By this point, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying the debate over social justice in the church will not progress through Twitter accounts and YouTube rants. Events and face-to-face conversations have been hindered by COVID-19. But at least we have books.
We’d be in much better shape inside the church if the debate were informed by books like Confronting Justice Without Compromising Truth (Zondervan). Author Thaddeus Williams is an associate professor of systematic theology for Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in La Mirada, California. I don’t suspect his book will necessarily convince many in the camp he labels Social Justice B, in contrast to the view he supports, termed Social Justice A. But I do think many readers caught in the middle will gain clarity about what’s at stake.
I’ve long thought this debate has suffered from confusion about whether we’re talking about the world or the church. Both can be true: the world peddles a gospel-denying version of social justice while the church has often failed to live up to the biblical one. So I’m hopeful that Williams’s book will protect the church from the world and also call the church to a more robust pursuit of justice.
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Collin Hansen: By this point I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying the debates over social justice in the church will not progress through Twitter accounts and YouTube rants. Events and face-to-face conversations have been hindered by COVID-19, but at least we have books.
Collin Hansen: We’d be in much better shape inside the church at the debate we’re informed by books like Confronting Justice Without Compromising Truth, published by Zondervan. The author Thaddeus Williams is an associate professor of systematic theology for Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in La Morada, California. I don’t suspect his book will necessarily convince many in the camp he labeled social justice B, in contrast to the view he supports terms social justice A.
Collin Hansen: But I do think many readers caught in the middle will gain clarity about what’s at stake. I’ve long thought this debate has suffered from confusion about whether we’re talking about the world or the church. It can both be true that the world peddles a gospel-denying version of social justice while the church has often failed to live up to the biblical one. So I’m hopeful that William’s book will protect the church from the world and also call the church to our more robust pursuit of justice. Thaddeus, thank you for joining me on Gospelbound.
Thaddeus Williams: It is a joy to be with you, Collin. Good to see you.
Collin Hansen: You write this: “I am convinced that social justice is one of the most epic and age defining controversies in the 21st-century church.” There’s a lot of big talk as you know, Thaddeus on both sides of this debate. Why do you think it’s so important?
Thaddeus Williams: I mean, just think if we hopped in a DeLorean and time warped back, hit 88 and got our flux capacitors fluxing and went to say the fourth century, all the rage was, how do we think about the Trinity? How do we think about the full deity, the full humanity of Jesus? That was what I call an age-defying controversy. Blast off to the 16th century, how does justification work? What is the gospel? What’s the relationship between the gospel and law? Between grace and works? That was an age-defining controversy.
Thaddeus Williams: Well, the social justice controversies of our day really hit on all of those very old questions facing the church. So what’s the relationship between our social justice activism and the gospel? We hear language these days about social justice is the heart of the gospel. It’s part of the gospel. In some circles, it is the gospel. And so a lot of the old 16th century, the 500-year-old debates are kind of reawakened in this moment. Questions about the nature of God, who is the ultimate definer of human nature? Am I oppressed if I define my nature in a certain way that somebody disagrees with? There’s a whole lot of theology proper, a whole lot of systematic theology going on behind the scenes in these conversations. So I would say there’s a lot more at stake than the online skirmishes let on.
Collin Hansen: Go ahead and explain for the listeners, because I think it’s fundamental to what we’re going to talk about here, the basic differences of what you term social justice A and social justice B.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. So I start out in the introduction talking about a journalist who set out to define social justice from the sources in our culture. And what he quickly found was that it was just a mess. It was just total mayhem, where groups as far apart as labor unions, women’s studies departments, and the American Nazi Party all claim the moniker of social justice for their causes. And so he said it’s basically a fool’s errand trying to define it from the culture, because everybody wants to be on the right side of justice.
Thaddeus Williams: And so I start out with that simple observation that at the very minimum, what we can agree on as believers is that some things these days branded social justice are a bridge too far. They lead us away from a biblical understanding of reality. And if we on both sides of the political spectrum can agree on that, then we’ve already made some headway and we can start drawing distinctions between what I call social justice A, which very broadly defined, is visions of social justice that are compatible with Scripture. Social justice B, that’s the visions of social justice that for one reason or another, lead us further from a biblical view of reality.
Collin Hansen: Okay. So how can somebody know, and I think this is how I’ve often seen the conversation progress. How can somebody know if they are developing a good desire to be a part of social justice A, but then they’ve fallen over into social justice B? How can they know the differences?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, that’s a good question. And it’s hard to give just kind of a generic answer that’s going to apply to all people, all times and all places. But I would say one helpful kind of litmus test is if we ask ourselves the honest question, “What is this justice pursuit doing to the state of my heart?” Because the Bible’s commands have a way of all hanging together. The Bible commands, doesn’t suggest, it commands that we seek justice. But it simultaneously commands us to live peaceably with all. It commands us to not slander. It commands us to be kind and gracious and manifest the fruit of the Spirit. So I think that’s a really helpful litmus test. If I’m pursuing justice in a way that is cultivating the fruit of the Spirit in my heart. If I find myself marked by love and joy in peace and patience and kindness and goodness and so on, then that is the kind of justice seeking that’s compatible with a biblical worldview.
