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How do we seek justice without compromising truth?

An interview with Thaddeus Williams about social media, social justice, and a Christian’s responsibility

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February 8, 2022

Social justice is a polarized topic in these divided times. The issues that are associated within this discussion are important and should be evaluated from a biblical perspective. Dr. Thaddeus Williams, an associate professor of systematic theology at Biola University, helps us do that in his recent book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth. Below, he answers questions about justice, identity politics, and the role of social media in our conversations.

Jason Thacker: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What got you interested in a lot of these topics, and why did you end up writing this book?

Thaddeus Williams: I teach systematic theology at Biola University, and I’ve always considered myself sort of a generalist fixated on how the lordship of Jesus applies to every square inch of life. So from where I’m coming from, there’s really nothing out of bounds or any territory of reality that Jesus doesn’t declare “mine.” I’ve been interested in literature and art, and with most of my books, I sort of want readers to be confused and ask, “What am I reading? Is this apologetics? Is this systematic theology? Is this church history? Is this literature? Is this poetry?” And the answer is yes, it’s all those things. Because again, if Jesus is Lord over every square inch, then we should reflect that as best we can. 

So when it comes specifically to questions of social justice — which is my latest book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth — I noticed in all the speaking and traveling, I do, some version of the problem of evil [would come up], with the top question being “How can a good God exist when the universe is so messed up?” But in the last four to five years, that’s shifted pretty dramatically. Some version of “How do Christians think biblically about social justice?” has now taken first place. So the first motive behind the book is realizing there are a lot of Christians out there seeking biblical clarity on these questions.

And I’d say a second big reason was seeing a lot of friends and students of mine getting swept up into certain social justice ideologies, and they just slowly became unrecognizable to me. The fruit of the Spirit — love and joy and peace and patience — slowly got replaced with bitterness, rage, resentment, assuming the worst of other people’s motives, and self-righteousness. I was scratching my head and trying to get to the bottom of it. I realized, at the root, there are a lot of very trendy ideas about social justice that are on the rise these days. And I’m convinced a lot of these ideas are a direct assault on a Christian worldview and directly undermine Christian character.

And one of the final reasons is a lot of the stuff I was reading out there was super polarized. For example, if you think racism exists, then [some think] obviously you’re a far-left, snowflake, social justice warrior Marxist. Or, you might think something isn’t as racist as it’s cracked up to be, so you’re [labeled as] an alt-right, fascist, neo-Nazi or something. And I’m only slightly embellishing there. These days, that tends to be the way these conversations go. So, I hoped to put out a resource that could actually draw Christians together to think it through biblically and as charitably as possible.

JT: In the book, you lay out a biblical vision for social justice, and you make the case that social justice isn’t optional for the Christian. Can you help us understand a little bit of a biblical understanding of social justice and the role of the imago Dei?

TW: Just think of how many passages where God doesn’t suggest, but rather commands justice. “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed” (Jer. 22:3). And most of us are familiar with Micah 6:8. It’s not, “What does the Lord suggest of you?” It’s, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This is a running theme from the Old to the New Testament — to do justice. 

So I argue that there’s no such thing as a private injustice or even a private sin that won’t, in some way, affect others. Because both sin, by its very nature, and injustice, by its very nature, are corrosive. They send out a destructive ripple effect on the people around us. So, in a way, all injustice is social injustice in the sense that it affects people around me. And the flip side of that coin is also true. If I’m doing real justice, it’s going to bless the people around me. 

JT: Can we use the term social justice, especially since the term has been co-opted by ideologues? 

TW: The term was invented by a Christian thinker a little over 200 years ago. And if it’s being used and abused today, well, let’s reclaim it and inject those letters with biblical content. Throughout my book, I draw a very basic distinction that runs throughout. On the one hand, social justice, simply defined as the kind of justice that’s compatible with the biblical worldview. But on the other hand, a lot of what’s on the rise these days is what I call “social justice b,” which is deeply incompatible with the biblical worldview. 

So, what are some of the marks of biblical justice? Think of that famous wedding passage where Paul’s describing love (1 Corinthians 13). Paul says that real love is not easily offended. I would say, for example, that’s one mark of biblical justice; it’s marked by a slowness to take offense. This social justice movement that we’re seeing on the rise today is the exact opposite. It actually encourages and inspires people to take offense. By [it’s adherents’] standards, the more offended you are, the more virtuous you are. 

