Social Justice in Zion
Social justice has become a politically fraught and loaded term, but what exactly is meant by social justice? The United Nations defines social justice as “social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth” while the National Association of Social Workers defines the term slightly different as: “social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.” Those who propel this movement forward are called social justice warriors. This term first appears to describe Reverend John A. Ryan who advocated for labor reform. However, this term has taken on a derogatory meaning due to the problematic approach to social justice by many of its adherents.
Let’s go back to the definitions I referenced: the difference between them matters. The first definition considers the “distribution of the fruits of economic growth” as necessary to social justice. The next question would be the distribution by whom and the natural answer appears to be the government. The second definition speaks to the goal of creating equal rights and opportunities. Social Justice Warriors often latch onto the first definition to create and propagate their ideology. Rebecca Taylor and others have outlined issues with the social justice movement. I do see the social justice movement as presently constituted as diametrically opposed to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, but do not want to reinvent the wheel here. My central issues with the social justice movement revolve around agency, self-reliance, and marginalized individuals being stereotyped because of the nature of the movement. However, too often in opposing the social justice movement, no alternative by Christians is offered, which leads to the belief that Christians do not really care about the marginalized. Notably, Public Square put forth an excellent set of principles to guide Latter-day Saint thinking on these issues. I agree with much of this piece and would like to expand on the thoughts expressed here while speaking about specific issues.
First, I propose that the definition of social justice for Latter-day Saints can be summed up in the fulfillment of this verse of scripture in 2 Nephi 26:33: “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denied none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” Similarly, the apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In Galatians 3, we understand that baptism enables us to “put on Christ” and enter into the body of believers.
The social justice movement as presently constituted emphasizes identities such as race, gender, or those derived from sexuality as of tantamount importance. I do believe that certain identities hold importance, but at the same time, we see that in Galatians, baptism allows us to find our central identity in Jesus Christ. After all, we are sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father who sent His only begotten Son to redeem us. In the words of Elder Cook, “The Savior’s ministry and message have consistently declared all races and colors are children of God.” This is true. And it is also true that identity has contributed to and caused the marginalization of people at various times throughout history. We cannot deny that. In the words of my friend Tarik, “we cannot defend the indefensible.” I see no reason to defend the negative aspects of history and I do find it productive to point them out because those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.
Similarly, we have a responsibility to point out injustices when we see it today. I find that many fellow conservatives refuse to point out injustices in avoidance of buying into “woke, progressive bullsh*t” in the words of a friend who did just that. But again, when approaching issues of social justice, we cannot defend the indefensible. The reality of life is some people harbor racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and those manifest in behavior and speech. But where I disagree with the social justice movement centers around intersectionality. I define racism, sexism, and homophobia as hating someone because they are of a different race, sex, or because they identify as LGBT+. These attitudes do exist and while I believe that the social justice movement seeks to attach more than my definition to the terms racism, sexism, and homophobia, I do not believe we have anything to gain by denying their existence. My friend’s blog offers quality resources on racism, specifically geared towards Latter-day Saints in a way that I think can help us develop more empathy. Empathy is a useful tool to motivate us towards actions.
Denying their existence is patently false and also leads to the idea that Latter-day Saints do not have to lift a finger to help anyone. This is also patently false. Within scriptures we read (Matthew 25:31–36, 40): “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me…And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” We cannot use disagreements with the social justice movement to allow us to not care about the poor and the marginalized. King Benjamin counsels in Mosiah 4:26: “impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.”
Poverty impacts so many so deeply and so does racism, sexism, and homophobia. Hating individuals or even merely not caring about those who experience these evils inhibits our ability to become one in Christ and often inhibits an individual’s ability to accept the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Specifically with those who experience same-sex attraction, we must acknowledge that their feelings are valid as Elder Christofferson said: “one thing that is always important is to recognize the feelings of a person, that they are real. That they are authentic. That we don’t deny that someone feels a certain way.” Recognizing the reality of feelings and the reality of harmful attitudes becomes the first step in aiding social justice. What this does not mean, however, is that we do not have to access whether or not circumstances are actually harmful. Too often when we encourage others to listen to each other, we define that as listening, validating, and agreeing with the person, when in reality, our call is listen and acknowledge that this person has real feelings. Feelings are authentic. However, in the case of racism, sexism, homophobia, et al., this does not mean that every time someone feels like it has occurred, that it has occurred. Nevertheless, we still need to acknowledge the real feelings that an individual has. This is the first step.
The second step is to follow advice of President Oaks on this matter: “There is no change in the Church’s position of what is morally right. But what is changing — and what needs to change — is helping Church members respond sensitively and thoughtfully when they encounter same-sex attraction in their own families, among other Church members, or elsewhere.” Someone’s race, same-sex attraction, economic status, and gender does not determine whether or not they are a child of God, they are a child of God. It also does determine how you should treat them. In the words of James Montgomery: “He spake, and my poor name he named, “Of me thou hast not been ashamed, These deeds shall thy memorial be; Fear not, thou didst them unto me.” When determining how to treat other fellow brothers and sisters, perhaps the best question to ask is would I do this to Jesus Christ?
