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Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: Summary & Analysis

GR_Williams

Our next book in the Gospel & Race Project is Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice by Thaddeus Williams. He is a theology professor at Biola University and his research interests include the Trinity, divine and human agency, dialogue with atheists, and theology of culture. In this book, Williams draws from a diverse range of theologians, sociologists, artists, and activists to make the case that we must be discerning if we are to “truly execute justice” as Scripture commands since not everything called “social justice” today is compatible with a biblical vision of a better world. In this review, I will briefly outline his main points and chapter summaries, and then conclude with some takeaways for us as a church.

What is “Social Justice”?

Williams begins with the foundational premise that the Bible offers hopeful and distinctive answers to deep questions of worship, community, salvation, and knowledge that ought to mark a uniquely Christian pursuit of justice. He beings the book by making a biblical case for stating that social justice is not optional for a Christian. The Bible is crystal clear:

  • God does not suggest, He commands that we do justice. (Jer 22:3, Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58:6)
  • Doing justice brings a brightness and blessing into our lives. (Isaiah 58:8)
  • Defending the cause of the poor and needy is what it means to know God. (Jeremiah 22:16)
  • Apathy toward the oppressed can hinder our prayers and sever our connection with God. (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Which “Social Justice” is biblical?

Williams reminds us that the call of Scripture is to seek justice truly (Jeremiah 7:5). This means there are untrue ways of trying to execute justice. Sometimes, untrue ways of trying to bring justice can begin with good intentions but end up wreaking havoc in our society.

Williams begins by distinguishing between two types of social justice, “Social Justice A” and “Social Justice B.” He uses “Social Justice A” to speak of the kind of justice “our ancient brothers and sisters did to rescue and adopt the precious little image-bearers who had been discarded like trash at the dumps outside many Roman cities,” as well as the kind of justice exemplified by William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Sophie Scholl, and so on. He contrasts this with “Social Justice B” which depends upon “the ‘oppressors vs. oppressed’ narrative of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, the deconstructionism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the gender and queer theory of Judith Butler (pg. 4).” There are crucial questions to ask if we are going to grow in discerning between true and untrue forms of seeking justice. Williams suggests 12 questions to ask ourselves before engaging in any type of justice venture.

Part 1: Jehovah or Jezebel? Three Questions about Social Justice and Worship

1. Does our vision of social justice take the godhood of God seriously?

“Look deep enough underneath any horizontal human-against-human injustice and you will always find a vertical human-against-God injustice, a refusal to give the Creator the worship only the Creator is due. All injustice is a violation of the first commandment.” (p. 18)

“To cut God off from our understanding is to block out the sun and bump around in the dark. We see everything in its truest light when we view it in light of God’s existence. That includes the way we see humanity’s grim track record of injustice as well as our own underrated capacity for evil.” (p. 16)

“We are, each of us, far more corrupt and corruptible, capable of unleashing far more injustice, than we admit to ourselves.” (p. 16)

The worship of the Triune God of the Bible must be central to understanding ourselves and the pursuit of justice in this world. Williams clarifies that he does not mean that if a person does not worship the God of the Bible, then they have no true and good insights into justice. He is saying that if God is not at the foundation of our vision for justice, it will blur our vision for everything else.

2. Does it acknowledge the image of God in everyone, regardless of size, shade, sex, or status?

“When we reduce people to inside-the-box categories, we become oblivious to the beyond-the-box fact that every human being is a divine image-bearer.” (p. 24)

“As we seek a more just world, if we see those who disagree with us as Republicans or Democrats, progressives or conservatives, radical leftists or right-wing fundamentalists first and as image-bearers second, or not at all, then we aren’t on the road to justice. We’re on history’s wide and bloody road to dehumanization.” (p. 24)

The most critical foundation we can have of treating others whom we disagree with is that they are made in the image of God, thus worthy of respect, honor, and dignity. May the Lord help us see others through this lens before any other man-made category.

3. Does it make a false god out of the self, the state, or social acceptance?

Each of us is tempted to make idols out of self, the state, or social acceptance in our engagement with culture, but specifically in our pursuit of justice.

Idol of Self

When creatures begin with self to define the creature’s identity, it leads to idolatry since identity-making is a “God-sized task.”

Idol of the State

Self-autonomy leads humans to turn to the government to solve all the brokenness in the world that only God and his gospel can do.

Idols of Social Acceptance

When we set out to do justice and combine it with an innocuous desire to be liked and relevant.

