“Let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” ~ Amos 5:24
Pitcairn is a South Pacific island that was made famous by a group of mutineers that landed on its volcanic shores in the late 18th century. On April 28, 1789, twenty crew members of the British warship HMS Bounty rebelled and set their commander, William Bligh, adrift in a lifeboat. The account has been told many times and glamourized by the 1962 film The Mutiny on the Bounty that chronicles the subsequent life of the maritime fugitives.
Debarked on Pitcairn, the mutineers set fire to the Bounty and settled on what seemed like Paradise. Unfortunately, social unrest soon followed when the unprincipled sailors increasingly mistreated the island’s Polynesian inhabitants. Alcoholism, jealousy, sexual abuse, theft, and murder finally led the indigenous population to revolt. As a result, within four years of the crew’s arrival, all but one, John Adams, was killed. Ostracized and living alone, the lone mutineer discovered and began studying a Bible that had been fortuitously salvaged from the Bounty. Accepting its life-saving words, Adams used the tattered text to gradually teach the island’s inhabitants how to read, write, and treat each other with love and respect.
In 1808, the unassuming colony of Pitcairn was discovered by the USS Topaz whose landing crew was amazed to discover thirty-five English-speaking Polynesians governed by an orderly civic lifestyle. While historians continue to debate the cause, it seems that the major factor was the conversion of the Pitcairns by Adams to the servant-centered principles of the Bible. The result was by no means perfect, but the community was, nonetheless, characterized by a scriptural praxis of social justice.
Unlike the remote South Pacific island of Pitcairn, the 4th Century city of Antioch was noted for its powerful emperors and wealthy patrons who donated money to build extravagant dwellings, paint colorful frescoes, and chisel epic marble statues. The cosmopolitan city flaunted its power and wealth by plating their walls and rooftops with gold. Even the city’s domed Christian cathedral was called the “Golden House.” Yet amid this self-adorning philosophy, a charismatic hierarch who would later become Archbishop of Constantinople, earned the moniker “Chrysostom” (“Golden-Mouthed”), not for his wealth, but for his passionate homilies and teachings that, like Adams, convincingly inspired the city’s inhabitants to adopt a scriptural praxis of social justice.
Unlike his political counterparts, Bishop John warned that the “withholding of wealth from the poor was theft.” As Chrysostom believed that all Christians were “self-ordained priests to the poor,” he taught that all that were so charitably inclined, “entered into the greater Holy of Holies, offering sacrifices on a greater altar, built by God himself, composed of human souls.” As a result of his courageous servant-centered leadership, Chrysostom inspired the inhabitants of Antioch to use their Churches as hostels for travelers and the homeless, to establish hospitals for those with incurable illnesses, and to create a registry of support services for the poor and widowed.
While contextually distinctive, the social justice legacies of Chrysostom and Adams should inspire the nation’s theological schools and seminaries to develop teachers and future religious leaders who may, in turn, become society’s “golden voices” of scriptural conscience. Today’s poor, homeless, mistreated, and marginalized still need “golden-mouth” defenders. Contemporary schools of higher theological education should, therefore, nurture graduates who are willing and able to inspire their respective “Pitcairns” to appropriately emulate Christ’s examples of love, charity, and servanthood.
The previous seven commentaries of the series entitled, Transfiguring Theological Education, have utilized various official publications of the Association of Theological Schools in America (ATS) to help the nation’s theological academies identify ways of overcoming the fiscal, administrative, and pedagogical challenges that currently threaten their survival. This essay will continue this pattern by examining how theological schools and seminaries can intentionally integrate the leadership praxis of social justice into their degree programs, curricula, and field education requirements.
The General Standards (2015) of ATS recommends that Christian institutions of theological higher learning in America adhere to an administrative typology of eight benchmarks: (1) purpose, planning, and evaluation, (2) identity, (3) curriculum, learning, teaching, and research, (4) library and information resources, (5) faculty, (6) student recruitment, admission, service, and placement, (7) authority and governance, and (8) institutional resources. The Third General Standard specifically encourages theological schools to demonstrate “practices of teaching, learning, and research (theological scholarship) that encourage global awareness and responsiveness.” The Third Standard recommends the development of initiatives that “enhance the ways institutions participate in the ecumenical, dialogical, evangelistic, and,” most specifically, “social justice efforts of the church.”
