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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Is Critical Social Justice Zion Building? A Review of "Proclaim Peace"

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

A Misleading Title?

Few books have caused me more mixed emotions than “Proclaim Peace” by Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher. In one chapter I would be appreciating the insights while in the next I would have my face in my palm. While I deeply appreciated the insights, I left deeply concerned with issues I thought were central to the thesis of the book. One thing seemed clear, the book is heavily influenced by critical social justice movements prevalent in the academic social sciences. I don't claim the authors are consciously pushing critical social theory, but it stands to reason that this worldview, which is so prevalent in the academic social sciences, has influenced the way the authors approach the subjects in the book.

The book oozes with the language of critical social theory: “systemic violence”, “economic justice”, “equity”, “inclusion”, “repression” and other social justice parlance pepper its pages. Language is power in modern critical social justice. Thus, it’s no surprise that the book's central thesis is predicated on REDEFINITIONS of violence and peace. People who buy the book probably think it's a book about how to end violence and conflict in a traditional sense, but they would be mistaken. While the book gives lip service to ending direct physical harm from others (what I will call violence 1.0), the violence this book focuses on ending is “structural violence” (violence 2.0).

"Examples of this direct violence include hitting, shooting, bombing, sexual assault, and so forth. But there are other, more insidious ways in which individuals or entire societies also cause harm by limiting access to opportunities or goods that lead to human flourishing. Sometimes these forms of structural violence are formal, for instance in the apartheid regime in South Africa, but they can also be informal manifestations of injustice, discrimination, repression, exploitation, inequality, and abuse."

Sadly, the authors only allude at what constitutes social injustice, repression, exploitation, inequality, etc. Ultimately, the devil really lay in those details. However, based on the terminology used, one comes away feeling that those issues look a lot like the things hard left critical social justice activists are constantly clamoring about. The books title is about proclaiming peace, but instead of peace being what most people think it means, the absence of war and conflict (peace 1.0), the authors draw upon academic social science notions that redefine peace as “positive peace” (peace 2.0).

"Positive peace, then, refers to a state of affairs in which justice, equity, and an abiding commitment to the common good is built into the very structures of society. Positive peace corresponds with the Hebrew Bible’s concept of shalom, which connotes harmony, wholeness, and shared prosperity for all. This more comprehensive notion recognizes that there is 'no peace without justice.'”

Peace Through Critical Social Justice Activism

There is nothing wrong with doing this per se, any sane person wants more than just the absence of direct violence (violence 1.0). But stopping physical force being used against the innocent is not what this book is about. The book's focus seems to be on altering social systems of all kinds to create an inclusive, diverse and equitable society. It seems that peace building is more about critical social justice activism than it is about preventing war and other activities related to peace 1.0. The authors then use this paradigm to create their vision for Zion.

"So restoration theology equips social justice peacebuilders with a vision of society committed equally to individual faithfulness, familial harmony, social justice, and systemic peace. God calls it Zion…They establish a society in which they seek to eliminate all socioeconomic distinctions among them. They do so through a program of economic justice that goes far beyond mere sentiment, charity, or welfare...The inhabitants of Zion were not robots or clones. To the contrary, they were truly free—free from the enslavements of caste, class, nation, race, ethnicity, neighborhood, profession, partisanship, ideology, and every other artificial divide that alienates members of the human family from one another.”

With all this framing in place, building Zion begins to look almost identical to the progressive sociopolitical agenda.

“Restoration scripture amply testifies that anytime we seek to distribute the world’s wealth and resources more equitably, we build Zion. Anytime we work to overcome debilitating cultures of racism or sexism or classism or any other form of systemic violence, we build Zion. Anytime we work to ensure wise stewardship of the earth and the natural beauty and life it encompasses, we build Zion. Anytime we expand the borders of our communities to better embrace those who are overlooked or forgotten, and anytime we extend our reach to include and embrace our enemies, we build Zion.”

With all this talk of systemic and structural violence the authors discuss what they call “structural sin” or "relational sin". Not only does this seem contrary to the notion that “man will be punished for their own sins” but this notion seems to imply (much like the radical Ibram X Kendi) that unless we are engaged in a particular type of political activism we are complicit in violence 2.0 and thus guilty of sin. This notion seems to go right along with the radical activist chant “Silence is Violence”.

“We generally understand how sin operates on a personal basis but are not as acquainted with how it works on a societal level... individuals can be enmeshed in relational sin through participation in social behaviors and processes that are collectively alienated (and alienating) from God’s nature and therefore produce and perpetuate sinful systems.”

