Few groups have acted with as much moral passion and energy during these past years as have the various social justice groups within the church and within society.

From church basements, from the offices of Greenpeace, from feminist circles, from anti-war protestors, from pro­life and pro-choice rallies and from many other places, there has issued forth a moral energy and challenge that few can be deaf to or can choose to ignore.

But… there has been more energy than impact. Save for a few salient exceptions to do with racism and feminism, the mainstream culture has been able to marginalize both the groups and their concerns.

This wouldn’t be so much a cause for concern, given that the prophetic message is always marginalized and “the world” is habitually opposed to Christ, except that, in this case, too many people of good conscience find themselves able to write off most of the concerns of social justice groups.

Why is this? Why after more than 20 years of such effort, has social justice, for the main part, been unable to crack the mainstream conscience? Why, after all this effort, are we unable often times even to crack the conscience of our own families?

The simplistic answer of course is that mainstream, culture and conscience are simply insincere, greedy, hard of heart and too caught up with their own selfish concerns to be open to prophetic challenge. While there is some truth in that, this answer is far from the whole truth.

The whole truth is that social justice action in both church and civic circles, with hardly an exception, has been perennially plagued and depotentiated by its own inherent flaws. Social justice has not gone mainstream because, too often, even while it contained the truth, it undercut its own credibility. Why do I say this?

Because of the limitation of space, I can do little more than name some of the major reasons here:

  • The failure of social justice to centre itself in something beyond the ideology of either the left or the right and to cloak itself in charity.

Far too often the challenge that is presented is not grounded so much in the Gospel or in charity, as it is in liberal or conservative criticism. What’s at stake then is not so much justice or Christ’s option for the poor as somebody’s ideology. People can, in clear conscience, walk away from this.

  • The failure of social justice to be healthily self-critical, to check its own strident voices and to make judgments beyond ideological black and white.

Until we, as social justice advocates, are able, when it is proper, to criticize our own, to check strident voices within our own ranks, to stop being ideologically simplistic in our judgments about who is right and who is wrong, and until we become less predictable in our rhetoric and indignations, we will never capture the mainstream conscience.

  • The failure of social justice to be realistic in proposing justice and eco-ethics.

The failure, during the Gulf War, of many of the anti-war protestors to take seriously the evil of Saddam Hussein did a lot to make the war­ makers themselves look like heroes of conscience. The failure of many persons who are militantly defending the environment to take seriously enough the fact that we also have nearly four billion people on this planet who too need to live, is a major reason why we do not yet have an eco-ethics that governments will actually buy into.

The failure of many of us who preach social justice to take seriously enough the tyranny of affluence against which most people in the First World find themselves helpless is no small factor in actually helping maintain the status quo. When the challenge to justice isn’t realistic enough, mainstream conscience can, in good conscience, ignore it.

  • The failure of social justice to resist the temptation to be selective regarding justice issues, our failure to truly present “an ethical seamless garment.”

When people fighting for certain rights refuse, at the same time, to take other rights seriously then good conscience will be divided from good conscience—as we see, for example, in the abortion debate where two justice issues are pitted against each other.

  • The failure to take seriously contemplation, aesthetics and joy.

Doris Lessing once said that she left the Communist Party because it didn’t believe in color. That speaks volumes and is a commentary on the drabness, colorlessness, over-sensitivity and simple heaviness that too often surrounds social justice circles. Small wonder we can be so easily written off!