Thaddeus Williams: If on the other hand, and this is what, one of my main motives for writing it. I saw a lot of people getting into various social justice movements, who I had known for years, and all of a sudden that love joy, peace, patience, and kindness was replaced with always assuming the worst of other people’s motives, which goes hand in hand with the form of self-righteousness. That, “I’m on the right side of this, so if you don’t see eye to eye with me, clearly, you’re lesser than.” A form of suspicion, a form of easy to be offendedness, when Scripture defines love is it doesn’t quickly take offense. So I think that’s one of the most helpful gauges we can use, a helpful barometer. What kind of fruit is our justice pursuit producing in our own hearts?
Collin Hansen: Is that what you mean about a biblical view of reality? Or just explain more of what that means. Because I would imagine somebody who might be coming from the social justice B side would say, “That’s a power play on your part to begin with, to say, ‘Well, how do you get to define a biblical view of reality?’”
Collin Hansen: Just help tease that out of what that means then. How can you know? I think the fruit of the Spirit test makes a lot of sense, because that’s a lot of what I’ve seen as well. Though, I should point out not that this is the same as your social justice A or B, but I find that whether it’s left or right, a lot of people suddenly love the Jesus who overturned the tables in the temple. All of a sudden it just becomes this blanket excuse for being a jerk for whatever cause. It’s like, “Well, Jesus did it.” I don’t think that’s what he had in mind, but it’s amazing how much that’s come up lately. So how do you even begin to say, “Well, this is what I mean by a biblical view of reality and how it’s distinguished from a social justice B”?
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. Yeah. That’s such a good observation. There’s Jesus meek and mild, and then Jesus mean and wild in the temple, swinging his whip around. And yeah, that’s easily a cop out to justify ourselves just at the end of the day being jerks. “See, I’m just being like Jesus.” But how do you distinguish between the two? Well, in the book I lay out 12 questions that are all driving at that very question. And so, three of the questions are focused on our view of worship. Three questions are focused on our view of community. Three questions about our view of salvation and sin, and three questions about our understanding of truth. And so starting with the questions about worship, if we’re pursuing a vision of social justice that has us on our knees to anything but the God of Scripture, then we’re already off on the wrong foot.
Thaddeus Williams: And that’s something John Perkins points out. The living legend of the civil-rights movement, John Perkins points out that if we’re pursuing justice, but God isn’t God, we aren’t starting with him and his Word. Whatever we’re pursuing, it ain’t justice. And so we need to be very self-reflective about Calvin’s insight that our hearts, it’s not just their hearts on the other side of the political spectrum. It’s our hearts that are idol factories. We’re constantly cranking out false idols, false gods, good things to turn into ultimate things, in which case they become destructive things. And so I list a few in the book on the right side of the political spectrum, it’s really easy to make a false God out of stuff, consumption for consumption’s sake. It’s really easy to make a false God out of what I call sky, how the whole goal of Christianity is to float off to the clouds and play air harp for eternity. Where the lordship of Jesus doesn’t have in the moment here and now over every-square-inch implications.
Thaddeus Williams: So who cares about racism has no effects. The lordship of Jesus doesn’t speak into that. So that kind of platonic or neo-Gnostic version of Christianity is an idol you sometimes find on the right. Talk about the idol of solitude on the right, which is I am an island. I am a man unto myself. I’m an individual. So my actions don’t have a social impact on the people around me. The idol of status quo, well the way things are don’t leave a lot of people languishing, but they do. And so there’s a whole lot of people who believe they’re standing for justice when in reality, we’re on our knees to one of those false gods. And on the left, because again, all of our hearts are idol factories. It’s easy to bow to the god of self, where what my three best friends, me, myself and I say is the final unquestionable authority.
Thaddeus Williams: So if you question myself definition, you’re automatically the oppressor. I talk about the god of states, where I need the government and legislation to do the heavy lifting, to support my self-definition. So I enlist state, as G. K. Chesterton famously pointed out, he said, “Once you abolish God, the government becomes God.” So that can be a common idol for really both sides of the political spectrum. And then last but not least, I talk about one of the potential idols on the left, being the idol of social acceptance.
Thaddeus Williams: We like to be liked. And so what I find in a lot of Christian circles is how we’re thinking through weighty questions like, what is marriage? What sexuality? What’s the meaning of our biology? How do we have real unity amid diversity? What do you do about racism? A lot of our answers to those questions are being shaped more by what’s trending and what’s viewed as the “right side of history” than we are taking our cues from Scripture. So the book was an attempt to, let’s bring the whole conversation back to first things. Let’s start with the text.
Collin Hansen: That’s really helpful. The acceptance one I think makes a lot of sense. I will say though, that I’ve spent more than half of my life in mostly conservative places. And that does go both ways. Because social acceptance for being an evangelical Christian and a liberal place is pretty different than it is in a conservative place. And I find a lot of that desire across the spectrum for people to fit in with their neighbors.
Thaddeus Williams: Some of the idols I just listed, they can definitely cut on both sides of the political spectrum.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. They may be more characteristic of one or the other, but I think that’s one really helpful thing about the book in general is it’s doing something that I don’t see a lot of the other discourse doing right now, which is helping orient all of us toward God and the Word. As opposed to a self-justifying motive that at least we’re not like those other people. This gets back to the Jesus overturning the tables comment I made a couple minutes ago. But related to this also, you described, Thaddeus, ours as one of the most judgmental societies in history. I’m going to ask what might be a weird question, do you see that as mostly good or bad?
