new message comes from the Everyday Feminism website: “Consider the ways in which you are oppressed: How are you disadvantaged because of the way society treats aspects of your identity?” It then asks if the reader is a woman, disabled, queer, poor, has a mental illness, is a ‘person of colour’ or ‘gender non-conforming’.
It continues: “All of these things could make life difficult because society disenfranchises people who fit into those social groups. We call this oppression. But…what about the people society empowers at our expense? We call that privilege…We want you to join us in challenging the systems that privilege some people and oppress others.”
The lens of power
The trend is most visible during social media outrage at sociopolitical events. It’s particularly associated with universities, and its philosophical foundations are being taught in postmodern social science departments.
Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of The Righteous Mind (Penguin) is concerned: “By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviourist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist; I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem,” he said in a lecture to the Manhattan Institute last year.
“[Now] many students are given just one lens – power…Every situation is analysed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence.”
The movement is affecting debate and dialogue inside the Church. Rachel Held Evans, a popular feminist blogger in the USA, regularly uses the new language of identity politics. For example, she said recently of the conservative Together for the Gospel conference (that only had male speakers): “They need to repent of their patriarchal exclusion of women…repent of their glorification of celebrity pastors, repent of their tokenizing & sidelining of people of colour, repent of their hateful words against LGBT people.”
Christians who use the language of identity politics see addressing oppression as part of their faith. “Jesus saved my life and feminism made sense of my life,” said Natalie Collins, a prominent Christian feminist based in the UK. “Having previously been subjected to abuse, this helped me understand why men choose to be abusive. To give up feminism would mean I don’t believe we can make a difference to men’s violence.”
The movement has given a voice to frustration and alienation. Last year the well-known Christian rapper Lecrae, who had been popular in Reformed evangelical circles with supporters such as American pastor and author John Piper, criticised “white evangelicalism”. Speaking on the Truth’s Table podcast he said: “You know, our faith has been colonised and stripped away and made to be very western and Eurocentric. And that’s one of the ways I wanted to be an activist is to say: no, no, no, you can’t have that.”
The potential consequences are enormous. “What Lecrae’s departure symbolizes is the beginnings of what could be another great schism in the church, but this time, it will not be for doctrinal issues,” said Raymond Chang, from the Chaplain’s Office at Wheaton College, in an article for Christianity Today. “Instead, it will be for cultural reasons that have long benefited one group, while burdening another.”
Our faith has been colonised and stripped away and made to be very western and eurocentric- Lecrae
For some Christians, the new movement has given an essential voice to buried hurt and frustration about injustice they have seen and experienced. Carlos A. Rodriguez, on his blog Happy Sonship, said that the support of Donald Trump by some Christians led him to realise he had not spoken out enough. “Jesus abandoned his privilege for the sake of the under-privileged,” he wrote. “And now it’s our turn. This is the gospel I want to preach (and live). But I lost the plot in the midst of a western version of Christianity that is mostly white and mostly rich.”
However, Amin Maalouf, a French-Lebanese cultural Christian, argues that identity can be a slippery concept and a potentially dangerous game. “It’s difficult to say where legitimate affirmation of identity ends and encroachment on the rights of others begins,” he wrote in his book On Identity. “It starts by reflecting a perfectly permissible aspiration, then before we know where we are it has become an instrument of war.
“The transition from one meaning to the other is imperceptible, almost natural and sometimes we all just go along with it. We are denouncing injustice, we are defending the rights of a suffering people – then the next day we find ourselves accomplices in a massacre.”
Injustice, both perceived and real, is getting more scrutiny than ever before. But does it have to be done through this new identity politics lens?
The popular Canadian psychology professor and bestselling author of 12 Rules for Life (Allen Lane) Jordan B. Peterson describes the new movement as cultural Marxism, and argues that it predisposes adherents to aggression and conflict. Marx said the working class is being oppressed by the rich, and must win through “class struggle”, ending with the violent overthrow of the ruling class. The new identity politics, critics say, often uses the same narrative but for ‘identity’ rather than class.