Williams goes on to outline temptations that each of us might be prone to both on the conservative and progressive side of the spectrum regarding justice. I chose to highlight the idols on the right because of my tendency to focus on the idols of people out there while being blind to the idols that persist in my own heart. I’m not trying to minimize the idols that exist among progressives but trying to help us take seriously the logs that might exist in our own eyes first.

Idols of the Right

These include (but aren’t limited to) stuff, solitude, sky, and the status quo.

  • By “stuff ” I simply mean material prosperity for its own sake—hoarding wealth and celebrating reckless consumption without regard for the corrosive effects that too much stuff can have on our souls and our society.
  • By “solitude” I mean the kind of rugged individualism by which we think every man is an island unto himself instead of seeing ourselves and our actions as inevitably impacting those around us. It cares only about what Francis Schaeffer called those two “horrible values” of “personal peace and affluence,” with blinders on to the oppressed.
  • By “sky” I refer to the versions of Christianity in which the whole point is to simply float off into the clouds after we die. The lordship of Jesus extends to every square inch of reality, as Abraham Kuyper noted. That includes poverty, race, sexuality, and politics. A super-spiritualized Christianity that has no implications for real pain in the here-and-now is hardly worthy of the word Christian.
  • By “status quo” I mean a tendency to accept the way things are with no recognition of how many are languishing and the urgent need to bring the lordship of Jesus to bear in such tragic spaces. Given Calvin’s insight into our idol-factory hearts, we must be ever cautious never to bow before stuff, solitude, sky, or the status quo.
  • There is a fifth idol—skin tone—the point at which the right becomes the “alt-right.” This is when a person is trapped in racial idolatry and considers one race superior to another.

Idols of the Left

There are many idols on the left the Williams highlights to include“critical race and gender theory,” “intersectionality,” and “postmodernism.” All of which removes God at the foundations and appeal to the brokenness in the world and offer comprehensive explanations for the reason for the suffering caused by the oppressors accompanied by strong ethical imperatives to upend the status quo. In short, it gives life meaning.” Williams will spend some time in the following chapters on how we can grow to discern these idols in conversations about justice.

Part 2: Unity or Uproar? Three Questions about Social Justice and Community

4. The Collective Question: Does our vision of social justice take any group-identity more seriously than our identities “in Adam” and “in Christ”?

“If we believe, with Rousseau, that human institutions are the primary source of evil, then we can divide the human race into good and bad groups on the basis of whether those institutions help or hurt them. If we believe, with Paul, that evil is our shared human heritage—that our hearts share the same corruption, that those at the top and the bottom are united in having idol-factory hearts—then something powerful and ego-deflating happens. It becomes impossible to go through life with a self-serving mindset that envisions halos over your own head and horns on everyone else’s.” (p. 45)

Williams warns against taking an “us” vs. “them” mindset in our pursuit of justice. Social Justice B often begins with taking group identities of oppressor vs. oppressed as a primary category of understanding justice instead of our common identity “in Adam” and “in Christ.” He wants us to seriously reckon with the reality that we can become the next round of self-righteous oppressors. When there was a conflict in the early church between Jews and Gentiles, Williams wants us to see how Paul was careful not to split people into oppressor/oppressed binaries even though they are real biblical categories.

First, Paul told the truth that sin is not exclusively the oppressor’s problem, but a human problem. (Romans 3:10-12)

Second, Paul told the truth that being “in Christ Jesus” is a new identity that transcends other group identities. (Galatians 3:26-28)

Third, Paul told the truth that God and God alone grants us our “not guilty” verdict on the basis of the justifying death of Jesus. (Ephesians 2:13-14)

Williams helps us remember that in Christ, ethnic enemies become family, oppressed and oppressors become brothers and sisters, and privileged and underprivileged become equally loved siblings under the same all-loving Father. This is the power of the gospel to bring harmony where there is hostility.

5. The Splintering Question: Does our vision of social justice embrace divisive propaganda?

“We must see Social Justice B for what it is. It too is a theodicy. It attempts to explain the world’s evil and suffering by making group identities the primary categories through which we interpret all pain in the universe. No matter how much it waves the banners of “justice,” “equality,” and “liberation,” do we really think such a grand experiment in collectivist group blaming will end well? If the body count of the last century has taught us anything, it is that ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. Telling damnable stories about entire people groups, seeing individuals as exemplars of their groups, and blaming the hardness of life on them are really bad ideas. They should be given no foothold in the church of Jesus Christ.” (p.60)

We must be careful to not embrace news and propaganda that feed on the “us” vs. “them” mentality. Whether it is “those crazy liberals” or “those white evangelicals.” Our news and media, and even our own hearts attempt to answer the injustice in the world by finding a collective scapegoat. If we find ourselves blaming a particular group of people whether based on political persuasion, or ethnic and cultural differences, we can find our hearts growing in contempt, anger, while neglecting the virtues of compassion and understanding that can serve as a means to increase dialogue and unity.