Thaddeus Williams: I would say on the whole it’s bad, with some silver lining in the dark cloud. So, I was a child of the ‘90s when I would say that relativism, the anything goes, don’t judge worldview was very much the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist. And the side of the entertainment, Seinfeld was kind of the hit show and it had that line, it was recurring punchline of, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” And if you could sum up in five words, the spirit of the ‘90s, it’s “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The only sin was calling anything sin.
Thaddeus Williams: But I would say that that ‘90s-style relativism has a shelf life, because it’s only going to last so long because it fundamentally is out of sync with the way God hardwired us. We’re designed to live and if need be, die for a real capital G good, real capital J justice, real capital B beauty. And so if you have a generation that’s reared on like, “Just dream all that stuff up for yourself, out of thin air.” It’s only a matter of time until there’s a backlash and people will now take to their politics with a kind of religious zeal, with an absolutest religious zeal. I think what we’re living in now is very predictable based on some of the anything-goes nonjudgmentalism of the ‘90s. We’re just watching the pendulum swing the other way. Now on the whole, I said I think it’s bad. And let me just quickly sketch one or two reasons why. The primary reason I think it’s bad is because . . .
Thaddeus Williams: . . . rather than our righteousness coming from being in Christ, and that’s where we get our justification. That’s where we get our not-guilty sentence. Now people are seeking to fill that same existential need for justification through their political alliances and their online posts where I’m not a very good person because I am in the substitutionary death of Christ. His righteousness as my righteousness. Now I’m a very good person because where I stand on this front of the culture war. And at the end of the day, we need to see that for what it is. It’s not just these online skirmishes. It’s not just a form of tribalism of who’s my people. It’s what Elizabeth Nolan Brown, she cites a lot of psychological research on this, that there’s a universal drive to feel like what she calls a very good person.
And so that’s behind a lot of the judgmentalism, is if I’m constantly pointing the finger at the other side and saying, “Look at how those snowflake social justice warrior Marxists, they’re going to destroy the country.” On a deep spiritual level, that’s giving me a way to feel like a very good person apart from the work of Christ. If I’m playing the game in the opposite direction and saying, “Look at all of all those alt-right Trump-supporting racists, phobics and haters,” then I need to be honest with myself and say, “Am I using this as a counterfeit means of justification?” I think that’s what’s most insidious about the ubiquitous judgmentalism of this cultural moment.
Collin Hansen: I do think Thaddeus it’s jarring for those of us ranging between GenX and older millennials who were caught between the boomer activism on campus of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and today’s activism because you’re exactly right. That for those years, it was very much a relativistic, anything goes and you really couldn’t motivate people for any activism. They were just, it seemed like something that belonged to our professors and our parents, but that we’d outgrown somehow. So I don’t know if we’re in a pendulum or a circular depiction there, I’m not really sure. But it is amazing how different that is. And if this generation will exhaust themselves on this, or if social media which is a whole new factor in this equation, is simply going to keep this going around and around and around forever. Because I’ve never seen a more effective machine for self-justification.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. Let me just build on that briefly. In the ‘90s, doing evangelism was a significant challenge because people just didn’t have any category for guilt, for shame, for I’m on the wrong side of history. That just was really a challenge. So a lot of those conversations you had to do what Francis Shaeffer would’ve called pre-evangelism to discuss the fact that there is a such thing as a moral standard that transcends our feelings and we’re out of sync with it. And so we need to get right with the holy God, and that’s where the cross work of Jesus comes in. I think, I mentioned earlier, the silver lining in a dark cloud. I think one of the silver linings of having a pulse in believing in Jesus in the 2020s is that that concept of guilt has way more traction than it did 30 years ago.
Thaddeus Williams: And so I find it’s really helpful to draw some parallels. I talk in the book about Martin Luther feeling the weight of his infinite guilt before an infinitely holy God, and how devastating that was to his conscience and to his psyche. And then finally, in his own words, reading Romans 1, he says, “The doors of paradise flew open before me. Reading about the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” That was his freedom from that infinite guilt. There’s a lot of Martin Luthers in our society today, inside and outside the church, who feel the infinite guilt and that’s actual language used by some of the social justice thought leaders that I discussed in the book. There’s this infinite guilt that there’s so much oppression in every direction, you can never do enough. And so for people buckling under the weight of that guilt, I think there’s a fresh way that the gospel can be heard in the 2020s, that would have been extremely difficult in the ‘90s.
Collin Hansen: You just have to be attuned to how the objects of guilt and sources of guilt have changed. So, if you go into it expecting that you’re going to make people, or people will realize their guilt because of their premarital or extramarital sex, no that’s not going to work for you. However, their guilt over not doing enough to be able to save the environment from imminent climate Armageddon through recycling or carbon swaps or things like that, yeah. All of a sudden, there’s a ton of guilt around that. So the guilt hasn’t changed, but what makes us feel guilty has definitely changed their-
Thaddeus Williams: Delivery, yep.
Collin Hansen: Thaddeus, one of my favorite aspects of the book is what you call the Newman effect. Explain what it means.
