Mae Elise Cannon. Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. $20.00 Paperback. 302 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3715-1.
Social justice is a complicated thing. On one end of the spectrum are people who have no clue the term or the concept (ill-defined) exists, and on the other end of the spectrum are people whose lives are wrapped around the concept and who are flabbergasted as to how any person, especially a “true” Christian, can live their life without living out social justice. Wherever you are along that spectrum, either yourself or where you place “most people”, the root of the issue remains: at least one person is talking about it and at least one person is doing something about it.
The goal of Mae Elise Cannon’s hearty work, Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, is to take at least that one person talking and at least that one person doing, and multiply them.
Programatically, I think this is a very good book that can be used for educational purposes in a variety of contexts. Primarily, I can see this book being used in church small group’s, undergraduate courses, and non-formal groups of people getting together who care about the world in which we find ourselves and want to do something about it. Admittedly, this book really is more of a primer on the subject; one which covers a plethora of different sub-topics and on a very small scale (about a couple pages each). Thus, if the reader is looking for more in-depth study, on say environmental ethics, one would be wise to peruse the small overview here and pursue other works that go in greater depth, discussion, and debate.
That, of course, is where we are left. While there are fine enough beginning chapters from Cannon defining the terms of social justice, the history of social justice, and so on --- the sticky thing about this whole issue (like any good issue that stands the test of time) is that there is always another side to the coin. Put most forwardly, the term “social justice” is a fine enough term in and of itself. But what does that mean? People aren’t trying to be persnickety when they ask that question. The retort of course is: Enough talking, more doing! Fair enough. But what can/should we do if we don’t talk beforehand about what to do? To put it most ironically, you don’t go to battle without a battle plan.
And this debate of what to do and what social justice is, rages on because there are always two sides to every coin. Take the most recent disaster in Haiti, the earthquake. No one is denying that something should be done. But there is apparently debate on what should be done, to what extent, and who in the world is going to pay for it. One type of persuasion along the aftormentioned spectrum wants to just get in there with their hands dirty and “do something already”. While on the other hand there are those who want to plan accordingly. In sum, some want a social justice of immediate and responsive action while others want a social justice of wisdom and planning.
Can you place yourself firmly on one side of that spectrum? Maybe, but probably not. Most of us see the Haitian earthquake and our human instinct of compassion and wanting to do something immediately kicks in. Chop chop! While the other part of us gets mad at the government for being hasty and “doing it all wrong” --- being unwise and unplanned. Do you see the problem here? This is all very human. When we see our fellow man in danger we want to help…. but we want it done right. I think there is a difficult tension there that most people don’t acknowledge or want to acknowledge.
So Cannon’s work provides for us a step in the right direction to bridge that tension. Social justice --- what does that mean and how do we go about doing it? It’s a bigger question than Cannon can answer in the book, and for the most part I don’t think that is necessarily her goal. Perhaps her goal is to get people talking about social justice, to dialogue in small groups and undergraduate courses what in the world that term means and how each one of us, as the subtitle suggests, can provide “small steps for a better world”.
Lastly, and as a personal note of concern here, as Christians we need to always remember that social justice, however defined and however practiced, is not the telos (end goal) of being a Christian. The early twentieth century brought us the “social Gospel movement” which rudimentarily explained is that which the Gospel and message of Christ is solely that our works on earth should be to assist our fellow man in their immediate and physical concerns. At first glance this seems attractive, and admittedly in college I thought very much so. But there is a danger in this social Gospel movement, which in my opinion is making a sort of comeback in the likes of “leftist Christianity” (such as people like Brian McLaren…. who coincidentally endorsed this book).
The argument rages on about Christ’s message and what bringing the Kingdom of God meant, but it is the deep concern of this reviewer that some Christians throw the baby out with the bath water when they are putting social justice and this social Gospel movement ahead of salvation and saving souls. In this reviewer’s thinking, leaning toward either end of this particular spectrum is quite dangerous. We don’t want to be focusing solely on “soul saving” and neglect the present needs of people, but we also don’t want to focus solely on those present needs and neglect the reality and necessity of salvation. Again, and in this reviewer’s own thinking, when a person is truly submitted to the Lordship of Christ, acting on both of these requirements is indeed accomplished. There doesn’t need to be an either/or, it’s all of the above!
I’m glad to see that a book like Cannon’s has been written. It’s a great primer on very important issues that Christians face and issues that need to be discussed more, and acted upon more. Let’s not forget about the souls of people in this world who need saving, but let’s also not forget about their immediate and pressing needs day-to-day. Let’s bring Christ to a broken world and however the Spirit leads you to do that is how the Spirit leads you to do that. Reliance on the Spirit, I think that’s the best kind of social justice there is.