6. The Fruit Question: Does our vision of social justice replace love, peace, and patience with suspicion, division, and rage?

“The kingdoms of the world play the self-defeating game of tribalizing, retaliation, and escalation, running up body counts in the name of “justice.” (p. 65)

Building on the last question, we must ask if the pursuit of justice promotes the fruit of the spirit or an increased sense of self-righteousness and pride in our hearts. We can all learn from the example of Corrie Ten Boom on her response of humility, love, grace, forgiveness, self-criticism, and willingness to seek supernatural help in the face of her Nazi persecutors and enemies. Gospel fruit like this is shocking to visions of social justice that begin and end with suspicion, division, and rage.

Part 3: Sinners or Systems? Three Questions about Social Justice and Salvation

7. The Disparity Question: Does our vision of social justice prefer damning stories to undamning facts?

Systemic injustice is any system that requires or encourages us to defy the Creator by breaking his good commands. That is the implicit biblical definition that empowered Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to subvert the systems of American slavery, Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to resist the systems of Nazism, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel to undermine the systems of Soviet Communism. (p 80)

But that is not the way Social Justice B defines “systemic injustice.” From the Social Justice B perspective, the way you spot systemic injustice is by looking for unequal outcomes. An unequal outcome becomes damning evidence that sexism, racism, or some other evil “ism” is at the foundation of a system (p. 80).

Williams makes the case that the Social Justice B vision which reduces the root cause of unequal outcomes to discrimination only is patently false. He goes on to say that when we see the world through these lenses of discrimination, in many situations we will find ourselves “swinging swords against perceived injustices when we are only beating the air.” He goes on to give several examples of how different people with different priorities making different choices will experience different outcomes.

As Christians, we must admit that wherever sin exists, there is a potential for discrimination to exist. And wherever discrimination exists to promote sinful partiality, it must be opposed. However, we must be careful to not succumb to believing that just because there are unequal outcomes, there must be sinful discrimination.

In a world, unlike ours, with zero racism or sexism or any other evil ism, there would still be vast inequalities based on things as boring and undamning as geography, age, birthdays, birth order, shopping habits, desire to lay bricks, and so much more (p. 82).

8. The Color Question: Does our vision of social justice promote racial strife?

I am not saying there is no racism, sexism, and other evil isms expressed in such systems. There is. The dismal callback rates on identical resumes with black-sounding names compared with white-sounding names is one tragic case in point. We also find evidence of enduring discrimination in American housing and criminal justice systems. If we play by the all-or-nothing rules of today’s political tribalism, many of us will hastily sweep such evidence under the rug, believing that discrimination is a thing of the past and that anyone who says otherwise is a brainwashed leftist. As Christians, we must do better. Remember, the God who commands us to seek justice is the same God who commands us to “test everything.” If our political allegiances encourage us to swiftly write off all claims of discrimination rather than to test them, then we will fail to bring the lordship of Christ to bear in many of the world’s most aching places (p. 96)

As this quote above suggests, Williams acknowledges areas in our society where there is certainly empirical evidence that black people in our country are still discriminated against. Examples in hiring, housing, and criminal justice are just a few examples of latent discrimination that still exists in certain areas of society. Williams acknowledges that “we can’t expect the effects of 345 years of legalized racial oppression in the US to have vanished in the last half-century since the Civil Rights Act.”

However, he also wants us to ask some additional questions about how people from other ethnicities can overcome barriers if this country is truly racist? What about the breakdown of the family in black communities that has led to almost 70% of black children being born out of wedlock? He suggests that some of these factors must also be part of the conversation. Williams is right, that the vision of Social Justice B often pits different ethnicities against each other by blaming all the ills of society on systemic racial injustice. As Christians, we must combat enduring discrimination where we see it manifesting clearly. It does us no good to dismiss empirical evidence that Williams highlights, however, we must also be open to empirical evidence that shows other factors that might contribute to disparities between outcomes for blacks and other ethnicities in our society. It is a hard balance to navigate, but we must faithfully do both.

