Campus Ministry and Christian Social Ethics

Working in campus ministry and offices of service learning are great roles for a Christian ethicist if one believes that Christian social ethics is a practical discipline. For some this is self-evident. For others, it is a claim to be resisted or even denied. Those who resist this claim often prefer to be called “theological ethicists,” “religious ethicists,” or simply “theologians.” They claim to be engaging in a primarily intellectual exercise; tracing the intellectual history of a particular ethical idea, doing comparative analysis, or simply engaging in “God-talk.” Let the “practical theologians” do the “practical” “scholarship,” they think. This divide is evident in a variety of ways today—such as the relocation of the discipline from “the Church” to “the academy” and the decision of the flagship intellectual society of the discipline to drop the “social” from its name—and still creates divisions in the world of Christian moral thinking.

However, if Gary Dorrien is right (and I believe he is), Christian social ethics is “a tradition…with the distinctly modern idea that Christianity has a social-ethical mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice.” 1 That tradition, then, is founded in a very practical goal. Why did this discipline emerge with this “distinctly modern idea?” The reasons are multiple and they include the development of sociology as a discipline that gave us new knowledge about human societies, the rise of industrialized societies and their concomitant social problems, and the relevance of Christians and their communities to the social and political well-being of their local and global neighbors in the modern world. All of these things, it seems to me, are still relevant and important enough to demonstrate the necessity of a distinctly social Christian ethics. But that is another argument for another day.

I, like many others I know who pursued doctoral education in this field, came out of a background of ministry and social justice work. I became enamored in my undergraduate and seminary studies with the lives and justice work of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and local folks working on issues of social justice in my own local community (some very “practical” people, I might add). I was transformed by my own experiences with faculty and mentors who encouraged both my intellectual gifts and my desire to link my call to ministry with the work of justice. I remember, after choosing my graduate school, explicitly sharing with all interested parties that I would be happy to have any profession in which I could combine teaching, ministry, and social justice work.

Unfortunately, my graduate school experience limited my imagination of what that might look like. The only models that I remember being lauded as “successful” were those in tenure-track faculty positions. I am not in one of those. I am the Campus Minister for Social Justice at Seattle University, where I also teach courses as an adjunct professor. I love my work. Indeed, in comparing the work that I do on a daily basis with the work many of my colleagues spend their time doing, I would like to suggest campus ministry and/or working in a university’s service learning office as an alt-ac possibility for those pursuing graduate degrees in Christian social ethics.

In my daily work I mentor students in linking their faith with the work of social justice by leading them through a variety of activities: service, awareness raising, campus organizing, political advocacy, grassroots activism, radical life changes, and the like. For example, every year I take students to Tijuana where we explore the political-economic roots of Latin American migration while working alongside a grassroots community development organization. Students build relationships with people in marginalized communities, learn about the place of theology in resisting this particular form of injustice, and practice with and learn from people doing the daily work of building a more just world. Back on campus I have worked with students to organize #BlackLivesMatter die-ins and co-created with my students a quarter-long exploration of the place of spirituality in the work of racial justice. I also help students work to end the prison-industrial complex while they also simultaneously mentor incarcerated youth at the detention center near our campus. These are just a few of the examples of the justice work I help lead in my job as a campus minister at Seattle University.

I also teach students–seminarians and undergraduates–in the classroom. And the work we do in those classrooms is important. However, if I am honest with myself, the work I do with students in the campus ministry office to link their theological commitments to their action for justice is often more tangibly effective at forming them “to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice” than the work that happens in the classroom. This happens for a variety of reasons, including different learning outcomes (yes, staff have them as well as faculty!) and the ability to work with students over several years. Yet, at least some of them are the limits of traditional curricula (which is why we’ve created things like service-learning offices and contextual education programs in the first place).

I do not seek to dismiss the important work done by tenured faculty in colleges, universities, and seminaries across the country, nor do not I seek to diminish the work done by “theological ethicists” who do not value Christian social ethics as an academic discipline. I simply seek to encourage those who were first drawn to this discipline because of their own work for social justice to view campus ministry offices and service learning offices (not always necessarily separate) as spaces in which they can live into their vocational calling to teach others how to do the work of using their faith to create a more just society.

If helping to prepare students to work for faith-based social transformation is what first drew you to the discipline of Christian social ethics, you might be happier and more fulfilled meeting with students to help them plan a political action than sitting in a faculty meeting fighting over a colleague’s eligibility for tenure. If you think this might be the case, remember that there are spaces outside of the TT world where you can put your training to direct use in fulfilling work. Campus ministry has been that place for me.

  1. Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2011), 1.
James McCarty III

About James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

James McCarty III

James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

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