A second point of distinction of biblical justice is going to start with the pride-leveling reality from Paul’s argument in Romans 3 when he says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. A biblical approach to justice isn’t going to play these kinds of inner-tribal identity group games of saying, “Well, I’m in the good group. We’ve been oppressed. You’re in the bad group, and you’re the oppressors.” Rather, it’s sort of like a wrecking ball that smashes far-left and far-right versions of identity politics where my economic status, skin tone, or my XX or XY chromosomes will determine the worth and value of what I have to say. A biblical view knows we’re tragically united in Adam. But then there’s this new identity in Christ that draws people together from every tongue, tribe, and nation. So a biblical approach to justice is going to give us a foundation for real, meaningful unity that you just won’t find in the “social justice B” alternative. 

How does the image of God fit into all that? If I’m starting from a biblical perspective, then even the people I most passionately disagree with are not enemies on the battlefront of a culture war. Instead, I need to see them at a deeper level. I need to see them theologically and through biblical lenses where this person is an image-bearer of God. And when that clicks, it’s really hard to keep playing the name-calling game, the mudslinging, the assuming the worst about everybody who disagrees with me. If you look at the “social justice B” alternative, there just isn’t a category for the imago Dei. It lends itself more readily to being able to use some pretty dehumanizing language to describe people who don’t agree.

JT: Let’s dig a little bit into some of the issues surrounding identity politics and the elevation of group identity over and against biblical categories of being in Adam or in Christ. One of the criticisms that a lot of Christians have of the social justice movement broadly is the elevation of this group identity. Help us to think through some of the valid elements of understanding group dynamics in the ways that certain groups have been disenfranchised over time, and at the same time realizing that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. How do we navigate some of the tensions between those worldviews?

TW: I’m going to resort to my mentor, my friend, the living legend of the Civil Rights Movement, John Perkins, who, as you mentioned, was kind enough to to write the foreword to my book. And he shares four basic points. Number one, we’ve got to start with God. If you don’t start there, then these tribal identities are going to lead to tribal warfare. If we don’t start with God, then we’re not starting with the image of God as the premise of how we engage somebody. 

His second bit of insight is to be one in Christ. Basically, he says, regardless of the melanin levels in your skin cells, recognize that you have been adopted by the same Father into the family of God. You have been redeemed by the same Son, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and you’re inhabited by the same Holy Spirit. Whatever cultural differences, melanin level difference, XX or XY chromosome differences, or whatever other kind of cultural category we could sort people into, a running thread through New Testament theology is that we are family. And if we aren’t reminding ourselves of that often, then we’re going to fall into these, polarized political traps and start excommunicating each other left and right. 

His third bit of advice is to keep the gospel first — the historic gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says this is of first importance. He cites this ancient — and some scholars think it’s actually the earliest — creed we have on record from the first century church: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, he rose from the dead on the third day and appeared. If we get so swept [up] in social justice that the best news in the universe, the saving death and bodily resurrection of Jesus, becomes an afterthought, then Perkins says we aren’t doing justice and forth. 

And finally, he says, just teach the truth. He clarifies and says don’t go with what’s politically in vogue or what’s trendy right now. Don’t go with what politicians and presidents say. Don’t side with the Twitter mob. When we start with God’s Word, it’s going to take us back again and again to the fact that we all need community in Christ. We join an every-tongue-tribe-and-nation kind of community that gives us a foundation for being a true family. Whereas the further and further we drift from the text, the more we get swept up into the political moment, which is all about us-versus-them tribalism. 

JT: Throughout your reading and research, what role [did you discover that] technology, specifically social media, plays in some of these identities and tribalism and polarization? How do you counsel Christians to use these technologies more wisely?

TW: That is a profound and pressing question. The advent of the trifecta of the internet, social media platforms, and smartphones is extremely new in the history of the human race. And that means that I now have at my fingertips instant access to everything horrible happening on planet Earth, with a few swipes. I can quickly be pulled down a rabbit hole of depressing headline after depressing headline. I think a lot of the fallout of the social media and smartphone revolution is that we just don’t know how to cope with scrolling through a news feed and seeing everything horrible thrown into our field of consciousness on a daily basis. That’s part of the problem. 