If this is the inspiration, it needs careful examination. “[Marxism] certainly has no place in the church,” says Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, USA, who argues for Christians to resist oppressive structures, and who attends social justice marches in a ‘peacemaking’ capacity. “As followers of Jesus, we are to be free of the greed and class envy that Marxism presupposes…and, it’s worth noting, that are also driving forces in Capitalistic economies.”
Another assumed driving force is anger. An interesting artwork by Alex Bertulis Fernandes – popular on Twitter – entitled Dial Down the Feminism, features a dial with ‘raging feminist’ on one side, ‘complicit in my own dehumanisation’ on the other, as if they are the only two options available.
Can we accurately judge what is injustice and what is not, in such a state of rage? And even if we can, is this acceptable when following Christ?
“I do think there are better alternate ways to fight injustice [than identity politics] and have pushed a model of conversation rather than confrontation as it concerns racial issues,” says Prof Yancey.
“A focus on our own identity [means] we can forget about the needs of those of other identities. This leads to seeking solutions that only address our own needs. When everyone in the society starts doing that then you get the sort of polarization you see here in the United States.”
Could the precepts of identity politics actually lead to a more unjust and divided world? “It diminishes my God-given individuality and makes me beholden to an external group-think and idea,” says Chabe. “Personal responsibility and accountability are diminished and it turns me into a perpetual victim.
“Identity politics does encourage you to hate. That’s when you know it can’t be of God. You can’t allow that sort of thought...you have to love people even if you have gripes about OF MY LIFE [them].”
Some former feminists make similar points. “At one point in my life I became so self-reliant and secretly angry with men, I let myself believe men never hurt as bad as women,” says Tracy Keen on the rickthomas.net blog. “Then while on a trip to Africa, God changed my perspective as I met a young man who had been horribly abused as a child by his female teacher.
“Immediately I wanted to compare my hurt to his and prove to him that what I had been through was worse, but in the end, when I heard his story, I was reminded that women can be just as hurtful to people as men. I was utterly humbled…I had placed women on a pedestal and made them out to be better than men, in short, less sinful than men…this lie will only lead to further hurt and destruction in your life.”
A glossary for the confused
Written with help from Suffolk University Boston Social Justice Terminology webpage and the everydayfeminism.com website.
Collusion Thinking and acting in ways that support dominant systems of power, privilege, and oppression.
Intersectionality How the different axes of social groups interact. For example, comparing the experience of someone who is black, middle class and female with someone who is white, working class and male.
Oppression Claimed to be systemic and part of group consciousness, as well as individual acts, that disadvantage certain social groups.
No platforming When a speaker refuses to share a platform with another speaker at a talk or debate, due to disagreeing with their beliefs.
Patriarchy The particular social system that is claimed to benefit men (those that benefit other groups include white supremacy, heterosexism, cissexism and classism). Privilege The alleged benefits of not being a member of an oppressed group. Social Justice Warrior (SJW) A term for a person involved in the new movement, though it is often used pejoratively by critics.
Woke A state of being aware of social justice issues. The word is commonly used to refer to being aware of subjects related to racial identity.
Before Christians become too critical, however, we need to take a good look at the log in our own eye. Have we adopted the tactics of identifying as victims?
“Often the Church fights its own corner, we play our identity politics card too early in the conversation, we speak up for ourselves earlier than others who are oppressed,” says author and theologian Krish Kandiah. “We see only our struggle.”
Jesus saved my life and feminism made sense of my life
Some Christians believe their faith must involve ‘turning over tables’ and political action to address social injustice. Others point to Jesus’ submission to the ruling authorities, and injunctions to turn the other cheek, not to judge nor be angry. Clearly, there’s a debate needed across the divide.
Dr Andrew Davies at the University of Birmingham argues that the narrative of the culture wars isn’t the theological foundation. “God’s love for the created world would be the starting point,” he says. “These people are people and so we need to make sure they experience the love of Christ…I wouldn’t encourage conflict. I would point to Paul’s injunction: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
With identity issues all over the news, and dominant in universities, this subject isn’t going to go away. Our young people need guidance. Moreover, in the Church the threatening schisms are often related to identity politics: race, colonial history and cultural issues such as gay marriage and the role of women. As a Church, we urgently need to have a debate that transcends the rhetoric, and considers how to respond to this changing political world.
Heather Tomlinson is a freelance writer