Toward the end of the book the church itself is reimagined as being used more explicitly and aggressively as a tool of political activism. The authors encourage working with politicians, social workers and media to seek out groups that they consider to be “marginalized” (oppressed by social systems).

"As we approach our third century, one of the challenges facing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be how to mobilize our existing structures and resources for maximum impact. The Church’s primary mission is to bring people to Christ. That mission necessarily focuses on saving and transforming individuals. But we hope that by now you are convinced (if you weren’t already) that a call to Zion should also inspire disciples of Christ to embrace ambitious goals for saving and transforming our society….Don’t know where to start? Read your local newspaper, talk to social workers or local politicians… Sometimes Christ had problems come to him, but he also went to the places where he would find the poor, the marginalized, and the victimized. Peacebuilding is proactive."

So who are the “victims” in today's society according to politicians and social activists? Of course seeking out people who are in need is always, and should always be, the mission of The Church. However, defining who is actually a victim in todays day and age is a matter of intense debate. Is it possible that many people are victims of their own bad choices and that what they need is repentance, not social reengineering? The authors seem to ignore this heated debate and instead use language that seems to make critical social justice activism and the building of Zion seem synonymous.

In summary, the book takes the concept of violence and expands it to “systemic violence“ and then advocates for Latter-day Saints engaging in dismantling systemic forms of racism, sexism, economic inequality, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. Because the problem is framed as systemic violence, the book is framed as creating systemic peace, not peace as most people understand it. In fact, the book even encourages what it considers to be productive confrontation if that confrontation helps alter the social systems in a way that achieves social justice. In the end, the work of a peace builder, according to the authors, was very hard to distinguish from that of modern critical social justice activism. The book seeks to justify this activism in language that will appeal to Latter-day Saints.

"We believe that the positive peace of Zion represents the full embodiment and realization of the Restoration’s nonviolent theology. But we do not live in Zion…We participate in an economic system that we know exacerbates inequality and contributes to ecological degradation even while it has brought prosperity to many. We benefit from the long-standing privileges associated with being white heterosexual males and wonder if we are doing enough to create an equitable and just society for those who are not, including our own daughters…"

"One effect of learning about structural and cultural violence is that we begin to recognize that this fallen world is saturated with such insidious and destructive forces. There are no human institutions and communities that are untouched or immune, including ours. Many early readers of this manuscript—especially younger ones—immediately recognized historical and contemporary Latter-day Saint attitudes and practices that fall well short of the positive peace of Zion… Our hope is that we have given you a few tools to not only see various forms of violence (structural violence) in your sphere of influence, but to also work toward constructively and lovingly transforming yourself and your community."

I don't write this article claiming bad intention on the part of the authors. I am not asserting they are intentionally trying to layer critical theory into their work. Still, we all are influenced by the worldviews we regularly engage with. Critical Theory has essentially taken over all major academic social science departments (the field the authors have worked in for decades) and the ideology explicitly seeks to enmesh the ideology's "critical consciousness" into all social institutions, including religious ones. Are we to think the linguistic and ideological connections with critical social justice rampant in the book are coincidental? In the end, the book has many beautiful insights, but the unmistakable stain of critical theory's "outside in" approach to fixing society seems to have infected the central thesis of the book, thus leading to what seems like a distorted vision of how we build Zion.

Missing The Mark. The Real Zion.

It's also important to recognize things the authors got right. The authors are correct that Zion is ultimately about creating an ideal society. The work of the restoration is not just to save individuals, but to create Zion. They are also correct in pointing out that in Zion there are no rich or poor and all things are held in common. They are right to point out that there are "no manner of ites" in Zion. However, what they fail to account for, or simply ignore, winds up being critical to consider.

What's most shocking is that the authors actually recognize in the book that the state is a tool of coercion through violence. But for some reason they never speak out about the use of the state, an institution that makes laws (not suggestions). These laws are backed by guys with guns if you don't comply. The power of government is derived ultimately from its monopoly on violence 1.0, which gives it the ability to coerce people into doing what it wants. With that in mind, are Christ's peace builders not obligated to eschew the use of the state to impose Zion on the world? Let's keep in mind that Jesus Christ never once engaged in political activism against the Romans (who were some of the worst political oppressors in history). The book does say that systems built on coercion are not sustainable, yet the book seems to imply that more involvement in sociopolitical activism is Zion building. It's a weird inconsistency.

The modern social justice activist sees individuals as primarily shaped by social systems. Thus in looking to change those systems they look to change the world from the outside in. Now let’s compare that with the gospel approach.