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, one of the most viral interviews of the last five years. There’s this famous exchange between Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson on the one side and Cathy Newman, who I believe was a Channel 4 host at the time. And they were debating things like the gender pay gap. And it’s pretty hilarious to watch because Peterson, as an academic, he’s trying to make some nuanced points and then she’ll recap and it turned into the famous “so you’re saying” meme. And so Peterson would explain some of the contributing factors to the gender pay gap, and she would say things like here’s a few direct quotes. “So you’re saying that anyone who believes in equality should basically give up because it ain’t going to happen.” And Peterson’s like, “No, that’s not even close to what I’m saying.” And he would go on and she would say something like, “So you’re saying that’s fine. The patriarchal system is just fine. You’re saying that women aren’t intelligent enough to run top companies. You’re saying that trans-activists could lead to the death of millions of people. So you’re saying we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters.”
Thaddeus Williams: And of course, Jordan Peterson wasn’t saying any of that. But I argue in the book, we’re all Cathy Newman’s now. We are all Cathy Newmans now. This is our new method of communication. Somebody comes along and says, “Racism isn’t just a thing of the past. It’s a contemporary problem. It’s a 21st-entury problem. It’s even a problem in the church world.” And then our inner Cathy Newman kicks in, “So you’re saying we should all become Marxists and abandon the gospel?” It’s like, “No, that’s not what I’m saying at all.”
Thaddeus Williams: “Oh, so you’re saying that we should embrace black liberation theology and deny fundamental tenets of the historic Christian gospel?” “No, that’s not what I’m saying.” Or on the flip side of the equation, “So you’re saying that some of the wealth disparity between white and black Americans, some of that disparity is not best explained by historic racism or red lining, but there’s other possible explanations that we need to be clear-headed about if we’re going to deal with the real issue and not be boxing a boogeyman of the issue?”
Thaddeus Williams: “So you’re saying a black community’s problems are all their fault and you’re basically an alt-right racist?” And this is again, I wish I could say it’s just outside the church. But this, so you’re saying the Newman effect, is very much … I even saw it on the TGC website after a blurb was posted for my book. I think the quote was, “Social justice is not optional for a Christian.” It was just one, like what, 52-character quote from the book and the so your sayings that unfolded in the comment thread were in the first two days I got called a cultural Marxist more times than I can count. A heretic, a commie, like all kinds of stuff that’s like, “Can we as Christians just be counter-cultural on this? Can we learn how to have civil conversations where imagine if we actually assumed the best of other people’s motives when we disagree on weighty questions?”
Collin Hansen: And I think that’s what you do in the book. I mean, it’s not an easy task to do now. And unfortunately, there are other books that don’t do this very well, and it doesn’t appear to be a problem specific to the right or to the left, but merely what seems to be more incentivized. To be able to motivate different groups, that again, feel some measure of justification because they are not as evil as the other side. This description you wrote about your students really stood out to me. But what I want you to explain after I finish the quote is how they seem to understand what they’re experiencing from their perspective.
You have the benefit of being older, more learned and studied. You’ve seen this happen with other students, so you know that it’s a pattern, and so you can see the problems. But in their mind what you see as I don’t know, just a collapse of their self-worth and identity is to them, it seems like a liberation or a realization that is empowering to them even though that’s not how it comes across. So help us to explain that, but let me give the listeners the quote here.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure.
Collin Hansen: It says, “I have personally witnessed the heart-wrenching effects of this ideology.” You’re talking about social justice B here. “It turns bright eyed, articulate, caring students into chronically triggered, ever suspicious, resentment fueled soldiers, well-trained to make snap judgements against others on the basis of their appearance.”
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: So explain it from inside the student’s perspective of why something that seems to be really robbing them of the fruit of the spirit, to them feels like such an important step of spiritual maturity.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. That’s a really deep question. I’ll try to do it some justice. I argue very early on in the book that everybody has what a philosopher would call, a worldview. What I just refer to as a madness machine. The madness machine is this often subconscious network of underlying beliefs, presuppositions, metaphysical pre-commitments, that I feed a question into that machine. Let’s say that cake maker refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. So I feed the question in, and as it goes through this network of presuppositions and metaphysical commitments, out the other side pops the answer. Which is yes, get mad at that. Or say the Little Sisters of the Poor is threatened with more litigation and lawsuits to shut them down because of their view of abortion. Should I be mad at that? I feed the question in and like a little fortune cookie rectangle, the answer spits out the other side and is going to tell me whether or not I should be angry, outraged, indignant about the situation.
And so I would argue that a lot of folks their madness machines have been built by extra-biblical sources. If I’m watching, I got four kids and we spend a fair bit of time at Disneyland, pre-COVID, when we could actually like go in person back in the old days and ride Space Mountain. We’ve spent a lot of time in the canon of Disney movies. And there is a really discernible worldview shift from the Pinocchio days where there’s a moral structure to reality, and the more you lie the more you mess around on pleasure Island, you become less of a real boy. You make a literal ass out of yourself on Pleasure Island. You become less of a boy and more of a tree. When you lie, your nose turns into a branch. There’s a certain underlying, there’s worldview underpinnings there that’s a far cry from some of the more recent Disney corpus, where really the moral of the story is be true to yourself and follow your heart, and don’t let anybody deny how you’ve defined yourself.
