Social Justice Ideology vs. Peacemaking

This distinction between social justice ideology and peacemaking is an interesting one that’s been brought to my attention recently through returning to some of Walter Brueggemann‘s work.  Obviously, social justice is a good thing.  As ideology, however — that is, as an ossified concept or immaterial absolute — its truth and goodness is cheapened.  Usually this happens when we pursue social justice solely by mechanical and rhetorical means. In doing so, we neglect aesthetics and appeal narrowly to a quantifiable distribution of goods, rights, laws, or to universal abstract ideals like freedom an equality — without embodied community, neighborliness or celebration of beauty and creativity.

Social justice ideology is depersonalized and lacks self-awareness.  It also tends to lack hope.  It merely identifies injustice and gets angry.  Basically, it’s pure judgment, which means it’s lazy.  Social justice ideology, much like conservative ideology, says we are right, you are wrong, and never relinquishes that condescending posture.  Richard Niebuhr called this henotheism.

Peacemaking on the other hand goes something like this:

Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity.  it is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice.  It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.  Peacemaking is about being able to recognize in the face of the oppressed our own faces, and in the hands of the oppressors our own hands.

Peacemaking, like most beautiful things, begins small.  Matthew 18 gives us a clear process for making peace with someone who has hurt or offended us; first we are to talk directly with them, not at them or around them . . . Straight talk is counter-cultural in a world that prefers politeness to honesty.  In his Rule, Benedict of Nursia speaks passionately about the deadly poison of “murmuring,” the negativity and dissension that can infect community and rot the fabric of love.

Peacemaking begins with what we can change — ourselves.  But it doesn’t end there.  We are to be peacemakers in a world riddled with violence.  That means interrupting violence with imagination, on our streets and in our world. Peacemaking “that is not like any way the empire brings peace” is rooted in the nonviolence of the cross, where we see a Savior who loves his enemies so much that he died for them.

— From A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

In sum, peacemaking is neither Fight nor Flight, but something altogether different.

According to Walter Wink, Flight consists of submission, passivity, withdrawal or surrender.  Conversely, Fight looks like armed revolt, violent rebellion, direct retaliation or revenge.  The neither/nor alternative is as follows:

• Seize the moral initiative
• Find a creative alternative to violence
• Assert your own humanity and dignity
as a person
• Meet force with ridicule or humor
• Break the cycle of humiliation
• Refuse to submit or to accept the
inferior position
• Expose the injustice of the system
• Take control of the power dynamic
• Shame the oppressor into repentance
• Stand your ground
• Make the Powers make decisions for which
they are not prepared
• Recognize your own power
• Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
• Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
• Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a
show of force is effective
• Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking
unjust laws
• Die to fear of the old order and its rules

A similar lesson seems to have recently been learned by protagonist and lead female actor Emily VanCamp‘s character Emily Thorne in an episode last week of the hit ABC television drama series Revenge.


I’m interested to see how this season plays out and hope to reflect on it some when it’s over.  In short though, she’s dedicated practically her whole life to an elaborate scheme aimed at avenging her father’s unjust death and public shame, which was carried out through a complex cover-up and legal scandal that left a number of pernicious perpetrators off the hook.  It’s too early to tell for sure, but it looks like Emily could be making the difficult but transformative journey from eye-for-an-eye ideology to real peacemaking.

2 thoughts on “Social Justice Ideology vs. Peacemaking

  1. Guy J

    Good one, Bill. I liked this quote from a quote: “act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer”. I encounter this concept in several places… one area where humans go off the rails and “violate the natural laws” (as some call it) is when they go to existential war against others rather than merely resisting, defending, competing, or perhaps best of all, making peace.

    My kids are studying ancient history these days and the Code of Hammurabi. From this story they already have a good sense of the limits of social justice, particularly as you describe it in ideological form: Ultimately it’s not much better than “an eye for an eye”, which was one of Hammurabi’s most memorable. The kids caught on to the problems with that quickly.

    Another point you made which I really liked is that social justice is almost entirely based in continual judgment zealously applied. Finite beings could never get judgment quite right, and so one righted wrong always produces another wrong itself. In the social justice model, this avalanche of wrongs only stops when the participants get too worn out to care any more. Not a good way to gauge social action.

    Finally I really like how you point to aesthetic considerations, and it’s within that context which I would also point out that social justice gets much of its justification from the idea of equality. But equality is not something which emerges naturally in the world, nor does it in fact exist anywhere. So it is not an appropriately realistic origin for evaluating ethical considerations. Moderating justice with some sort of appeal to the heart and deeper senses is I think more than appropriate, as you have pointed out. We’ll know where getting to the right place in our communal dealings when the right feelings of peace and respect and shared energy become pervasive.

  2. Bill Walker Post author

    Nice Guy, I think you’ve said all that better that I did or could have. I appreciate the feedback and interaction here. Yeah, I struggle a lot with this one, as I often find myself relapsing into social justice ideology for fear of complacency or complicity otherwise… so it’s a good reminder. It’s also a challenge just to get myself thinking outside of the box about how to respond to injustice in creative, personal, and healing rather than merely “right” ways — and then actually doing some of that stuff rather than just thinking about it! 🙂

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