Specifically, in the case of same-sex attraction, we have received apostolic counsel to respond sensitivity and thoughtfully to those who experience this. I find Kwaku El’s statement helpful: “progressive Mormonism will “mourne with those who mourne” you right out of a testimony.” We have covenanted to mourn with our fellow brothers and sisters, but as Kwaku underscores, this is not the totality of our covenants. Our covenants call us to stand as representations of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ’s teachings include chastity and striving for temple marriage. We read in Alma 38:12: “bridle all passions, that [we] may be filled with love.” We cannot allow our convictions to temple marriage being the standard of God to permit mocking of those who experience same-sex attraction. The Church advises us to be sensitive, to encourage righteousness, but also to validate feelings. We cannot let any part of the equation go missing.
With respect to race and sex, the same counsel applies. Responding sensitively and thoughtfully to those who experience racism and sexism will enable us to reach out to them in love with correct doctrine. President Nelson has said: “I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.” Respect is required of us for all children of God. The second step for Latter-day Saints, then, becomes being more respectful and sensitive to people different than us. Mocking individuals because of their race, sex, and/or same-sex attraction is false and should not be a reaction to the social justice movement.
The third and perhaps the most important step is to follow the example of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for how to create social justice. I do oppose many measures of the social justice movement because I believe the following: 1) people of all races have all abilities (abilities are not determined by race, but often by circumstances), 2) our outcomes should differ because of our agency not because of our freedom (for an excellent discussion on the difference between freedom and agency, see the footnoted talk), 3) I believe in more individual responsibility than I do in governmental responsibility (quite frankly, I see a lot of activism as a way to negate personal responsibility to minister to the sick, visit those in prisons, etc. because a lot will advocate for the government to change instead of being the change themselves and encouraging others to change), 4) ignoring that the unborn are a critical part of the fight for social justice and that there is a mass human rights violation with the fact that elective abortion is legalized and becoming increasingly normalized, 5) self-reliance is not emphasized to the degree that it should be true.
True social justice takes the form that the Church demonstrates. The Church has compiled a website for those who experience same-sex attraction and emphasizes kindness, civility, respect while at the same time reaffirming the doctrine of Christ. Being kind and demonstrating respect to God’s children is just as important as the doctrine of Christ. The Church regularly feeds the hungry with the Bishop’s storehouse and many other measures, but also has developed a self-reliance program to encourage those who need to advance economically to have the resources to do so. Our role in encouraging social justice is not to be center-stage, but “to teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” as Joseph Smith said. I believe that people of any race, any gender, anyone who experience same-sex attraction have the ability to keep the commandments of God, to recognize their inherent divinity, and to lead a good and prosperous life provided that they have the opportunity to do so. The reality is that some grow up impoverished, some grow up without a good education, some believe that their gender or attraction inhibits their ability to keep the commandments of God, and as a Christian, our social justice efforts should focus on empowering those around us to be better individuals and to help them help themselves.
We do not take a backseat in these efforts, but we walk alongside those who need resources to advance themselves. We can be the person who drives someone to their job interviews, who helps someone figure out financial aid for college, who drops off groceries for those struggling, who gives what we have, our time and talents, to encourage others to develop their own talents. We can befriend the pregnant teenager instead of just shouting that abortion is wrong. We can listen to the struggles of a woman in the Church, acknowledge that her feelings are real, and show how womanhood in Jesus Christ is empowering. We do not want to be white saviors, we want to bring out the best in people. The goal of Latter-day Saint social justice should not be to emphasize differences, but rather become one in Jesus Christ. In a similar way that man and woman, different in gender with different roles in the kingdom of heaven, become one through the union of marriage, we become one through Jesus Christ, even though we are different.
We need to parse out what is actual racism, sexism, homophobia, and other negative attitudes to address issues, but we need to show compassion to those who feel they have experienced it. We need to identify social justice issues such as poverty, lack of education, abortion (this is an often forgotten issue), etc., but we need to make our activism about empowering others to advance themselves instead of gratifying ourselves. We need to do more for one another, we need to visit the sick, feed the hungry, visit those in prison — we need to take the scriptural directives literally instead of just advocating for the government to do it. Some have made the government their god and scapegoat instead of following the actual advice of God. It’s fine to advocate for policies that encourage equal opportunity (I believe strongly in this, actually), but the social justice movement largely neglects personal responsibility and also, advocates equality of outcome, which is inherently and definitionally Satanic. In other words, we need to be more authentic disciples of Jesus Christ because at the end of the day, true social justice comes in Zion not in Babylon.
 Purcell, Richard J. “John A. Ryan: Prophet of Social Justice.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 35, no. 138 (1946): 153.