9. The Gospel Question: Does our vision of social justice distort the best news in history?

The gospel is the good news of what God has done through the sin-atoning death and bodily resurrection of Jesus, the ascended King. Williams's main concern in this section is to warn against elevating social activism as a requirement of the gospel itself instead of a mark of consistent faithful Christian living.

I am not arguing that Christians should be apathetic about such injustices. On the contrary, we should care passionately about the dehumanization of God’s precious image-bearers and work toward a more just world. I am arguing that making the imperative to work against such injustices either identical to or part of the gospel is to lose the gospel. Given Lewis’s first thing principle, to lose the gospel is to lose justice for the oppressed too (p. 113)

Williams wants us to remember that social justice is not the gospel or in the gospel, rather, it is more helpful to say social justice is from the gospel. This is a critical distinction that preserves gospel orthodoxy as well as gospel orthopraxy that is consistent with Christian living.

Part 4: Truth or Tribes Thinking? Three Questions about Social Justice and Knowledge

Williams wants to help us see some Tribes thinking that is prevalent in the Social Justice B vision. Under Social Justice B, six oppressor categories—theocrats, racists, Islamophobes, bigots, elitists, and sexists—combine to best explain the world around us.

T, beware the Theocrats! The oppressors are right-wing Christians trying to cram their outdated morality down everyone else’s throats with the coercive powers of law.

R, beware the Racists! The oppressors are those who marginalize and dehumanize people who do not share their skin tone or ethnic identity.

I, beware the Islamophobes! The oppressors are those who fear that most if not all Muslims are hate-mongering terrorists rather than peace-loving neighbors.

B, beware the Bigots! The oppressors are those who use their heteronormative power to deny the rights and humanity of the LGBTQ community.

E, beware the Exploiters! The oppressors are those whose capitalist greed leads them to use and abuse the poor for their own selfish, materialistic gain.

S, beware the Sexists! The oppressors are men who deny equal rights, equal access to power, and equal pay to maintain a patriarchal tyranny over half our species.

So the first thing to note about Tribes thinking is that there is a gut-wrenching measure of truth to it. There is no shortage of real-world examples of Christians taking political power to dangerous extremes, people being dehumanized for their skin color, moderate Muslims being treated like bloodthirsty jihadists, gays and lesbians being ousted from their homes and treated like subhumans, capitalists who have valued profits over people, and men who have trampled women. We must say, with tears, all of this is true. If we take the Bible seriously, we must strive to make all of this untrue. We must work toward a world in which the full humanity of everyone is respected and cherished, not only in theory but also in action(p. 125)

In this final section, Williams explores three questions for us to consider how tribes thinking, specifically in the Social Justice B vision of justice, can go wrong.

10. The Tunnel Vision Question: Does our vision of social justice make one way of seeing something the only way of seeing everything?

When oppression—a true insight into some things—becomes the way of seeing most things or all things, then our story of the world ceases to be a grand story (p. 128)

My point is not to deny the reality of racism, sexism, or economic exploitation. It is simply that caring about justice requires a commitment to truth. We can no more separate truth from justice than we can subtract one side from a triangle and still consider it a triangle. The extent to which Tribes thinking predetermines answers to hard questions is the extent to which it obscures truth and unintentionally leaves more people broken (p. 130)

Williams warns us that tribe thinking is prevalent among both the left and the right in our culture. On the left, tribe thinking keeps people from being blind to a lot of truth, goodness, and beauty in the world by being solely focused on the injustices. On the right, tribe thinking can keep us from being blind to a lot of deception, injustice, and ugliness by solely focusing on the goodness and beauty in the world around us.

Given the political polarization of our day, seeing our side as caring about others and the other side as cruel is easy and self-serving. But it is not so black-and-white. Often the left and right simply have different “others.” If we are shaped by Scripture instead of the culture wars, then we will not become the priests and Levites galloping past bodies on the side of the road. Christians should be known less as culture warriors and more as Good Samaritans who stop for battered neighbors, whether they are black, white, brown, male, female, gay, straight, rich, poor, old, young, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, capitalist, socialist, Republican, Democrat, near, far, tall, short, or smaller than a peanut (p.134).

For us as Christians, just being aware that we can fall into thinking tribally instead of biblically is a good first step to addressing the blinders we might have. I pray that we can grow in thinking through cultural and political issues primarily through the lens of Scripture instead of the tribal lenses we might be more comfortable with.