There is a need for today’s seminaries and institutions of theological higher education to do a better job at equipping the nation’s future teachers and religious leaders with the knowledge, skills, and disposition to appropriately advance “the social justice efforts of the church.” According to numerous recent studies, church affiliation is declining in the United States. While membership is in decay, however, passion for social justice is significantly increasing. Research data confirms that one of the primary rallying cries of young adults is the desire to serve society’s disadvantaged. The nation’s theological schools would be wise to leverage the heart-string of this stirring!
The knowledge, skills, and disposition required to advance such a servant-centered leadership posture will include the capacities of critical reflection, integration of theological disciplines, contextual scanning, and the application of a scripture-based understanding of social justice. The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) has, consequently, suggested that its member schools provide classes, programs, and degrees on social justice issues. Before such curricula can be developed, however, several questions require clarification. What is social justice? Should local religious communities make it a priority? And how can the nation’s seminaries and institutions of theological higher education contribute to its advancement?
According to recent data released by the Pew Research Center, most Americans continue to view organized religion “as a force for good in American society.” Nearly nine-in-ten adults say churches and other religious institutions “strengthen community bonds” and play “an important role in helping the poor and needy.” Unfortunately, a number of religious surveys also indicate that young adult respondents are “not satisfied” with the degree of this engagement.
Apart from promoting “mutual support and help among parishioners,” a significant conclusion of the Parish Life Study (2018) conducted by Alexei Krindatch for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America, is that young adults are especially attracted to parishes that offer a menu of social justice ministry opportunities. Unfortunately, while social justice is the vitality that is most attractive to young adults, it is, simultaneously, an area of engagement that is absent in most (80%) of the nation’s Orthodox Christian parishes. In fact, nearly every religious denomination in the country is plagued with the same deficiency.
Research data compiled by the Barna Group supports the findings of the Parish Life Study. According to the Barna Faith that Lasts Project (2013), nearly six in ten (59%) Gen-X and Gen-Y (Millennials) who grew up in Christian churches “end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life.” In addition, ethnographic research indicates the emergence of a new “social justice generation.” Generation Z (mid-1990s to mid-2000s) is a technologically savvy, online connected cohort that has an endless quest for authenticity and is highly committed to social justice issues.
According to a recent study by Entrepreneur Magazine, Gen-Z is “highly focused on social justice . . . with 60% of them wanting to have an impact on the world.” Unfortunately, while the majority (95%) of the nation’s young adult population agree that “care for the poor is mandated by the Gospel,” local Christian communities are characterized by survey respondents as “not sufficiently providing such opportunities.”
Gallup, Pew Forum, and Lifeway Research data all support the conclusions of the Barna and Krindatch studies. Young Christians in North America “are increasingly interested in justice related issues such as poverty, human trafficking, refugees, and the homeless.” Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant (evangelical and mainline) Christian respondents all confess that their “weekly church attendance rises when their local churches are actively engaged with social justice issues.” Significantly, young adults indicate that they “are more likely to retain membership” in churches that provide opportunities “to directly engage and care for the poor” in their local communities.
If the nation’s religious communities seek to retain and/or draw back the X, Y, and Z Generations, theological schools and seminaries will have to train their graduates how to identify, develop, and provide appropriate scripture-based opportunities for social justice engagement in their future vocational contexts. In so doing, they may additionally increase their enrollment with students from these cohorts. Before embarking on such an undertaking, however, an appropriate theological framework of social justice leadership should be defined and differentiated from more secular activist methodologies.
Scripture-Based Social Justice
The Greek word for “justice” (δικαιοσύνην), is a term that refers to personal righteousness. Social justice generally implies the right and reasonable conduct of such “righteous” treatment to all individuals in a given society. Aside from its more political and utilitarian expressions, theology also articulates a view of social justice and how it is appropriately manifested. Three major perspectives of social justice may consequently be identified: (1) philosophical, (2) socio/political, and (3) religious.
Five philosophical theories of social justice are generally highlighted: (1) utilitarianism, (2) self-perfectionism, (3) Marxism, (4) existentialism, and (5) libertarianism. Social movements, on the other hand, are advanced by (1) liberationist, (2) ecologist/environmentalist, and (3) human rights advocates. While “social justice” is often a buzzword phrase that carries connotations of socio/political activism, Christians have, nonetheless, long recognized that Holy Scripture exhorts the Church to defend and uphold the dignity and well-being of all persons, especially the poor, infirmed, mistreated, and marginalized. Unfortunately, while robust theologies of religious social justice are espoused by most of the world’s major religions, the influence of these inspired principles and values have not been adequately leveraged.
