How Should Christians Think about Social Justice?
This is one of the most important interviews I have posted in awhile. And I can think of no one more qualified than my friend and colleague Thaddeus Williams. He is the author of Reflect: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person In History. Please wrestle with his insights and then consider sharing this blog with a friend.
SEAN MCDOWELL: There has been significant focus on "social justice" within the Christian world over the past few years. What is the biblical call to justice?
THADDEUS WILLIAMS: If we take the Bible seriously then justice should be a big deal for us. God does not suggest, He commands that we “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed” (Jer. 22:3). Jesus declared his mission to “proclaim good news to the poor… liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18, quoting Isa. 61:1, 2). “Seek justice” (Isa. 1:17) is a clarion call of Scripture, and those who box their ears to that call are simply not living by the Book.
MCDOWELL: When have you seen that lived out well in church history?
WILLIAMS: There is a long, beautiful history of Christians who lived out the biblical call to justice. The early church proclaimed the Gospel in a way that subverted the mutual racism between 1st century Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. They brought reconciliation and real community where there had been hostility and division for centuries.
When Romans tossed their so called “blemished” babies away like garbage—often simply because they were female—our ancient brothers and sisters went to those human dumps, rescued, and raised society’s unwanted as their own cherished sons and daughters. They knew God had rescued and adopted them, so they did the same until the human dumps were no more.
When a plague ravaged the Roman Empire, most people ran for the hills away from the sick and dying. It was countercultural Christians who ran to the bedsides of the plagued (most of them non-Christians who didn’t abide by Christian ethics, sexual or otherwise) to treat them with dignity, getting sick and dying right along with them. (Contrast that with the church’s response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s!) Then there was Wilberforce, John Newton and the Clapham sect in the UK, along with Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and others is the US. Their own experiences of redemption from sin inspired them to abolish the dehumanizing slave-trade. Christians like Charles Octavius Boothe and Dietrich Bonhoeffer used good theology to combat white supremacy. You might not know it from today’s headlines, but this long and biblically propelled justice tradition continues today all over the world.
MCDOWELL: If we want to carry forward that biblical justice tradition, should we jump aboard the current “social justice” movement?
WILLIAMS: That’s a massively important question. Of course, it all comes down to what we mean by “social justice.” We should all seek a world forever purged of racism, where justice prevails and greed and tyranny are permanently replaced with compassion and love. But we have to be discerning. Not every movement waving the social justice banner promotes the kind of justice and shalom the Bible calls us to seek.
The problem is not with the quest for justice. The problem is what happens when that quest is undertaken from a framework that is not compatible with the Bible. And this is a very real problem, because the extent to which we unwittingly allow unbiblical worldview assumptions to shape our approach to justice is the extent to which we are inadvertently hurting the very people we seek to help.
Take Marxism for example. It claimed to be about justice and compassion. Where a biblical worldview built orphanages and hospitals to help the marginalized and broken, Marxism gave us the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Where the Gospel led to the abolishing of the human dumps of the Roman Empire and brought society’s unwanted into loving community, Marxism endorsed the systematic termination of society’s unwanted. Where biblical Christianity set slaves free, Marxism sent millions to the gulags. Where Christianity inspired the Oxfords and Cambridges into existence to pursue knowledge to the glory of God, Marxism inspired thought-policing. Where Jesus transformed deep racial tensions into a new, beautiful, reconciled community, Marxism helped spawn identity politics and all the divisiveness, suspicion, and racial stereotyping that go with it.
So we should not assume that a movement is about justice simply because it claims to be about justice. Throughout church history, many with great intentions embraced ideologies that claimed to advance Christian justice, but masked deep incompatibilities with scripture and hurt millions.
MCDOWELL: In what ways do you think some of today’s social justice movements are coming from “a framework that is not compatible with the Bible” to use your words?
WILLIAMS: Good question. There are a bunch of ideologies inspiring much of what is called “social justice” today—Neo-Marxism, Critical Race Theory, Postmodern Deconstructionism, Queer Critical Theory, and Gender Theory, to name a few. Let me offer three ways to discern between these ideological versions of justice and biblical justice:
1. If a view of justice blames all evil on external systems of oppression while ignoring Solomon’s pride-deflating insight that our own hearts are full of evil and moral insanity (Ecclesiastes 9:3) then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview sees evil not only in “systems,” where we ought to seek justice, but also within the twisted hearts of those who make those systems unjust. Because evil resides in every human heart, all the external activism in the world won’t bring about any lasting justice if we downplay our need for the regenerating, love-infusing work of God through the Gospel.
