Shame and Judgement in Social Justice

In Genesis 3, we see what is often referred to as “The Fall.” God’s world, which had been very good, is no longer. What causes this shift? Adam and Eve are said to eat of The Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil. There are a range of understanding about what exactly this tree and its name mean and many of those understandings are compatible with each other, but I’m going to focus on one particular idea and how it relates to social justice.

In this understanding, eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil does basically what it’s name implies: gives them the knowledge of good and evil. This might sound like a good thing, but I don’t mean simply having a conscience to help you discern ethical decisions, but I don’t think that’s what it’s saying. Rather than discerning for my own life between good and evil choices, I think (along with many others) that it is about gaining the ability to discern the good people vs the evil people.

Prior to this, they were unashamed (Gen 2:25), but now they are able to recognize their own evil which causes shame and separation from God. Just as significantly, they are also able to separate people into the good and the bad, as Adam and Eve do in blaming others for their mistakes.

What’s the problem with this? It runs directly contrary to the basic concept of human dignity as image-bearers of God who are infinitely loved. We could identify this as the root of many if not all of our social ills. Racism exists when one race decides they are different – better – than another. Sexism exists when one sex decides they are better than another. Nationalism exists when one nation’s people decides their people are worth more than another nation’s people. Systemic poverty exists when the rich decide they are worth more than the poor. Bullies exist when they consider another as less important so their pain is insignificant in the face of what they want. And so on, continually choosing judgement over human dignity.

Social justice work, then, is in large part a reversing of this Fall and the curse that comes with it (more on that curse soon). It requires setting aside our fallen instincts to judge some as more worthy of our help than others. This is a lifelong effort and will never be particularly easy. This instinct is strongly engrained in us as individuals and as a society. Sometimes it is even more easy to justify this judgementalism in social justice action.

It is easy to villainize the church who understands gender roles differently than you, or the politician whose policies you think are hurting others, or even your opponents in more clear-cut ethical issues like the sex trafficker or the violent dictator. If we try to reverse what we see as wrong – whether we are right or not – with the same attitudes, we are not likely to affect lasting change. Even our opponents (insert who you think is doing the most damage to the world) have God’s image, even if it is buried and harder to see under their brokenness. Even they are loved so much by God that he died a horrific death on the cross to save them. This must always be in mind even when we challenge those who are contributing to oppressive systems.

Note that I am saying that we still challenge those who are contributing to oppression. We continually see this throughout Scripture, as we’ll be discussing over this year. Grace and enemy love does not equal being a doormat. In many ways, being a doormat is easy. Similarly, in many ways, playing the us vs them judgement game is easy. What’s hard is what I believe the Bible calls us toward: a radical love of enemies, a love that is so powerful that it won’t stand for watching someone destroy themselves and others.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.