By Levi Secord
Meaninglessness. This is the legacy of relativism in society. It pervades just about every area of life—especially morality. In Losing Our Virtue, David Wells observes, “The problem is that our talk is now empty.” He is referring to the meaninglessness of our conservations about right and wrong. We like to discuss morality, but that talk doesn’t carry any weight within it. It is hollow and worthless because we reject universal truth. When we talk about morality, it is really just a discussion about personal preferences. While this may be entertaining, it is ultimately as pointless as debating your favorite food.
David Wells argues that the impact of relativism is seen most in how we talk. Gone is any talk about virtues, as they have been replaced with values. This may seem innocent enough, but virtues are measured by a universal standard generally rooted in God and his word. Virtues are universal and thus to be pursued by everyone. Conversely, values are purely subjective. Each individual has his own preferences, and these preferences cannot be forced upon anyone else. In such a world, any talk about right and wrong is meaningless. To put it plainly, personal values have no meaning precisely because they are relative to the individual. We see this even in the church as local congregations promote their own core values.
The exchange of virtues for values has also contributed to the rise of social justice in two ways. First, we do not have the categories to think biblically about justice. This leaves us susceptible to distortions. Second, despite rejecting virtues, we have a deep-seated need to feel virtuous, so we go looking for righteousness somewhere besides God. The church is not immune to these trends; this past week we saw the SBC tepidly endorsing intersectionality and critical race theory as acceptable analytical tools. Such an endorsement is alarming as these two philosophies are the sledge-hammers of the anti-Christian worldviews of cultural Marxism and the Social Justice movement. In order to respond properly to this threat, Christians need to understand how losing our virtue has led us to this point.
Universal & Particular Justice
The Bible and classic literature use the term justice in two distinct ways.[i] First, there is particular justice, which is the righting of a wrong in a particular case. This is how we generally use the term today. Second, there is universal justice, which is the virtue of an individual. To be a just man is to be virtuous, righteous, and upright. Justice was a personal virtue all people were to pursue. So there is one use of justice which refers to righting a wrong, and there is another which refers to personal virtue.
Since virtue has been banished from our public dialogue, we often miss the Bible’s teaching on justice. Some Christians read passages which promote the virtue of justice and interpret them as commands for particular justice, such as righting a wrong. In this way, social justice subtly creeps into the church because we do not understand the concept of justice as a virtue.
For example, God commands generosity to the poor. Traditionally, Christians would have understood this as a form of universal justice. Obeying this command displayed the character of the individual. The virtue of justice requires a man to value others more than his possessions because everyone is made in the image of God. To give to the needy is to practice the virtue of universal justice. It isn’t righting a wrong.
Advocates for social justice fail to recognize this vital distinction. Instead, the existence of poverty is considered a sign of injustice. To give to the poor becomes a righting of a wrong, a practice of particular justice. In the end, such thinking inverts true justice by violating the rights of others, often through governmental theft. Social justice ends up valuing a person’s possessions more than the actual person. This is how passages which promote the virtue of justice are hijacked to bring about injustice. Without a proper understanding of the two types of justice, Christians are left susceptible to socialistic pontificating.
Our Search for Virtue
Relativism’s death-grip on the West has tightened as values replace virtue. Despite rejecting God’s universal standard, mankind still longs to feel virtuous because God made us with this need and we can’t escape his world. As a society, we begin frantically searching for righteousness because our personal values leave us so dissatisfied. The individual self was never meant to serve as a foundation for morality. The search has not lead back to God, but to group identities as formulated by identity politics.
People now find their virtue through intersectionality, which is the idea of belonging to different “marginalized” or “oppressed” groups. For social justice warriors, righteousness is found in group identities. The self is replaced with the group. Gone is any idea of universal justice and the virtue of the individual. In its place, the group replaces both the individual and God as the standard for both virtue and justice. So virtue is found through virtue-signaling, that is, by aligning yourself with the proper oppressed group. Without an external standard of right and wrong, both virtues and the individual are lost.
By turning to the group, intersectionality sacrifices the individual and his rights at the altar of relativism. In such a system, there is no foundation for justice because individual rights are muzzled to advance the narratives of anointed classes. In such a system, there is no foundation for virtue because there is no universal standard. Without God’s standard, justice becomes a pursuit of power. Justice is then defined by taking the power of one group and giving it to another. Anything is allowed in this system in order to achieve this idea of social justice.
In this way, social justice leads to manifest injustice wherever it goes. There is no universal standard for right and wrong, so there is no way to achieve real virtue. There is no respect for individuals, so there is no way to have particular justice. Justice is hollowed out and becomes meaningless, just like our talk. Any idea of individuals retaining God-given inalienable rights becomes unthinkable.
This is exactly where the social justice movement fails. It values the group over and against the rights of the individual. It promotes the narrative of the group to the detriment of the truth of individual cases. Favoring anointed classes inevitably leads to oppression of both individuals and groups. To put it plainly, social justice does not value the individual poor person as an image-bearer of God, but instead, it values the status of the class identified as poor. Social justice feigns to care for African Americans: not as individuals who are made in the image of God, but as a grieved class whose agenda must gain influence. Social justice devalues and dehumanizes individuals for the sake of the cause. It becomes a pursuit of power through unjust means. This is the inevitable result of trying to base virtue, justice, and morality on anyone besides the eternal God of Scripture. There is no adequate foundation for these realities to be found in mankind.
Christians must throw off the shackles of moral relativism, identity politics, intersectionality and cultural Marxism. It is only by returning to God as our foundation that our talk can regain any meaning. Any hope we have to recover our virtue and to pursue justice remains in God alone.
[i] Ronald Nash makes this point wonderfully in Social Justice and the Christian Church, (Mott Media, 1983).
Levi J. Secord serves as a pastor at Riverview Baptist Church in West St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned a Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree. Levi, his wife, and their three boys live in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they spend their time slaying dragons.