2. If a view of justice deconstructs relationships in terms of “power-differentials” and argues that all such hierarchies are evil and must be abolished in the name of “equality” then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview totally opposes the sinful abuse of power, but sees many hierarchies, like the parent-child, rabbi-disciple, elders-congregation, teacher-student relationships, as part of God’s good design for human flourishing.
3. If a view of justice interprets all truth, reason, and logic as mere constructs of the oppressive class, if it encourages us to dismiss someone’s viewpoint on the basis of their skin tone or gender, then it is not biblical justice. The Greatest Commandment calls people from every ethnicity and gender to love God with our whole minds, which includes the truth-seeking, reasonable, and logical parts of our God-given minds. A mind that loves the Father assesses ideas based on their biblical fidelity, truth-value, and evidence, not the group identity of those articulating it.
MCDOWELL: What about discipleship? Do you see differences in the ways the Bible and contemporary movements in social justice seek to form our characters?
WILLIAMS: Definitely. There are a lot of differences. Here are three:
1. If a view of justice encourage indignation toward people-groups as a motivator for social activism then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview calls us to overcome evil with good, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.
2. If a view of justice breaks people into group identities, generating a spirit of mutual suspicion, hostility, fear, labeling, offended-ness, and preoccupation with one’s subjective feelings then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview champions a unifying kind of love that “is not easily offended,” and offers us the fruit of the Spirit like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
3. If a view of justice seeks behavior modification, often through intimidation, speech codes, and ideological re-education, then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview seeks character transformation not through political coercion but through the in-working power of the Holy Spirit, the discipleship of the family, and the local church.
MCDOWELL: Any closing thoughts on the differences between current trends and and biblical justice and why it matters?
WILLIAMS: Sure. There are a lot of other differences we could talk about, things like whether the family is a system of oppression to be abolished or a beautiful signpost of Jesus and his relationship to the Church, whether our bodies and biology have intrinsic meaning and worth, how we should defend the rights of the vulnerable unborn and the women exploited by the abortion industry, whether what we call sexual freedom is actually a form of bondage, and more. But let me leave your readers with one or two more important differences to ponder:
1. If a view of justice teaches that the human telos (i.e., our ultimate purpose and meaning) is defined by the creature, and that anyone who challenges our self-defined telos is an oppressor, then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview teaches that our telos is defined by the Creator and the sinful refusal to live within that God-defined telos brings oppression to ourselves and those around us. Real authenticity and freedom don’t come from defining yourself and “following your heart,” but from letting God define you and following His heart.
2. If a view of justice sees one culture borrowing from one another as the oppressive act of “cultural appropriation” then it is not biblical justice. A biblical worldview calls us to be cross-cultural ambassadors for Christ, imitating Paul who appropriated Greco-Roman culture on Mar’s Hill, and became “all things to all men” for the sake of the Gospel. Paul spurred a lot of reconciliation between opposing groups because he preached the good news in which our new identity “in Christ” is our deepest identity.
A “culture war” model has taken over our culture. I see far more hope in the biblical insight that Jesus destroyed the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile to make for Himself “one man,” uniting people from every tongue tribe, and nation and making them ambassadors of reconciliation. Family and reconciliation, not inter-group warfare, is the Bible’s model for justice. The church needs to step up and live that out in an obvious and compelling way, to show the watching world the beautiful alternative to mutual destruction.
If we really care about justice—which should be all of us who take the Bible seriously—then, no, we shouldn’t go along with ideologies that promise liberation and peace and only bring more bondage and strife. Instead we should love the oppressed (and love the God who loves the oppressed!) by carrying on the beautiful, biblical justice tradition of the Wilberforces and Tubmans and Boothes of history.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
Thaddeus Williams, Ph.D. is a professor of Theology at Biola University. He is the author of REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History (Weaver, 2017) “A New Theocracy,” and “Beyond Capes and Cowbells.” He blogs regularly at www.thegoodbookblog.com. Follow him on Twitter: @thaddeuswill.