"The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature." - Ezra Taft Benson

Building Zion is not done through the work of politicians and social activism, even if that may at times be necessary or justified. Zion is about changing people so that they voluntarily cooperate and live in peace and harmony with one another. This is only possible because the laws of God are the laws that harmonize human interactions. Hence why it is the love of God and obedience to His commandments that act as the burning heart of Zion. Zion is not a community that has the "right PROGRAM of economic justice", it's a society where social workers, politicians and armies are irrelevant. As we approach Zion, the state becomes increasingly unnecessary as free people full of love take care of one another spontaneously without the need for coercion. Increasing reliance on state administered programs of "social justice" is not a mark of us coming closer to Zion, it’s a mark of our departure from it.

"Self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments. One columnist observed that 'gentlemanly behavior [for example, once] protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior....'Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.”- Elder D. Todd Christofferson

The true vision of Zion and even the structure of Zion is already built within the institutions of The Church. It's a scandal that in a book about the ideal Latter-day Saint society, the "fundamental unit of society", the family, and its role in building Zion gets little to no attention. I certainly hope this was not an intentional oversight. In fact, the centrality of family would have been an excellent way for the authors to distinguish between the ideal society advocated for amongst the critical theorists and the ideal society of the restoration (Zion). The family, as outlined in The Proclamation, is where the "gentlemanly behavior", customs, moral discipline and the order of heaven (with its love for God and fellow man) is meant to be learned and fostered. It's the very foundation of Zion. From these central familial units, Zion expands outward into the structures of the church and beyond. The authors imply a need for large scale social structural changes in order to get to Zion. But isn't The Church already structured to be Zion? Think about it for a minute. What would happen in a world where a greater and greater percentage of people joined The Church then made and lived the covenants of baptism and the temple? There would be less and less need for the state and its violence backed coercion and social engineering. Through the productivity and offerings of the members, wards and stakes would be increasingly able to care for all the poor in their boundaries. Members would be ministering and sharing their talents and resources collectively and voluntarily as needs arose. Eventually, all would be cared for. All needs would be ministered to and met. There would be no rich or poor. Eventually, the idea of an economic system would seem almost irrelevant as productivity and resource sharing among the saints would become as normal as the "economic system"of parents providing for their own family. There would be no political parties or classes. Instead, there would be brothers and sisters living harmoniously in accordance with the celestial order as we face the challenges of a fallen world together. Obviously this is an ideal, but what causes us to fall short of it? Our own imperfections. But that does not mean we have never seen glimpses of Zion in our services and in our wards and stakes. We see it when kids in the ward, whose families could never afford a boat, spend a weekend on the lake with a Young Men's leader who, out of love, donates his time and resources so these youth can enjoy something beyond their families' financial capacity. We see it in the hugs, gifts, and service shown to a new mother struggling with post partum depression. We see it in the ward counsels who round up donations from members to buy a small car for an older single sister who is on a fixed income. We see it as the church provides a free top rate education to tens of thousands of people in the poorest countries of the pacific rim as they share their talents in the Polynesian Cultural Center. These are all things I have personally witnessed. We all know some wards are more Zion than others. Some stakes are more Zion than others. In a highly functional ward you have the poor being taken care of and you have people of all groups being welcomed and loved. You have people not really caring about people's tribal affiliations. This all comes because of people's hearts being knit together in love for Christ and for one another. That is what we are building. As we approach this ideal, these glimpses of Zion become more and more common and we are given a hope that this brightness eventually grows into "the perfect day".

Like so many problematic ideas, the ideas of this book come wrapped in large doses of truth. However, Zion is simply not going to be established from the "outside in" through policies of the state and social activism and I worry this book gives the impression more "outside in" work is what we need. Zion begins in the human heart and expands outward from there to family, to ward, to stake, to the church and to the world. Our work to save individual souls and bring them into the institutions of the church are not distinct from building Zion - it’s exactly HOW we build Zion. To build Zion we don’t need more social activism, we need more true disciples filled with the love of God and the love of man who bring people into the waters of baptism and the covenant path. That is how we build Zion. That is how we establish peace. That is the work of the kingdom of God. Below is my interview with Dr. Mason on his book and how he responded to some of these critiques.


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1 Comment

E Summers
E Summers
Jan 20, 2022

Incredible review. This essay will do more to "build Zion" than the entirety of Proclaim Peace (in the sense that this essay offers insights to the individual soul, rather than systems of coercion and redefinition--not that terms are, or should be, immune from redefinition per se). So many poignant insights to add to the conversations about to what extent late-modernist & postmodernist worldviews should mobilize Restoration resources and discourses.

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