11. The Suffering Question: Does our vision of social justice turn the “lived experience” of hurting people into more pain?

People's stories or their own lived experiences do matter. The Bible commands us to “be quick to hear,”(James 1:19) “bear one another’s burdens,” (Galatians 6:2), and “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). Williams wants us to see that it is “impossible to bear someone else’s burdens without really, truly listening to them as they bravely unbandage their wounds for us to see (pp. 139-140).”

However, Williams wants us to be careful to not advance ideologies that “generalize people’s painful experiences, leave them chronically triggered, and set their uh-oh centers ablaze—then we should not pretend that we are doing the kind of justice Scripture commands (p. 134).”

Williams wants us to be wary of Social Justice B visions that make the lived experiences of the oppressed should be paramount over and against oppressive notions like objective truth, facts, research, and evidence. He does this because he believes that the Bible is just as much anti-fear as it is anti-oppression. By this, he means that we must be careful to not fuel people’s lived experiences to cause them to live in constant fear. How can we grow in balancing listening to people’s stories while maintaining our grounding in truth? I’m still chewing on this, but here is what he suggests:

We should never write off people’s pain but should instead listen with open ears and “weep with those who weep.”22 But using the lived experiences of the oppressed to push noble sounding visions of social justice and insulate those visions from factual criticisms is not compassionate. It is cruel to the oppressed. It exploits their pain. It adds to their number. Again, as Christians commanded to truly execute justice, we have to do better (p. 148)

12. The Standpoint Question: Does our vision of social justice turn the quest for truth into an identity game?

In this final question, Williams cautions us to not elevate the perspective of a person as more truthful because of the color of their skin, their experience, or their social status.

There is a deeper point here we should care about, particularly as Christians. That is, the more we start weighing ideas on the melanin of the idea-speaker rather than the merit of the idea itself, the more difficult it will become for us to love God with all our minds the way Scripture commands. If we care about the greatest commandment and the pursuit of truth, we must actively resist the identity games of Tribes thinking. We must weigh ideas based on Scriptural fidelity over social status (p. 156).

We are all fallen. We are all fallible. We all need grace. No one’s perspective, including my own, is free from the truth-blurring power of sin, except God’s perspective. Granting unquestionable status to the poor and oppressed or to anything other than the Word of God is to erase the Creator-creature distinction. And when we erase the difference between God and his creatures, what we call “justice” is sure to become injustice (p. 158).

We must each be careful to see that sin affects people regardless of ethnicity or social status, therefore we cannot automatically consider the perspective of a person as more truthful just because of a particular identity they might have. However, we can grow in listening to people from different ethnicities and different socioeconomic statuses with different experiences that can help us grow in listening and understanding their perspectives.

Conclusion

One of our main goals in the Gospel & Race project was to grow in discernment of good and evil as it relates to visions of social justice as it relates to the conversations surrounding race in the church. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for many reasons. It will be a go-to book for me in growing in discernment of different visions of social justice. There were some minor things I would consider weaknesses in the book. I think Williams is mindful of the idols and blinders that exist on both the conservative and progressive sides of the conversations on justice. However, most of the questions lean more towards identifying the blind spots and pitfalls of secular progressives on the issue of social justice. I would have liked to have seen questions that also identify and expose the blind spots and pitfalls of conservatives as well. For example: how can our pursuit of truth potentially keep us from listening, loving, and growing in compassion for others? Or how can our lack of experience with injustice personally keep us from pursuing justice on behalf of others who have experienced injustice? These are blind spots in my own thinking that keep me from pursuing justice on behalf of others that I would have loved to explore more

Regardless of these minor critiques, Willaims book is thoroughly theological, gospel-centered, and asks some really helpful questions that help us see the pitfalls against the Social Justice B vision that is put forward by secular liberals and progressive Christians. When tribes thinking, identity politics, intersectionality, become a primary lens of viewing injustice in the world, there can be damaging results in promoting ethnic harmony within the church.

Reflect

  • What were some helpful insights for you from this book?
  • How can we address the tribal thinking that blinds us to the idols that exist in our own thinking on the conversations surrounding the ethnic divisions in our country?

Pray

  • For the Lord to help us the log in our own eyes to be more concerning than the spec that is in our brother’s eye.
  • For the Lord to help us grow in discernment of unbiblical visions of social justice.
  • For the Lord to help us pursue justice without compromising truth.