Recommended Reads on the Literature of Social Justice

By Fenton Johnson

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The author of several award-winning novels and a pair of memoirs that take us from religious skepticism to faith, and from contemplating the deaths of loved ones to relishing the love that makes living worthwhile, recommends an array of reads across the genres, from the scientific insights of Darwin to the quiet reflections of Auden.


The Origin of the Species, coverWhence begins this impulse to social justice? Darwin’s On the Origin of Species exploded onto the scene in 1859, as industrial capitalism was beginning its rise to international domination. For well over a century Darwin has been cited, explicitly and implicitly, to justify social and economic policies ranging from manifest destiny to monopoly capitalism to the voodoo economics of Ronald Reagan to the cries of today’s Tea Partiers.

Now every year brings more evidence that scientists, humanists, and (most especially) the business community have misinterpreted Darwin. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous characterization of Nature as “red in tooth and claw” is at best a partial description of a world in which cooperation is as or more important as competition.

The Book of J, coverMany Buddhist texts address compassion, but “social justice” as generally understood is a Western phenomenon that owes its roots to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, most notably Amos and Isaiah, or to the unnamed psalmist(s) who composed the Psalms attributed to King David. (In The Book of J, prominent critic Harold Bloom makes a strong case that many of the psalms may have been written by a woman.)

And then there is that renegade proto-feminist communitarian celibate bachelor Jew Joshua, familiarly known to us as Jesus. We will best understand him not as the founder of Christianity (a word not in common parlance until long after his death) but as he almost certainly understood himself: a prophet whose goal was to reform Judaism from within, who saw himself as the latest manifestation of a tradition extending backward through John the Baptist at least as far as Isaiah. His most famous teachings (e.g., “do to others as you would have them do to you”) are recapitulations of principles set forth in the Scriptures he learned with the precision and total recall of someone who may well have been illiterate.

New Oxford Annotated Bible, coverRegardless of your support for or opposition to the remnant of the great administrative edifice of the Roman Empire that aptly names itself the Roman Catholic Church, any reader interested in tracing the evolution of the literature of social justice must begin with those foundational books of the Hebrew Bible and with a well-annotated edition of the New Testament. I recommend The New Oxford Annotated Bible (1994), with its thoughtful introductions and extensive notes. (My editor helpfully recommends A New New Testament, which assembles the new gospels uncovered in recent archeological digs, several of which have a provenance as authoritative as the canonical Gospels but are even more radical.) Read the whole kit and caboodle — the Bible is surprisingly entertaining — but most particularly the books of Amos and Isaiah (from the Hebrew Bible), the Gospel of Luke (the most compassionate — no accident, perhaps, that Luke was a doctor), and the Letter of James.

The New New Testament, coverThe New Oxford Annotated Bible’s introductions and the notes can be daunting, but: read ‘em.  Figure out a reading rhythm that allows you to benefit from the notes while enjoying the fluidity of the stories — remember, these documents began in oral tradition, and were handed on as such for decades or centuries before being written down.

From the notes you will learn, for example, that Isaiah was composed by at least three authors (the difference in their styles is striking, easily perceived by the most casual reader), that the “Jews” against whom the evangelist John rails are the (mistranslated) “Judeans,” and that he is invoking a north-south conflict well known to his contemporaries. You will find a strikingly human Jesus, who frequently contradicts himself, at times gives way to unreasoning anger, and who on the cross, in the midst of his agony, seems to abandon hope. In the Gospel of John, you will encounter one of literature’s most efficient and chilling scenes: the moment where Pontius Pilate, well aware that he is sending an innocent man to a brutal death, asks, “What is truth?”


I recently attended a week-long intensive meditation retreat Zen Buddhists call a sesshin. It took place in a Roman Catholic facility whose chapel, an example of 1958, pre-Vatican II architecture preserved in amber, featured a particularly weird crucifix — a larger-than-life Jesus in agony surrounded by a starburst mosaic of small square tiles rendered in turquoise and gold. The Buddhists hastily covered the Stations of the Cross with Tibetan thankas (some featuring images quite as graphic as those they covered) but the crucifix was too large and inaccessible and so we had to live with it.

Many of my fellow meditators complained.  “It’s hard to enter a space of peace and interiority in the presence of that brutal image and all it represents,” one said.

Collected Poems of W.H. Auden, coverIn fact I appreciated the presence of the crucifix in this palmy quiet prosperous landscape in which we Anglos were appropriately undertaking the interior journey. For me the crucifix serves as a reminder that at this moment, as I am writing, as you are reading, somewhere in the world someone is being tortured by the state, often with our tacit permission and sometimes with our active endorsement. As W.H. Auden wrote in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts:  

About suffering they were never wrong
The Old Masters . . .
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

That this is an uncomfortable place to be I do not question, but that, it seems to me, is the goal and achievement of all great social justice literature: to trouble the consciences of us whose prosperity so often arises from and depends on the oppression of other creatures, ecosystems, and people.


Fenton Johnson is author of three novels as well as Geography of the Heart: A Memoir and Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks, recipient of a Kentucky Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction. He contributes to Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, and literary quarterlies, and is the recipient of many literary awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1991, he published the opening pages of Geography of the Heart in the New York Times Magazine, breaking the Times’s taboo on mentioning same-gender relationships. Geography of the Heart received Lambda Literary and American Library Association Awards and is regularly assigned in counseling psychology and medical school curricula. He is on the creative writing faculty of the University of Arizona.

Header image courtesy Darwin Online. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.