So I would say for a lot of these students who were raised under that worldview shift, they bring those embedded presuppositions to questions of justice. And so they hear, say a professor, articulate a historic Christian view that gender distinctions are something good. There’s something beautiful to be celebrated, not some cis-heteronormative system of oppression. They can turn sexist and evil, but there’s actually something beautiful there that should be preserved and not erased. And so they feed the question into their madness machine, “Well, should I be outraged at what my professor just said?” And because of those underlying presuppositions, the answer spits out the other side, that is heteronormative cis-gender oppression.
And so I would argue on a deep level, they’re going to feel that they’re fighting injustice, often unaware of the fact that a worldview shift has happened on a very deep level. And so I find part of having those conversations is showing them that a Christian worldview actually offers something true, good, and beautiful when it comes to questions of gender, or sexuality, or how to end racism and things like that. So, yeah, I think there’s just a lot of worldview stuff going on behind the scenes.
Collin Hansen: And that’s at a Christian school.
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah. Yep.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I mean, that’s one thing I’ve tried to shout as loud as I can, wherever I can that if you think that growing up in the church and growing up in a Christian home and going to Christian college will be able to close out those worldview shifts, then I don’t think you really understand how pervasive this messaging is today.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure.
Collin Hansen: How powerful … it just doesn’t work that way.
Thaddeus Williams: But let me add just briefly, one thing that to my student’s defense, and don’t get the impression it’s like . . .
. . . like half of my students are coming into a conservative Christian college with these kinds of presuppositions. That’s just not the reality. But I will say that you find this when Francis Schaeffer was writing The God Who Is There, he opens the book talking about a generation gap, and why parents no longer understood their teenagers, and the uprising with the hippie generation and the beatnik generation before them. And one of the things I love about Schaeffer, and one of the reasons I believe he had such a massive impact on the hippie generation, was he didn’t have this curmudgeonly, “I’m from the older generation, and, oh, if you youngsters only understood.” He takes the time to validate what was valid in the student uprisings.
And I think that’s an important lesson to learn from one of the 20th-century’s greatest evangelists, that for some of my students who are drifting more in the book, what I call Social Justice B, who are drifting that way, I don’t want to paint it as, “Well, they’ve just been hypnotized by a bunch of Disney movies. And so now they bought into a false worldview, and that tells the whole story.” Oftentimes, they are, just like in the ‘60s what Schaeffer was speaking into, they are tapping into very real hypocrisies in the American church. And so some of the indignation is justified. And just to highlight, this was something a Schaeffer spoke about in his day, that there was racism happening in a predominantly white church in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was a deep complicity with racism, and Schaeffer calls it out. And a lot of the young folks were calling it out, too.
And so rather than create this polarization, he affirms that, and then anchors it in a biblical view of reality. In our day, there are a lot of young folks who were saying, “Look, the church has often been too complicit in racism. We need to do something about it.” And now the wrong thing at that juncture would be to say, “Well, you guys have all just been brainwashed by Ta-Nehisi Coates or whatever,” but to recognize where’s the kernel of truth there. Or take questions of sexuality. I can remember being a little kid in the ‘80s, and in many of the church circles we ran in, it really was like, “You have AIDS, homosexual community, because you deserve it. Because that’s the wrath of God coming to strike you dead.” There was very little of what we find in the early church when a plague broke out in the second century, and our brothers and sisters were running to the bedsides of the plagued, not on the condition that you accept a Christian sexual ethic, but just by virtue of you bear the image of God. So we want to treat you with dignity.
Thaddeus Williams: So a lot of the young folks are rebelling against the church’s failure to treat image bearers as image bearers, as they seek to live out a biblical ethic. So I just wanted to clear that up. It’s not like, “Oh, all those silly young people. They just don’t get it. If they would only listen to guys like us, everything would be okay.”
Collin Hansen: Well, I think it also helps to clarify that I don’t think our earlier conversation is pining for what it was like in the ‘90s or the early 2000s-
Thaddeus Williams: Sure.
Collin Hansen: … in terms of the college campus. Like you said, there were real difficulties for evangelism back then, for spiritual growth, for Christian discipleship. I think where we can be as Christians, and those of us who are conservatives also, can have a nostalgic bent toward things-
Thaddeus Williams: Sure.
Collin Hansen: … to assume that somehow things are getting worse, but it isn’t so much that things necessarily get worse. They just change.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure.
Collin Hansen: Some things get better. Some things get worse. Some things get fixed. Other things, they’re still not fixed, and nobody knows how to fix them. It’s not so much that there are any easy narratives-
Thaddeus Williams: Absolutely.
Collin Hansen: … with this stuff. And that’s what I hear you’re called to discernment there to say, in whatever age, affirm what you can, build off that, and help people using the historic Christian, and ultimately biblical, witness to be able to help people to see some of the shortcomings. And how Christ offers a better solution-
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: … to that.
Thaddeus Williams: And then enter that whole thing with the humility that says, “I don’t know at all.”
Collin Hansen: Right.
Thaddeus Williams: The book, I didn’t plan this when I was writing it, but looking back when it was done, it has way more humor in it than I was planning on. And maybe that was just a coping mechanism having to spend four years thinking about really depressing, soul-taxing things like racism and abortion and things like that. But one of the jokes, I think on the first page, is like, “Well, why did I write this book? Well, obviously, because I have all the answers. I finally solved society’s conundrum so decisively that we can let social media return to its original purpose of showing cat bloopers and glamorized, filtered selfies.” And then obviously, I’m knocking myself on those front pages because I don’t have it all figured out. And I think just having that posture going in that I don’t have all the answers makes us all better listeners. Because I have a lot to learn from brothers and sisters on the right and left. And that’s, I would argue, a precondition to real unity and real meaningful conversation in the church world.
