I write this post as a Pastoral reflection, lament, and challenge. I have had the great privilege of shepherding a Church in the heart of Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood for the last seven years. It has been a sweet journey where I have regularly seen the providential hand of God. I’ve seen miracles that have brought me to tears before the throne of God. And I’ve also walked through tragedies that have brought me to tears before that very same God. As an ethnically diverse Church, in the midst of an ethnically diverse neighborhood, in the center of a highly segregated city, we have labored together in unity: learning together, growing together, serving one another, grieving with one another, sharing meals together, launching ministries together, and ultimately worshiping and growing in intimacy with Christ together. I can honestly say that despite the many bumps and valleys, God has done something breathtaking in our midst.
Yet after the death of George Floyd and the summer of protests that ensued, I have experienced something new as a Pastor. At first glance that “newness” was something that needed to be sorted through patiently and gently, but over time that “newness” has increasingly become more of a concern for reasons I will explain throughout this post. There has been an increasing division around the topic of Social Justice, a division that in its worst moments has caused great angst and division among Christians, and in its better moments has brought members from across the American political divide into prayer filled Biblical reflection. My Pastoral heart breaks over the situation on many levels. My heart aches for those who are experiencing pain and grief – I want to shepherd them well through their grief, not just from a distance but up close and personal. My heart also aches because in the midst of the larger cultural conversations are many potential pitfalls for well intentioned Christians to accidentally begin believing what the Bible refers to as, “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition… (Colossians 2:8)” When a Christian stumbles into these philosophies it is not only a sheep that has fallen into a ravine that must be saved, but it is also an injustice against our Holy God to whom true worship is due.
In my office hangs a quote from a book by Eugene Peterson titled ‘Working the Angles.’ The quote is a charge hypothetically written by a Church to their Pastor. It reads:
“We are going to ordain you to ministry, and we want your vow to stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. Promise right now you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our understanding of our needs, our changing desires, our time conditioned secularized hopes for something better… Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking words of biblical command and promise and invitation.”Working the Angles. Eugene Peterson
I have clung to these words over the last few years. To Pastor is to labor tirelessly to engage and understand, as best as God permits, the issues. I have prayed relentlessly for wisdom and read more books and article and listened to more podcasts and teachers on multiple sides of the topic of “social justice” than I can recollect. I have labored in conversation with trusted proven voices, hurt voices who feel they have not been heard, and loud voices who seem that they have an axe to grind. Frankly, all of these have been helpful in learning and discovering, and sharpening my own understanding of the Scriptures. Most importantly, I have wrestled personally with the Word of God and labored to hear God’s clear voice through it all, in order that I may faithfully serve as a Pastor in the midst of our tumultuous times.
In no way can I saw I have arrived. I am as aware as anybody of my great blind spots. I can say however that I do have a strong confidence that there are both real pains to address as well as real abuses of the Word of God taking place to correct. Both are important. As I have become aware of these abuses I have been tempted at times to swing truth like a sledgehammer, but in God’s kindness he has slowed me from such Pastoral error. When Paul reflected on how he pastored the Church of Thessalonica through their challenges, he said “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” I love my Church family, I deeply desire to nurture my Church family, not through sledgehammer truth bombs, but through patient, consistent, and public Biblical reflection and prayer.
A Helpful Summary of a Helpful Book
Of all the books I have read on the subject, there is one particular book that stands out, not necessarily for its brilliance, but rather for its accessibility and clarity. The book is titled Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth by Thaddeus Williams. Many books on the topic are so full of philosophical insights that it takes a fairly comprehensive background in philosophy to engage meaningfully. This book however is accessible to every Christian who has a heart to know their Bibles. Not only is this book accessible, but it is also clear. Many of the insights and challenges I have labored to discover are written and presented boldly and plainly. I believe this is a resource that every Christian would do well to study and engage and at least bring into their own conversations on the topic.
The larger premise Williams’ works from is that though the term “Social Justice” is used by both Christians and non-Christians alike, these two groups are in fact communicating two very different ideas by their use of this singular word. (It is worth noting that it is for this exact reason that I have instructed our Church to avoid the term “social justice” altogether and instead use the term “Biblical justice.”)
