Simply combine the word “social” with the word “justice,” and these are the kind of verbal grenades you’re likely to see hurled in both directions across the digital battlefields of our age.

Lest we think that we, as Christians, stand above the fray, we too paint our faces red or blue and charge into comment threads armed with the same snap judgments and damning assumptions about others’ motives that mark the culture wars of our day.

We’re All Cathy Newmans Now

One reason conversations about hard topics like social justice tend to generate more heat than light, both within and beyond the church, is a phenomenon we may call “the Newman Effect.”

In 2018, Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson joined Channel 4 host Cathy Newman to discuss gender inequality in what became one of the most viral interviews of the 21st century. The lively exchange sparked the famous “So you’re saying” meme, based on Newman’s repeated use of that phrase to interpret Peterson’s statements in the most unflattering and inflammatory light.

So you’re saying women aren’t intelligent enough to run these top companies . . .

So you’re saying trans activists could lead to the deaths of millions of people . . .

So you’re saying we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters . . .

Peterson wasn’t saying any of that. But because his perspective didn’t fit neatly into the black-and-white boxes of modern society, anything out of sync with Newman’s perspective was taken in the most extreme, cartoonish, and damning way possible.

The truth is, we’re all Cathy Newmans now, and that has become a serious existential threat to the unity of the church. We tar and feather any dissonant idea with the absolute worst ideologies we can imagine:

  • “Racism is still a problem.” So you’re saying we should abandon the gospel and embrace neo-Marxism.
  • “We need to keep the gospel first.” So you’re saying we should just shrug our shoulders at injustice.
  • “Black lives matter.” So you’re denying that all lives matter.
  • “The fact that over 70 percent of black children are born without married parents in the home should matter to us.” So you’re saying you’re a victim-blaming racist, and black people’s problems are completely their fault.
  • “Marriage is a complementary union between a male and a female.” So you’re saying you hate gay people.
  • “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we should shelter in place to protect the most vulnerable.” So you’re saying you’re anti-freedom and want us all to bow to tyranny.
  • “We should reopen the economy to help those whose livelihoods and mental health are being devastated by quarantine.” So you’re saying you want the virus to spread and more grandmas to die.

Four Problems

Here are four reasons why, in 2021, we should resolve together as Christians to cease resorting to the Newman Effect as we engage important questions.

1. The Newman Effect erases the Creator-creature distinction, claiming an omniscient gaze into others’ hearts that only God has.

John 2:25 tells us that Jesus “knew what was in man.” As the God-man, he could see through people’s shabby or shiny exteriors to the true motives of their hearts. But I am not God incarnate, and neither are you. We need the humility to stop pretending we have infallible knowledge of other people’s motives, especially when we engage brothers and sisters on the social-justice controversies of our day. It’s better to ask people about what makes them tick (or ticked) rather than assume it. That’s part of what it means to obey Scripture’s command to “be quick to hear” (James 1:19).

2. The Newman Effect violates clear biblical commands.

Over and over again, the Bible bans slander and bearing false witness. Then you have the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). We’ve all been called names. We’ve all had our words twisted into the most damning interpretations possible. We’ve all been branded with labels that distort who we really are. No one enjoys such treatment.

We must stop going along with the slanderous status quo and call such behavior what it is.

We must stop going along with the slanderous status quo and call such behavior what it is: the sin of failing to love our neighbors as ourselves.

3. The Newman Effect undermines visible unity in the church.

In John 17 Jesus asks the Father that believers would “be one,” that there would be such depth and authenticity to Christian love that the watching world would take Jesus’s messianic claims seriously.

When we play the “So you’re saying” game—when we assume any Christian to our left is a neo-Marxist snowflake or any Christian to our right is a patriarchal white supremacist—we mar that visible unity.

4. The Newman Effect becomes a false means of justification.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown cites psychological research that the kind of moral outrage we typically classify as altruistic “is often a function of self-interest, wielded to assuage feelings of personal culpability for societal harms or reinforce (to the self and others) one’s own status as a Very Good Person.”

Constantly imputing guilt to others—they are the bigots, the phobics, the fascists, the white supremacists, the communists—offers a subjective sense of something that may feel close to, and yet is far from, what Christ offers us in the gospel.

Rather than our justification coming from Christ alone, we seek our own “not guilty” verdict by transferring all guilt onto the other side of the sociopolitical spectrum. When we project evil onto others to feel like good people ourselves, we’re looking to something other than Jesus for our moral status.

That, my friends, is a false gospel—and a most pervasive and seductive one in a time of nonstop social-media outrage.

Posturing Is Not ‘Contending’

Don’t get me wrong. There are some bad ideas making their way into the church. There is real racism, real Marxism, and other deeply anti-gospel-isms we must stand united against. Exposing false ideologies that take people captive is a mark of biblical love. The Bible doesn’t suggest, it commands us to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

When we practice the Newman Effect, though, we’re not contending for the historic faith. We’re just conforming to the splintered and self-righteous spirit of the age.

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan, 2020).