Collin Hansen: So here’s where I want to be a listener. I have asked this question a number of different times, and I think it’s important to note, before I ask this question, that you do not say that Social Justice A, rules out the possibility of systemic racism.
Thaddeus Williams: Yep.
Collin Hansen: So that’s not a Social Justice B thing. It can’t be depending on how it’s worked out, but it can be included in Social Justice A. So I’ll ask you what I’ve asked a number of other people. What is the best example of ongoing systemic racism today?
Thaddeus Williams: Just to take a step back from the question to tether the whole thing to Scripture, Psalm 94 is so important to that question. Because it says don’t align yourselves with those who frame injustice by statute. So just even start there with because a lot of people might hear us and say, “Oh, well, here they are. They’re just stealing the narrative of the far lefties and infiltrating the church with it.” We need to understand that the category for sin that is baked into systems is a deeply biblical category. Egyptian slavery wasn’t just the Pharaoh, and a few of his underlings, unleashing havoc and being oppressive. It was built into systems. Darius and Nebuchadnezzar demanding idolatry, those were decrees. Those were legal decrees.
Thaddeus Williams: And so start there with a recognition that sin can be baked into systems. Examples are abundant, whether we’re talking about the caste system in places like India and Nepal through history, whether we’re talking about redlining, Jim Crow laws, slavery is just an obvious case in pointed that in American history. So I think we just need to be on the same page there with the listeners that this is a biblical category. Just like the Bible doesn’t call the Trinity the Trinity, but it’s clearly taught, you won’t find the word systemic injustice or systemic racism in Scripture, but those categories are clearly taught.
Thaddeus Williams: So when I look at today’s world, what would I argue is the system in place that has the most devastating effects on people of color? I would say the government-funded abortion industry by far has the most devastating effect on people of color in this country. Second to none. And that’s a system.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, and this is one reason why I ask the question. Because sometimes when you’re able to convince somebody who denies the concept of systemic racism, you then shift them into history. And all of a sudden, it’s not a question. Of course, of course. There used to be.
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: But then there’s this sense that at some point, it went away. You hear that pretty often. Somehow it went away, but it doesn’t really make much sense. Satan didn’t stop. The world didn’t suddenly become perfectly righteous. So it doesn’t make much sense that it wouldn’t be continuing-
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: … but it could be morphing. It could be shifting sides. It could be shifting goals. It could be shifting whatever. And then if you’re able to say to somebody who comes from the right, who might deny systemic racism, but then turn around and say, “But wouldn’t abortion be the perfect example of this, especially with its particularly devastating effects on racial minorities, and African Americans in particular?”
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: How could you deny that? Especially when you see the powers of media, the powers of government, the powers at every level of government, for that matter, the lack of truth-telling, the lies of the Supreme Court to be able to cover for it, the connection to evil, patriarchal systems that put all of the responsibility on women, as opposed to men, for making the decisions and pressure them into getting abortions. How could you fail to see that as a conservative?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, yeah. The effect it has on women’s psyches, on their bodies. Yeah. Yeah.
Collin Hansen: And all of it in ways that are especially convenient to the people who control the means of production, to use some loaded language there, for women to be able to work, to be able to suppress wages so that they can be a part of that workforce, and they’re not burdened with children. On and on and on, you could make a full-throated ” left-wing argument” for a right-wing aim if you’re willing to be creative to understand that sin does not conform to political party.
Thaddeus Williams: Yep. That’s exactly right.
Collin Hansen: It doesn’t fall on those neat categories.
Thaddeus Williams: And just that simple realization helps to undermine what we were talking about earlier, that false gospel. “Well, I’m righteous.” Again, Elizabeth Nolan Brown, “I’m a very good person because I’m on this side of the political spectrum.” Yeah. Recognizing that those sins cut across the spectrum, drives me to the cross to find my only righteousness at the end of the day.
Collin Hansen: And one last point on the abortion. You don’t have unfettered “consequence-free” sex without abortion. That is basically the requirement for that. You can’t have both, or you can’t have one without the other. Human societies have not been able to do that. If you don’t have abortion, then men and women have to control themselves in certain ways sexually because they don’t want to live with the consequences of that. The consequences that happen to be a beautiful and wonderful thing that God designed to be primary, for sexual relations. And so that’s another example of how this systemic argument cuts across the right-
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: … in ways that it should be obvious for somebody on the right to be able to acknowledge there and broaden those categories.
Thaddeus Williams: It’s like Peter Berger. He had this phrase that he coined that Os Guinness has ended up using over the years. “There’s ways to relativize the relativizers,” is what he called it. You can use a system on itself to help get it some important truths. And I think there’s something, too, take the critical race theory literature, which I talk about some in the book. There’s the concept of hegemonic power. You find some of this in Antonio Gramsci, some of the Frankfurt School. Hegemonic power is part and parcel of how oppression is defined in CRT circles.