The Center for Economic and Social Justice, a non-profit organization located in Washington, D.C., defines social justice as “the virtue which guides in creating institutions, that when justly organized, provide access to what is good for the person, both individually and in associations with others. Social justice also imposes personal responsibility to work with others to design and continually perfect institutions as tools for personal and social development.”
Alternatively, the North American Association of Christians in Social Work (NACSW) describes social justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.” While activist and governmental organizations have traditionally promoted the fair distribution of economic goods as the primary means to promote a social justice, recent scholars argue that social justice should also be concerned with issues of self-worth, dignity and other “spiritual goods.”
The Roman Catholic Church has long expounded upon the “spiritual goods” of social justice to include scripture-based concerns. The social justice teachings of the Catholic Church are rooted in biblical principles and delineated most particularly in the encyclicals of the modern popes beginning with Leo XIII (1878-1903), continuing with Pius XI (1922-1939), John XXIII (1958-1963), Paul VI (1963-1978), John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005-2013) and through to Pope Francis (2013- ). The Vatican, in fact, has put together a very useful Compendium of the following seven primary social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.
- Life and Dignity of the Human Person
- Call to Family, Community, and Participation
- Rights and Responsibilities
- Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
- The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
- Care for God’s Creation
According to the Compendium, a scriptural-based understanding of justice “is particularly important in the present-day context where the individual value of the person, his dignity and his rights — despite proclaimed intentions — are seriously threatened by the widespread tendency to make exclusive use of criteria of utility and ownership. Justice,” insists the Compendium, “is not merely a simple human convention, because what is “just” is not first determined by the law, but by the profound identity of the human being.”
Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian tradition develops its understanding of social justice from a theological conception of the Holy Trinity. Scripture is therefore used to describe God as the “Great Philanthropos,” Jesus as the “Great Physician,” and the Holy Spirit as the “Great Comforter” (Paraclete), the One “called to the side of another.” Early Church leaders like Ignatius of Antioch, Basil the Great, and the “Golden-Mouthed” Chrysostom intertwined these three theological ideas with the notion of “diakonia” (ministry, service, comfort) that emphasized the sacramental ministries of healing, teaching, and serving the needs of the sick and the poor. In fact, apart from being “the teacher, moral guide, liturgical and spiritual guide of the community,” Chrysostom distinguished the priest as the “administrator of a system of charity for the care of strangers, support of widows, orphans and the poor.” Modeled in such a fashion after the Holy Trinity, the scripture-based understanding of social justice, uniquely characterized by its inter-personal dimensions of Christian love, of “standing on the side of another,” became the pastoral framework that helped 4th Century Christian leaders establish schools, hospitals, hospices, and other philanthropic institutions.
In 2016, the island of Crete hosted a Pan-Orthodox Council of Eastern Orthodox churches officially referred to as the Holy and Great Council. The gathering of 14 autocephalous Orthodox leaders/delegates was presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. In his article, Pondering the Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World: A Protestant Missiological Reflection of Peace and Justice (2017), Pavol Bargar, research fellow at Charles University in Prague and secretary of the Central and Eastern European Association for Mission Studies (CEEAMS), asserts that this Pan-Orthodox Council provided an invaluable contribution to the ecumenical dialogue on scripture-based understandings of mission, evangelism, and social justice.
In particular, the Pan-Orthodox Council’s document on The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World (MOCT) expands upon the Orthodox Trinitarian-based understanding of social justice by providing relevant information on: (1) dignity of the human person, (2) freedom and responsibility, (3) peace and justice, (4) peace and the aversion of war, (5) the attitude of the church toward discrimination, and (6) the mission of the Orthodox Church as a witness of love through service. “Scripture,” according to MOCT, “describes the gospel of Christ . . . the restoration of all things in Him . . . of peace, freedom, and social justice, as well as the flourishing of Christian love among people from various cultures.”
MOCT insists that the Church exists to serve people in need and should, therefore, enable cooperation with manifold social institutions. However, while the Church “must minister in the public space, including the task of feed the hungry,” the document warns, that such “diakonia” should be based on a scriptural perspective (James 2:14-18), that is “not only material but first and foremost a spiritual matter.” As such, the Great Council concluded with an appeal for the Church to practice and proclaim “the word of the cross and the love of the crucified Lord who alone has the power to give life to the world and who is the way toward peace, justice, freedom, and love.”
