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The Church on a Justice Mission

Editor's Note: Soon after Amy Sherman's article appeared ["The Church on a Justice Mission," July/August], Amy and I received an email from Don Lattin in Alameda, California. "The line has great shock value," he wrote, "but I seriously doubt the veracity of the lead paragraph of your July/August cover story when it states that 'the average age of prostitutes in Phoenix is 13.' Do the math—or at least provide some documentation for that incredible claim." Lattin, a veteran journalist, was correct. The sentence should have read, "the average age of entry into prostitution in Phoenix is 13." I thanked Lattin for drawing our attention to the error, which was corrected in the web version of the article. He responded: "I'm glad to be of service and appreciate your willingness to correct the piece. I must say, however,that I still find it hard to believe that AVERAGE age for a woman entering prostitution in Phoenix is thirteen. Again, think about the math. That means there would have to be large numbers of pre-pubescent children entering the prostitution business. I'm sure many prostitutes were sexually abused as children, and tragically, some children are exploited as prostitutes, but an Average age of thirteen still sounds like something worth double-checking." He added a genial postscript: "This is what happens when newspaper reporters take buyouts and have too much time on their hands." Indeed, the statistic concerning age of entry turns out to be much in dispute. It is widely cited by activists who are working against sex trafficking and forced prostitution, not only in the Phoenix area but in the United States more generally, and it is often sourced to the U.S. Department of Justice. Critics charge that the sources adduced fail to support the claim. If we bracket that dispute, we should be able to agree that the realities on the ground are sufficiently appalling, and that there is plenty of work to be done.

I am grateful for Amy Sherman's compassion for victims of human trafficking and her praise for ministries seeking to free young women from the bondage of forced prostitution. Readers will not soon shake the tear-inducing anecdote from class-conscious Mumbai of teenagers who had been violated by rapists. Receiving from Christians a ceremonial foot-washing, the girls were so affected that they asked if they could wash the feet of the kind foreigners before them, males included.

Yet I must admit that I was momentarily distracted by a word in the title "The Church on a Justice Mission," the word justice. Why not, say, righteousness? or forgiveness? repentance? restoration? In my Christian boyhood, I learned the word justice in tandem with the word mercy. Through these two words one could pretty well encapsulate central Christian doctrines of fall and redemption, of sin and salvation, of law and grace. Justice and mercy were two divine attributes, featuring different aspects of God; but they were complementary, and both were needed for the sake of balance and fullness. Nowadays, I hear the word justice all the time in my church circles, but it has taken on a special meaning, which is signified by the adjective usually preceding it: social. The descriptive adjective has a limiting function, as adjectives are supposed to have. If it's a red car, it's not some other color of car; if it's social justice, it's not some other kind of justice. Indeed, social justice seems closer in meaning to mercy than to justice in the earlier usages.

It would be helpful if we could determine which aspects of justice are not intended in the formulation social justice. The term seems not to mean divine justice. Nor does it mean what for convenience I'll here label metaphysical justice. In his novel In the First Circle, Solzhenitsyn has his alter ego leave behind his youthful Marxism by coming to perceive that justice is not a class concept, as his Soviet teachers taught him, but is "the cornerstone, the foundation of the Universe …. We were born with a sense of justice in our souls." If this understanding of justice may be said to contain and encompass social justice, it is fundamentally a metaphysical statement about the nature of the universe. Social justice seems also to mean something other than criminal justice, though one who didn't know better might think that criminal justice would be the first building block of a just society. Lock up criminals so that the innocent might live freely and without fear. Also, it is to be noted that Amy Sher man has her adjective of choice; it is public. Whatever exactly she means by it, she seems to be carefully avoiding the adjective social. Maybe not. But if so, I wonder why.

I would like to encourage those Christians who use the term social justice to let readers know what they mean by it. It is a contested term, and it may be the users of it don't realize that. Here is what I hear. The term means equality. It means the same thing it means when Marxists or other leftists say it—and say it they do and have for a long time. I doubt that Christians really mean to be identifying leftist politics as an intrinsic, essential part of the whole counsel of God that believers should be preaching. But it sounds to me as if they do, and that's why the term justice makes me uneasy.

Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
Professor of English, Emeritus
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Before reading any of the July/August issue, I am compelled to cry out my sadness at the cover photo. A picture shouts louder than a headline and reaches a much wider audience, including many who will not read the article, some who cannot read English, and regrettably some whose lust is fed by a photo like this. This would include mail carriers and guests in subscribers' houses. Those who will read the article do not need this sensational photo to grab their attention. At the very least her entire body should not have been visible. Books & Culture seems to be using the lure of sexual attraction (although on a smaller scale and unintentionally) in the same manner as the exploiters of women IJM works to rescue.

Marjorie Gray
Greenbelt, Maryland

Going Incognito

Thanks for Lauren Winner's review of Jonathan Malesic's Secret Faith in the Public Square ["Going Incognito," May/June]. The youth ministry in which I was involved years ago had a name for those hiding their light under a bushel as Malesic advocates: submarine Christians. John Calvin had a more trenchant designation for them: Nicodemites. I note that Calvin's name does not appear in the book's index.

George W. Harper
Professor of Christian History and Thought Asia Graduate School of Theology
Manila, Philippines

God Is Not One

I was just listening to the podcast where John Wilson and Stan Guthrie talked about Steven Prothero's God Is Not One. Great job.

I find so many wonderful resources on your site, it is like walking into a library—hard to know where to turn next. (Or the proverbial drinking from a fire hydrant.)

I encourage you to keep up the good work. Thanks.

Clarke Tungseth, MD
Mound, Minnesota

Real-World Christian Ethics

I almost couldn't believe my eyes as I read Roger Olson's review of Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World by John Stackhouse ["Real-World Chris tian Ethics," July/August]. I found myself saying, "Yes, this is what I think too." Like Stackhouse (and Olson, who clearly agrees), I believe that Reinhold Niebuhr's pragmatic conception of the proper role of secular law is a bracing alternative to a great deal of recent Christian thinking. And like Olson, I find Stackhouse right on target when he says we should ask "What would Jesus have us do?"—which may involve compromise—not "What would Jesus do?"

With this as backdrop, I venture one caution about taking a pragmatic—or realist—stance toward law, justice, and the culture, as Niebuhr did. It seems to me that any theory about how Christians should think about these issues needs to leave room for the prophetic. There are times when our faith may call us to take a clear, idealistic stand even if hope for change doesn't appear to be practical or realistic. The civil rights movement is perhaps the best illustration of this in recent decades. Niebuhr himself was an inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., and one of the first to advocate nonviolent resistance. But Niebuhr was pessimistic about the prospects of the civil rights movement because he didn't think its goals were realistic.

The difficulty, of course, is determining when it's time to abandon pragmatism for prophecy. I'm not sure I have the answer to this, other than to say that Christians have probably tended to treat too many causes as prophetic, and too few in the more pragmatic terms Stackhouse advises. It may be that Stackhouse also talks about the limits of pragmatism in the book. I plan to find out soon.

David Skeel
S. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law Univ. of Pennsylvania Law School
Philadelphia, Pa.
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