Williams distinguishes between the two different definitions of Social Justice through the titles ‘Social Justice A’ and ‘Social Justice B’. Social Justice A refers to a Biblically based sense of justice and its social implications while Social Justice B refers to a secular, non Biblically rooted sense of justice and its social implications. As Williams says, “It should be clear that Social Justice B and Social Justice A are not two different political persuasions; they are two fundamentally different religions (p. 162).” Both Social Justice A and Social Justice B claim to have a concern about injustice, but everything from their definition of “justice” to their means of accomplishing a resolution are fundamentally at odds.
At this point I am going to include the entire chart, which appears at the end of his book, for a side by side comparison of Social Justice A and Social Justice B. This chart will capture many of the smaller points of the book that I cannot dig into in this post, but you will also immediately see why it is so important to understand these as two separate religions.
|Social Justice A (Biblical Justice)||Social Justice B (secular justice)|
|… brings us to our knees before Jehovah as supreme and seeks a justice that begins with giving God his due. “You shall have no other gods before me” is where Social Justice A starts.||… erases the Creator-creature distinction and downplays the divine image in everyone. As with Jezebel turning ancient Israel to false gods, it lays us prostrate before the false gods of self, state, and social acceptance.|
|… brings unity by acknowledging our shared blame in Adam and our new identities “in Christ.” 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 intergroup warfare, is the Bible’s model for Christian living.||… leaves us in a state of uproar, breaking people into group identities, telling the most damnable edited histories of certain groups, making every individual of that group an exemplar of that evil and blaming our current troubles on them. The predictable result is tribal warfare, one of the worst ideas in human history and with a staggering body count.|
|…offers us the fruit of the Spirit, such as joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self control.||… generates a spirit of mutual suspicion, hostility, fear, labeling, and resentment.|
|… champions a love that “is not easily offended.”||… inspires in its followers a quickness to take offense.|
|… 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. All the external activism in the world will not bring lasting justice if we downplay our need for the regenerating, love-infusing work of God in the gospel.||… blames all evil on external systems of oppression, often assuming that any disparity is damning evidence of discrimination. It then makes activism against that discrimination a “gospel issue,” often downplaying our need for repentance and saving grace.|
|… assesses everyone of every ethnicity as guilty because of our group identity “in Adam.” This guilt can be erased not by oppressed group affiliation but only by finding our new and deepest group identity in Jesus, “the second Adam.” Rather than condemning people for ethnic or gender group identity, “there is now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1)||… credits guilt on the basis of one’s skin tone, condemning people because of their group identity. Individuals must then work off their “infinite guilt by confessing their privilege and joining the Social Justice B mission to end all oppression as its leaders define “oppression.”|
|… confront us with the humbling reality that our self-righteousness is like filthy rags and Christ is the only grounds for our righteous standing.||… inspires self-righteousness; i.e., enables us to think, “I am not a bigot because I hold these particular views on social justice or am a member of this or that cultural identity group.”|
|… calls us to love God with our whole minds. This includes evaluating ideas based on their Biblical fidelity and truth value. It also acknowledging real oppression and listening well, while refusing to interpret all of God’s world as a mere power play of oppressor vs. the oppressed.||… interprets all truth, reason, and logic as mere constructs of the oppressive class, encouraging us to dismiss someone’s viewpoint on the basis of their skin tone, gender, or economic status.|
|… Teaches that the creator defines our telos. The refusal to live within that 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.||… teaches that the human telos (i.e., ultimate purpose and meaning) is defined by the creature and that anyone who challenges our self-defined telos is an oppressor|
|… Envisions the male-female differences as “very good” – that can’t be erased without losing something precious. It highlights male-female sexual union within the covenant of marriage as the only proper and life giving context for human sexual expression.||… sees “heteronormative” sexual and gender distinctions as oppressive and seeks to liberate all forms of sexual behavior and gender expression from such “cisgender constructs.”|
|… accepts the full humanity and worth of unborn image-bearers of God and calls us to love and protect women and their offspring who are exploited or terminated by the abortion industry.||… celebrates abortion as an expression of female liberation from patriarchal expression, excluding the preborn from its circle of justice.|
|… celebrates the family and upholds the rythms of self-giving within family as a beautiful and God-ordained signpost of Jesus and his relationship to the Church.||… interprets the nuclear family as an unjust patriarchal system of oppression, a construct that must be abolished.|
From this chart (which serves as a sort of summary of the entire book) one can easily see the fundamental incongruities between Social Justice B and Social Justice A (Biblical Justice). Most Christians who will read the table above may assume that they have not adopted a Social Justice B mentality, but I want to challenge us to think more critically and put all of our Biblical Reflection into daily practice to ensure we never compromise God’s Word. The challenge and call I want to put forth are summed up in two words: Courage and Clarity.