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) serves as the collective voice of U.S. Catholic higher education. Like ATS, the Association strengthens and promotes the Catholic identity and mission of its member institutions so that all associated with Catholic higher education can contribute to the greater good of the world and the Church. Quoting a passage from Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), the ACCU insists that the Catholic university “is called to become an ever more effective instrument of cultural progress for individuals as well as for society . . . the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the quality of personal and family life, the protection of nature, the search for peace and political stability, a more just sharing in the world’s resources, and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community.” According to Ex Corde, “if need be, a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.”
The nation’s institutions of higher theological education have both the responsibility and the opportunity to nurture this understanding in the minds, hearts, and souls of their respective graduates. As a result, a number of institutions have already begun to offer bifurcated degree programs by partnering with local colleges/universities that currently provide a variety of social work designations. Students attend both institutions concurrently and graduate with degrees from each. Such collaborations allow students to integrate a faith perspective to their social work interests thereby providing future religious leaders pastoral as well as nonprofit sector versatility. But what framework is best suited for training future religious leaders?
The most common typologies used for teaching Social Justice include: (1) Distributive/Economic, (2) Non-Profit/Social Services, (3) Activist Theory, (4) Scriptural Theology, (5) Social Contract, (6) Liberation Theology, (7) Ecological, (8) Peace/Ethics, (9) Faith-Based Model, (10) Human Rights, (11) Anthropological, (12) Eucharistic/Sacramental Model, and (13 Transformative.
In his article, Orthodox Theological Education in the 3rd Millennium (2000), Petros Vassiliadis, president of the World Conference of Associations and Theological Institutions (WOCATI), encourages theological schools to employ the Eucharistic/Sacramental model of social justice. “Theological education,” insists Vassiliadis, “can no longer be conducted in abstracto, as if its object, God, was a solitary ultimate being. It should always refer to a Triune God, the perfect expression of communion, and a direct result of the eucharistic eschatological experience; an experience which is directed toward the vision of the Kingdom, and which is centered around the communion (koinonia), thus resulting in justice, peace, abundance of life and respect to the created world.” Such “a Eucharistic vision,” continues Vassiliadis, can help theological schools “develop . . . and articulate a new paradigm to equip the whole people of God . . . an innovative, experimental, people-centered approach to knowledge and education . . . that will ensure that the processes of formation be relevant and renewing to individuals and communities of faith.”
Reminiscent of Vassiliadis, Aeiredus Rievallensis provides a number of insightful theological statements concerning a Eucharistic/Sacramental approach to social justice in his article, When is Social Justice Catholic – and When is it Not? “Social justice,” insists the pen-named anonymous Catholic essayist, “can be truly transformational only if it is sacramental.” In support of the Orthodox Christian view, Rievallensis differentiates the ecclesiological from the more secular, activist, and “de-sacralized” views of justice. “Alleviation from external oppression,” he insists, “if not supported by inner transformation of mind, leads only to a new kind of slavery. Merely to lift a man out of poverty, so that he can engage in the “good life” of selfish material acquisition, is to make him more of a slave than he was before. A secularized theory of social justice,” insists Rievallensis, “leaves no room for the transformative element, for the spiritual regeneration that the works of mercy can effect in both the worker and the object of the work.”
Unlike the Eucharistic/Sacramental theological approaches promoted by Vassiliadies and Rievallensis, the Master of Arts in Social Justice and Ethics (MASJE) is an emerging professional degree that focuses on training students how to advance a faith-based agenda of social justice through the principles and professional practices of non-profit/social services. MASJE is an ideal degree for those discerning a vocation within diverse professional settings including domestic and international religious organizations, non-profit organizations, government agencies, educational institutions, the media, and businesses. Such leadership may also include ordination or consecration as a deacon or lay minister in many denominational traditions.
Among the core courses that are offered in MASJE degree programs include: (1) History and Theories of Justice for Social Change, (2) Nonprofit Administration and Leadership, (3) Interreligious Theologies, and (4) Social Justice and the Law, (5) Ethical Foundations of Social Justice, (6) Eco-theology and Global Ethics, (7) Asceticism, and (8) Preaching for Action and Justice. MASJE graduates are often employed in the nonprofit/social services, government, education, and ministry fields.
