“Social-justice warrior” as a term of abuse

Have you heard “social-justice warrior,” or the abbreviation “SJW,” used as a term of derision? I always think, when I hear it so used, that there is no clearer way to announce that you either are unaware of or reject the Bible and its God than to use SJW as a Schimpfwort, a hate-word, a term of derision. Because anyone who has read the Bible knows that YHWH is a warrior, and that what YHWH fights for is often social justice. Certainly this is the case in Deuteronomy, which I am currently reading, and in Exodus (where the phrase “YWHW is a warrior” occurs in the Song of Moses, Exodus 15:3), and in the Deuteronomistic History, and in the prophets, and in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, and in the letter of James.

How could a faithful follower of the God of the Bible not aspire to be, above all else in public life, a social-justice warrior? How could a reader and believer of the Bible not see every social-justice warrior, to the extent of their faithfulness as a SJW, as a servant of God and follower of the way of Jesus? How could any biblically oriented person, upon feeling the impulse to take up and repeat the derisive use of “SJW” by the mockers and scorners, not reflexively choke on the words and fall face-down on the ground in horrified recognition of such a close brush with apostasy and blasphemy?

The main problem with right-wing religious folk in the USA is not that they want to impose a biblical worldview on our political order. It is that they do not.


When I posted the above thoughts on Facebook, a friend replied that she agrees that the Bible impels us toward social justice. The rejection by conservative Christians of “social justice” as an alien concept is owing to their experience of churches in which social justice has been substituted for preaching the gospel.

Good point. So let me clarify:

For the preacher speaking in the church, social justice must always only be promoted as a “how shall we then live?” consequence of the character of God as revealed in the whole of scripture and supremely in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Proclamation of the gospel of God, not atheological political activism, is the mission of the church.

But it should be the whole gospel, including both grounds in the saving acts of God and consequences in the lives of the saved.

That means that for the Christian speaking in the public sphere, faced with the choice between promoting social justice or promoting or acceding to social injustice, the Christian-realist option is to advocate for social justice, allying with any and all who advocate for social justice on any grounds, Christian or not. (In H. Richard Niebuhr’s term, this would be the choice of Reformed and Catholic traditions that see Christ either transforming culture or completing culture.)

The Christian-quietist or Christian-separatist option is to say nothing about social justice. I think this stance is theologically defective, but I can understand it as a Christian option. I regard those who make this choice as “weaker brothers” whose inadequate hermeneutic results in defective discipleship, but their discipleship can be sincere and godly within its limitations.

But the third option—actively opposing social justice, even to the point of mocking and reviling those (Christian or non-Christian) who actively promote it—is frankly anti-Christian. It is the voice emanating not from the empty tomb but from the whited sepulcher.

My perception is that the new thing that is emerging from the ashes of evangelicalism and the stagnant waters of liberalism is a church that understands that the gospel can be neither grounds without consequences nor consequences without grounds.


P.S. Another concern that might be raised is that in the Old Testament YHWH as warrior not only rescues Israel from oppression but also then pivots (everyone’s favorite word now) to send Israel into a genocidal holy war again peoples whom Israel is meant to kill and disinherit. This is indeed a problem. But it is a different problem. For a description of ways in which biblical interpreters and theologians have grappled with it, see Charlie Trimm’s excellent new little book, The Destruction of the Canaanites.

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