John MacArthur, president of The Master’s University, founder of Grace to You, and respected speaker and author of many books, has made some strong statement against social justice in the Christian world. You can listen to and read a transcript of his sermons here and here and here.
Bloggers and commenters are pejoratively called “Social Justice Warriors” when they write passionately about social justice but don’t actually do anything about it. That’s understandable. But what John MacArthur says here is something different.
I believe that much of his speech mischaracterizes, minimizes, even caricatures, what those who claim to work for social justice are really trying to do. But I want to focus primarily on two things. I believe he is saying first of all that the call for social justice is wrong because everyone is claiming to be a victim and secondly and most important, the call for social justice in Christian circles is not the gospel or even part of the gospel, and we need to keep the gospel the main thing.
I’d like to look at both of those claims.
When we call for social justice, what constitutes a victim?
During slavery days, the primary words used for victimization were “oppression,” “cruelty,” and “abuse.” One of the Bible words for it is “oppressed.” This includes physical harm, sexual harm (which is also physical, but arguably carries a far greater effect, and is very often not visually observable the way other types of physical harm are), and what we might call spiritual/mental/emotional harm, in a situation such as a cult or an oppressive government like North Korea.
Minimizing or universalizing victimization
I get the impression that because some writers, like me, focus a good bit on victimization of the oppressed, other writers try to either minimize or universalize victimization. John MacArthur actually does both of these in his sermons. (Here’s another example, a blog post that says we are all victims in one way or another.)
But I’ve never claimed to be a victim of anyone at any time, and it remains clear in my mind who the victims are—the ones who are taken advantage of to be harmed by those in a more powerful position than they are. It seems straightforward to me.
What does the word “victim” mean?
John MacArthur didn’t define the word when he mocked it, but here’s a brief history of how the word victim has expanded, from the Oxford English dictionary:
- Earliest meaning: “a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power,” from the late 1400s.
- Then expanded to “a person who is killed or tortured by another; one who suffers severely through cruel or oppressive treatment” beginning in the mid 1600s.
- Then expanded to “a person who is reduced or destined to suffer under some oppressive or destructive agency” in the early 1700s. This expansion on the definition was made to encompass passive abuse. For example, if a woman is dying because her husband is denying her food or medical treatment, she is a victim of his passive cruelty.
- Then expanded to “a person who suffers injury, hardship, or loss, is badly treated, or taken advantage of” in the late 1700s.
If many people and groups of people begin to use the word “victim” for themselves in a way that doesn’t truly match the definition, does that illegitimatize the term altogether?
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.