The second part of it is we need to contextualize the rise of social media. Particularly in American history, we were coming out of the 90s. The internet came to be when I would argue relativism was at its peak in America. Really, the only thing considered sinful in the mainstream 90s was calling anything sinful. Part of the problem is that anything-goes style relativism just doesn’t fit our design. God designed us, according to Scripture, to be part of an epic drama of good versus evil, to fight the principalities and the powers and take every thought captive into obedience to Christ. We’re designed to be part of that grand moral melodrama. And relativism just took that from people, because relativism can’t give you anything bigger than your own personal tastes and preferences. Nobody’s going to die for their favorite flavor of ice cream, right? We don’t die for preferences. So on the heels of that, I would argue that relativism has a shelf life.

As social media has become basically a fixture of life in the 21st century, you have a lot of people who were bored morally through the 90s. Now, all of a sudden, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. So now people think: “I need to to be a warrior, I need to to signal my virtue to the masses, and I need to be able to to hashtag my solidarity or my outrage at every new headline, because that’s a lot more exciting.” In the broader cultural context, part of what we’re seeing is the convergence of a new technology that enables people to voice moral outrage unlike any platform humanity has ever seen, and this is coming on the heels of a stage of extreme moral malaise and boredom. Put those two things together, and you have a recipe for everybody being outraged all the time — at others who either don’t have enough outrage or the wrong kind of outrage. 

So what can Christians do in a moment like that? We don’t want to just write off social media. One of the things the Church has been great at through history is whenever there is a new innovation, new ground is pioneered in communication technology. As soon as the Gutenberg press came out in the late 15th century, Christians were right there at the forefront to say, “Let’s get the Bible out there in a way that it’s no longer under lock and chain in a Roman Catholic cathedral. Let’s get it in the hands of the masses.” During any one of these decisive technological leaps forward, the Church has adapted and often been at the forefront. 

So, as Christians, we don’t want to have [the attitude that] social media is bad. I know people who heard the gospel for the first time through social media. My dad has this mission field in cyberspace where he’s reaching out to Baha’is and Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. He’s been able to have meaningful points of contact and share the gospel. So I would say it’s not something to be afraid of, as much as something to capitalize on for the sake of the gospel.

And let me add a few bits of advice on navigating a technology that can be ambivalent and can pull us in really good or bad directions. Two things immediately come to mind. We need to recognize something that I describe in my book as the Newman effect. I’m borrowing here from a 2018 viral interview between Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and news host Cathy Newman. Any time Peterson makes a point, the response was “so you’re saying,” followed by an inflammatory interpretation of what Peterson was saying. I argue in the book that social media has sort of made Cathy Newman’s out of all of us. So, as we engage this very new technology, [we should] not play by those rules. [Unfortunately], that’s how most conversations that I’ve seen on important questions tend to go as we buy into the Newman effect and automatically assume the worst of other people’s motives. 

Secondly, think of the rise of Millennial and Gen Z folks who don’t identify as religious. There is a clear uptick over the course of the last 10 years. Researchers trying to get to the bottom of it found the number one answer was some version of, “I saw this really hilarious two-minute YouTube video of this guy just ripping Christianity.” People were now settling ultimate questions, eternally-weighty questions based on some two-minute sound bite they saw or some 60-second clip. So, that’s something we want to be very careful of, especially as we deal with complex questions like race, economics, sexism, abortion, or fill in the blank. As Christians, we just can’t settle for soundbites, which means we need to deliberately resist the algorithms that will only send us the kind of stuff we’re already buying into. We need to be very intentional about breaking out of our echo chambers. For Christians committed to truth in the age of social media, we need to be as intentional as possible about getting at the whole truth.

JT: What are some books that you would recommend for folks? Maybe one or two works that help us understand some of these issues, whether from a more historical perspective or more of a practical outworking on some of these?

TW: The one I’ve been going through again recently, that seems like it was written for these crazy times we’re in, was written a couple of hundred years ago. It’s William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. It’s rightly considered a classic. And what he does there is he’s able to give just rock solid theology. Wilberforce has a clear grasp on the historic gospel of the Christian faith and the implications of that gospel for society, particularly when it comes to questions of justice and social justice.

A lot of social justice causes revolve around questions of gender, gender identity, and sexuality. Religious freedom gets wrapped up in there, too. So, another resource is The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Truman. He does a really helpful job of kind of walking through the history of some of the ideas that used to be in the ivory towers of academia, but have now gone mainstream. If you want to be discerning in this cultural moment and see a lot of the trendy ideology for what it is, I would put his book pretty close to the top of the list.

This article originally appeared here. 

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as director of research and chair of research in technology ethics at ERLC. He is the author or editor of several books, including his latest "Following Jesus in a Digital Age" and "The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society." He is a graduate of The … Read More