Earlier this year on Twitter, almost two million people followed an attempted (and confusing) argument over social justice. Jordan Peterson, known for this kind of inflammatory behavior, had taken to Twitter to start this spat with none other than Pope Francis himself.
Responding to a February 20 tweet from Pope Francis’ Twitter account, Peterson said, “There is nothing Christian about #SocialJustice. Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul.” What exactly had Pope Francis said?
“Liberation theology has subjugated Christianity to Marxism (feature not bug) and doomed South America in particular to unstable governance and poverty. It’s anti-Christian idol worship. Group identity is not Christian, even if the group is Christianity. Romans 15:12 @Pontifex,” Peterson tweeted again.
In short, Peterson misses the point
Francis’ relationship to liberation theology is much more complex than Peterson presents and may warrant a whole book, but Peterson is mistaken in attaching Francis and the idea of social justice to liberation theology. Considering Peterson’s long list of inflammatory remarks to earn social media engagement, his misguided argument sounds more like a red herring than an honest mistake. And with millions watching, certainly calls for clarity.
Peterson’s engagement here is misguided and misleading. His argument is too simplistic and overemphasizes the significance of liberation theology in South America. In essence, he conflates this with social justice, taking the Pope’s call for social justice and creating an unnecessarily heated conversation by bringing in the weight of controversy associated with liberation theology as well.
Liberation theology was born in Latin America in the 60s and was an attempt to conflate Marxism and Catholicism to turn Christ into the center of a Christian-Marxist sociopolitical analysis, in which Christ is both a spiritual and political liberator in the class struggle — and for some liberation theologians, he is first and foremost a political liberator. Although the Catholic Church rejected its Marxist presuppositions, it did accept the preferential option for the poor. The theology of the people, a strand of theology that strips liberation theology of its Marxist influence but focuses on the preferential option of the poor, has influenced Pope Francis’ thought.
Plus, Peterson’s claim that liberation theology “doomed” South America as a whole to “unstable governance and poverty,” as if the ideas of a group of theologians and bishops were enough to explain the poverty of a whole continent, is unfounded. The influence of liberation theology in Latin America was unequal. Some countries, like Venezuela, were hardly affected by it. Others, like Argentina, received a bigger influence from the theology of the people. And, of course, Peterson conveniently ignores that Pope Francis has been critical of liberation theology, calling it “clueless of the Latin American reality” and “ideologization.”
Peterson continued his comments on Twitter for weeks.
Understanding the common good
Of course it is hard to construe much of an argument from a few tweets, but nevertheless, Peterson seems to ignore the centrality of justice in the gospel, particularly in the Catholic tradition.
Christian social justice is as old as Christianity. Though Pope Francis does, at times, criticize capitalism or talk about the preferential option for the poor, he is not the first to do so. He is in fact a part of a long line of church leaders who have been bitter critics of unbridled capitalism. The concepts of social justice, the common good, and the preferential option for the poor are — and have long been — core tenets of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Peterson seems to conflate two notions of social justice: the one the Pope talks about vs the one the postmodern left talks about. Perhaps he, like many others, reads social justice and thinks of its postmodern version, where social justice becomes a mere excuse to wield power vengefully and establish a hierarchy of the (allegedly) oppressed.
But what this ignores is that social justice is not a doctrine that Pope Francis invented, but something that is core to the gospel, whether you call it the common good, social justice, the preferential option for the poor, or the fight against oppression, “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them,” says Matthew 11:5. Matthew 25:35–36 also offers a very specific program of action toward the poor and the oppressed. And foundational to the value of every person, Christ identifies the poor and the oppressed as images of himself. This idea of the imago Dei is deeply ingrained in the Christian tradition from the Patristic era.
In his second homily on the Rich Man and Lazarus, St. John Chrysostom says that “Not to share our own riches with the poor is a robbery of the poor, and depriving them of their livelihood; and that which we possess is not only our own, but also theirs.” His contemporary, St. Ambrose, said “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.”
The idea is clear: In the Christian tradition, the idea that we have a deeply personal responsibility towards the poor is at the heart of the message of the Gospel. This is what, in the Catholic tradition, is called the universal destination of goods. This is not to say that the only possible solution to social issues is the abolition of wealth and property. Nor that the authentically Christian idea of social justice can be harmonized with the postmodern leftist notion of social justice.
In the end, the social doctrine of the church is not a policy set. The church does not believe that the free market or state intervention will definitely solve every socioeconomic problem. In fact, for both the state and the market to serve the common good, these solutions must always stem from the preeminence of the common good, which flows from the particular presence of our Lord, among the suffering and oppressed, imaged in every man and woman.
The imago Dei, the image of love
Catholic social justice is rooted in the doctrine of the imago Dei: We’re all created in the image and likeness of the Lord, and our dignity stems from this reality. This is why Catholic social teaching recognizes the oppression of the poor and the injustice to the wage earner as sins that cry to heaven for vengeance.
We are called to holiness: to become Christlike. We are responsible for personally responding to God’s grace. But that response includes a heart that desires justice and that loves the poor, not only in the abstract. If we fail to understand this, we rob the Church of its uniqueness. As Peter Maurin, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement said, it is “[to take] the dynamite of the Church, wrap it up in nice phraseology, place it in a hermetic container, and sit on the lid.”
To be a Christian is to continually be in trouble on earth. Where the world acts motivated by power, we are called to act motivated by love. When the world seeks vengeance, we are called to forgiveness. When the world worships success, power, and honor, we are called to worship the one who was defeated, but overcame, to then take the lowly with him by his resurrection. By this, we discover more deeply the paradox of our Lord: That the King decided to become the lowliest of men, to take upon the sins and injustice of all mankind.
We need not rob the church of an entryway to its most precious gift: Love.