In 2007, Steve Newcom, Founding Director of the Kaleo Center for Faith, Justice & Social Transformation at United Theological Seminary, conducted a survey to explore the intersection of theological education and social justice ministry. Newcom found that while seminaries were skilled at “talking the talk,” they had little to no practical training available for their students in social justice ministry. Change‐making techniques, practices for applying religious teachings and wisdom to contemporary social issues, and even spiritual practices that help sustain justice work were absent from most seminary courses on social justice. The following conclusions from his 125 interviews support the previous research findings.
- Although central to the life and mission of the Church, many were concerned that the Church was not living up to its calling to engage in social justice work.
- Seminary curricular offerings in the area of social justice were fragmented and primarily dependent upon the personal interests of individual faculty.
- Social justice ministry had no academic home and no established discipline.
- There was almost no attention to the practical skills of social justice ministry.
- There were no courses that equip students to educate, mobilize, enable, and lead their congregation in social justice ministry.
- Competencies required to create and sustain effective social justice ministries in specialized ministries, community, or congregational contexts were not identified.
As a result of his research, Newcom launched the Center for Public Ministry at United Seminary of the Twin Cities to advance public ministry as a practical theological ministry. He developed a typology of public ministry to provide an organizing framework to advance the body of knowledge and practice of social justice ministry. The typology reflects a paradigm shift from issues to strategies, and from knowledge to competencies. Based on his research, Newcom created a six-step methodology for doing theologically-based social transformation work, called the Social Transformation Praxis: Encounter, Educate, Advocate, Organize, Envision, Proclaim.
In his report, Educating Religious Leaders for Faith‐Rooted Justice Work (2013), Justus Baird, the Dean of Auburn Seminary in New York, defines three settings where social justice work is taught: (1) congregations with deep experience in justice work that offer an education program, (2) non‐seminary religious leadership training programs with a focus on social justice, and (3) seminaries with justice‐focused educational offerings. Like Newcom, Baird concluded that theory, unfortunately, comprises the major portion of most seminary curricula, with praxis‐based learning/reflection receiving more limited attention. “While institutions of higher theological education are deeply committed to social justice work in their mission and language, most show little commitment,” insists Baird, “to educating and equipping religious leaders with the necessary capacities or skills to carry out social justice work in congregations or other organizations.”
Finally, as a way of highlighting institutions of theological education like the aforementioned that offer innovative courses, programs, and opportunities for students seeking to engage in social justice and service work, the Center for Faith and Service at Chicago’s McCormick Seminary compiles an annual list of Seminaries that Change the World. According to Wayne Meisel, executive director of the Center for Faith and Service, “the world cannot afford seminaries to resign themselves to reduce their footprint. While theological education was primarily designed to train individuals to be leaders of the church,” exhorts the Center, “today’s seminaries are called to educate and launch leaders to have an ethical and faithful grounding in all that they do — whether within or outside of the walls of a church.”
At its core, scripture-based social justice is eucharistic and transformative, and as such, an indispensable sympathy that must be nurtured in all future teachers and religious leaders. While important, social justice should not be reduced to political/activist frameworks of tolerance, interest-group morality, and/or economic utopianism. Since authentic justice can only be transformational when it retains its sacramental nature, antinomian attitudes that falsely dichotomize the secular from the spiritual dimensions of social “diakonia” must not be advanced. On the contrary, theological education has the unique duty to wed the two. In so doing, such schools may one day find their names listed among the noteworthy Seminaries that Change the World.
In 1957, the sunken remains of the HMS Bounty were discovered in the cove of Pitcairn Island where the famous ship was burned. In fact, the Bounty’s rudder was retrieved and is now tastefully displayed in the Fiji Museum. Rather than a memorial of mutiny, however, the weather-beaten rudder serves as a testament to the redemptive power of God’s Word.
The nation’s seminaries and institutions of higher theological education have an obligation to be such rudders of scriptural transformation, strong guides that liberate pastoral creativity rather than weighty anchors that tolerate the lethargic drag of societal injustice. The message of the Gospel must, therefore, have contemporary application. Like Chrysostom’s Antioch, the sacramental altar must not be separated from today’s hospital operatory. The chalice and bread of the angels must be joined to the plastic plates of the hunger pantry. In the end, the local sanctuary must once again become the shelter for the nation’s marginalized and homeless. Only in this fashion can humanity – creation’s original mutineers – enjoy the Pitcairn of authentic social justice.