Biblical Courage & Clarity
It’s believed that George Orwell once said, “In a time of universal deception, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Christians of all generations have had the experience of seeing the culture around the adopt false ideas, and being in the uncomfortable position of standing firm on God’s Word. In fact the first Christians were often called ‘Atheists’ by the surrounding Roman culture because of their refusal to worship the Roman pantheon of Gods. It was slanderous term intended to belittle Christians.
Social Justice B stands on anti-Biblical ground. The challenge is that in our society, to reject Social Justice B and its tenets is to be labeled any number of slanderous terms. I have experienced that personally. In those moments I cling to Jesus’ words when he said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you… But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 15:18, 16:33)” The temptation is to recoil at the potential name calling and nod our heads in a seeming silent approval. But we cannot do that. There is too much at stake. The sad reality of the proponents of Social Justice B is that they are advocating a false worldview that will only divide the world further and cause far more pain, far more injustice, and far more death in the long run. This is not simply a matter of semantics, these ideas have real world historic precedent and potential for devastation. The world is changing rapidly and the reality is that Christians who long for Biblical Justice, must speak courageously and clearly not with a spirit of revolution bent on tearing down others around us, but with a spirit of reformation intent on pointing as many as will listen back to God’s Word and to God Himself, through Christ our Savior.
How to do this well, while having a lead foot of empathy and compassion and steadfast devotion to Biblical Justice, is all a work of Biblical communities living out their faith among one another. It is not a crime to learn, and to listen to voices from all perspectives. But with every voice we must go back to the Word of God and ask, “Is what I just heard true according to the standard of God’s Word?” This is the slow arduous work of Spirit filled prayer saturated Bible study, and living a life in the broken places among broken people. I do believe the Church has an important voice in this cultural moment, if we are willing to speak up. As Erwin Lutzer has said so well:
“Most importantly I want to inspire the church to courageously stand against the pressures of our culture that seek to compromise our message and silence our witness.”We Will Not Be Silenced. Erwin Lutzer. Page 36.
Very good article! Thank you also for the side-by-side comparisons; that’s helpful. I hope many more will read and come to embrace Social Justice A.
As someone who used to be an atheist – and relatively disengaged on justice issues – and who has now for nearly two decades been a follower of Christ and devoted my career to justice as a result, I must share that Williams’ description of social justice B strikes me as wildly unfair and doesn’t acknowledge the diverse, wide spectrum of motivations, values and views of folks who advocate for social justice. I would lovingly suggest that we all be deeply skeptical whenever our own political views/leanings seemingly align perfectly with our own reading of Scripture. And this may sting, but I would add special urging of this to my white Christian family. To do otherwise, risks us not truly seeing each other and seeking to truly understand each other’s experiences, instead dismissing the painful reality of many by embracing intellectual arguments that – to at least some of us POC believers – strain to connect to the red letters of the Gospel. Be safe and well all.
Hey Andy – Good thoughts – as always I’d love to discuss with you. Unfortunately in this post I only able to summarize (through the table) an overview of the book. The book is worth a read in order to see the concepts more fully developed. Grateful for you and your insights brother.