Thaddeus Williams: Well, think about it with this conversation. What is the cultural hegemony about sex? It’s exactly what you’re saying. Think of how many big-budget movies normalize sex as it’s for pleasure. It’s purely just enjoyment, unfettered sexual freedom is a noble goal. And with it, the corresponding abortion industry. And you’re right to connect the dots there. If you think of how many big-budget movies, or how many government-sponsored education programs, push back on that narrative, man, there is a serious power imbalance there. And so this is a case of relativizing the relativizer. You can use a concept like hegemonic power to actually highlight a system that is in place that has, I think it was Paul Ramsey, the great ethicist of the 20th century, he said you can judge any society, and its moral health, based on how it treats its most vulnerable. So we have a system of hegemony in America now that is not too kind to its most vulnerable, it’s most voiceless, when it comes to this.
Collin Hansen: Well, there’s all kinds of other ways, Thaddeus, that we can do this. You can turn intersectionality on its head, and you can look at the examples of what happens when an African-American speaks out against transgenderism or against homosexuality. I have yet to see any example where the African-American is considered. It wins that argument.
Thaddeus Williams: Yep.
Collin Hansen: So when sex and race come up against each other, including on the left, sex always wins.
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: And why didn’t sex win? Because it’s the hegemonic power. It dominates the entire country. It dominates the entire milieu. And so you can see that very clearly. And in ways that it’s racist, it can build it in there. It doesn’t really matter. We like to know what you have to say, and we really value your minority opinions, unless they go up against the reigning norms that we have set in power or flip.
Collin Hansen: I actually was in a debate not long ago, Thaddeus, with somebody posed the innocuous question of why crime had decreased in the 1990s in New York.
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: Extensive literature on this. And I was talking with somebody from the left, who said, “Well, because of abortion.”
Thaddeus Williams: Freakonomics argument.
Collin Hansen: Exactly, the Freakonomics argument. And I thought, wait a minute. So all that had to happen to reduce crime in New York City was that more African American babies would be aborted than born in New York City, which is the continuing pattern today. And he said, “Yeah, absolutely.” And I thought, How incredibly racist can you possibly get there? Literally saying, “Well, if we could just have fewer blacks, then we can make New York safe for everybody.”
Thaddeus Williams: Yikes.
Collin Hansen: Oh, man. I didn’t let it pass, either-
Thaddeus Williams: Yep.
Collin Hansen: … but it just shows you that these systems and these arguments are not nearly as . . .
Collin Hansen: . . . compelling or foolproof, I think, as they might appear to somebody reading them for the first time or sitting through a college classroom and having their paradigm beginning to shift. There are a lot of challenges that begin to come out.
Thaddeus Williams: Which ought to give us some hope as believers, in the sense that systems that aren’t tethered to reality as defined by God tend to, and history teaches us, they tend to buckle under their own weight, right? There’s a fragility to the system itself when it’s not tethered to the real world that eventually, it just crumbles. Yeah.
Collin Hansen: One last question here Thaddeus, before we get to the final three.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure.
Collin Hansen: And you cover so much in this book, including quite a bit on economics, or at least some on economics, and there’s a [inaudible 00:49:00] example of how younger generations begin to see socialism as perhaps the more generous system, or the more fair and equitable system. I mean, I was a European history major focusing on Russian history, among other things. It’s not an easy argument for me. Also, because I was in college starting in the 1990s, I was exposed to the whole group that had been set up when the American system was primarily concerned with communism, and concerned with the Soviet Union, which … So I think a lot of the change has probably come because we don’t remember the stories. We don’t know what it actually is like. I’m listening to a book right now about a family living under East German communism and whatnot.
Collin Hansen: What compelled you to write about capitalism and socialism as a Christian in the context of this book, and how could you argue as a Christian then … I mean, we could talk about communism and what it does about banning religion and things like that, but just in terms of economic systems, what’s a Christian argument, or why did you bring that into the book of why capitalism would be a far preferable economic system compared to socialism, even if both of them have their certain flaws?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, so part of it was, again, just listening to my students over the last few years and seeing a really steep uptick in terms of students branding themselves, self-identifying as socialists. And having hours and hours and hours in my office having conversations with students, and it just struck me as trendy. And the arguments tended to be in three steps. Step one, the Bible says we should care about the poor, step two, socialism is all about caring for the poor, capitalism is just greedy, therefore step three, I’m a socialist. And really that was about as deep as the thinking went more often than not.
Thaddeus Williams: So I would share stories, a few of them I share in the book about if we hopped in that DeLorean again, and time warped back to the early 1970s, and we’re down in Chile, there’s a socialist candidate running for president, a guy named Salvador Allende, and he has all the lingo down, all the marketing slogans. “We want to end income inequality. We want to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots. We want to lift up those who have been oppressed.” He got all the bumper sticker slogans right. And this is actually in Gustavo Guttierez, who’s actually liberation theologian, he shares this story in his book, A Theology of Liberation, how the church and in many of the Catholic organizations and Chile went public in their support for Allende.
Thaddeus Williams: Here’s a direct quote from, this is a Christian organization and Chile at the time, they said, “Socialism offers a possibility for the development of the country, for the benefit of all, especially the most neglected.” And you look at the statistics the Barnum reports, the Gallup polls on millennial and gen Z, their priorities, and it’s exactly, “We care about the most neglected.” Some of the words from the early ’70s, from Christians in Chile, quote, “Socialism generates new values which make possible the emergence of a society of greater solidarity and brotherhood.” And then they conclude by saying, “The profound reason for this commitment is our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Thaddeus Williams: What happens now is the Christian faith gets hitched to the wagon of a socialist president, who ends up winning with Christian support. And this is just the law of unintended consequences. Within the first year, he collectivizes agriculture. He institutes a socialist policies. Inflation just in year one of Allende’s presidency, inflation skyrockets 600 percent. The poverty rate jumps by 50 percent. And even more people are forced into the sad ranks of the neglected.
Thaddeus Williams: To learn the lessons of history, especially at a moment right now with slogans, bumper stickers, hashtags, 150-character Tweets, this tends to be, there’ve been studies on this, how people are answering life’s big questions, whether it’s God’s existence, there was a study that came out a couple years ago that millennials and Gen Z were settling in their hearts where they stand on the God question. Not because they bothered to read Dawkins, God Delusion, or Sam Harris, or Chris Hitchens, or Daniel Dennett. But because they saw a two minute YouTube video of some comedian mocking Christians. They thought it was hilarious, and that’s where they landed on the God question.
Collin Hansen: Or they read an article about Westboro Baptist church,
Thaddeus Williams: And the same thing holds for these questions about economics. Well, socialism cares about the poor. I read this quote about how capitalism is, and free markets are greedy, therefore, because I’m committed to Scripture and Scripture commands me to love the poor, I’m on team socialism. And I just want to lovingly take them by the shoulders and give them a little shake and say, “Look, capitalism is not the gospel, free markets are not the gospel, but you need to understand some of the backstory here that with the best of intentions, the more power you grant to the powers that be to regulate the government, you think you’re helping the poor, you’re only adding to their number.”
Collin Hansen: And I think especially for some of our international listeners here, we should probably acknowledge that it’s less that capitalism and socialism are a complete black and white, but with the way governments operate today, it’s like a continuum.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure, absolutely.
Collin Hansen: Basically, you got socialist governments in places like Scandinavia that are very capitalistic in how they [crosstalk 00:55:55]
Thaddeus Williams: Oh yeah. They rank higher on free market scales than America in most …
Collin Hansen: Exactly. So it can be really confusing there. But I think the real takeaway is that law of unintended consequences. And I think that’s how you tie it in the book is to say your motivations might be excellent, to fight racial injustice, to fight systemic racism, to desire social justice. But if you’re not wise about the God-given means to be able to explore those most effectively, then in fact, you can severely hurt the very people that you’re intending to help. Especially if your goal is a kind of hashtag activism.
Thaddeus Williams: Yep.
Collin Hansen: To begin with. It’s kind of a demonstrative pursuit of justice, as opposed to an actual one, which to come full circle, it’s one reason why I really appreciate John Perkins writing the foreword for your book, because we have so much to learn from those people who have endured such terrible hardship, have trusted Christ in there and continue to pursue social justice.
Thaddeus Williams: Exactly.
Collin Hansen: And have such wide respect across the political and ecclesial spectrum. Final three now with Thaddeus Williams. Thaddeus, what is the last great book you’ve read?
Thaddeus Williams: Whew. Oh, that is a hard … Actually. It’s not that hard. I had just finished William Wilberforce’s Real Christianity two nights ago. And man, you talk about relevant, prophetic, a voice from one of my heroes of the faith speaking into this cultural moment. I would encourage all your listeners, put my book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, way on the back burner, run to Amazon and pick up your copy of Wilberforce’s Real Christianity. He ties it together where it doesn’t have to be this either/or of Christians who get the gospel right, and are sitting on their thumbs when it comes to injustice, or Christians who are out there on the front lines, fighting injustice, but have got their doctrine all tangled up in knots. Wilberforce brings those two together in such a beautiful, compelling way. Real Christianity, William Wilberforce.
Collin Hansen: Love it. Second question. What brings you calm in the storm?
Thaddeus Williams: What brings me calm in the storm? Epic wrestling matches with my kids.
Collin Hansen: I love it.
Thaddeus Williams: They really do. Just goofing off where I don’t have to think about grand social questions and theological implications. I just get to pile drive my 5-year-old and get his flying elbow drop of doom. That brings me right back down to earth.
Collin Hansen: I love it. Last question. Where do you find good news today?
Thaddeus Williams: I find zero of it on social media. Again, I got to bring it back home. It’s, “Daddy. I lost my tooth.” That’s the best news for that day. “Daddy, I jumped off the swing.” That’s the stuff that lights my heart up. And I will add, and this helps in this conversation about social justice and how do we change the world, just seeing, I would encourage the listeners, look for the good news in your own backyard and look to make good news in your backyard. I’ve had several neighbors in the last year, just in our little neighborhood, who have come to know Jesus in the last 12 months. And so seeing families get saved and seeing families get sanctified. So whenever I get too bummed out by my social media feed, I can literally walk out front and see the kingdom of God in motion with the people closest to me.
Collin Hansen: More time talking and discipling those neighbors and less time, Thaddeus, reading TGC’s Facebook comments.
Thaddeus Williams: Amen.
Collin Hansen: I think that’s the takeaway here from this. Thank you Thaddeus for being so generous with your time. The book we’ve been discussing, Confronting Justice Without Compromising Truth, published by Zondervan. Thaddeus, thank you for being such a compelling and interesting guest.
Thaddeus Williams: Awesome. Thanks so much, Collin. I appreciate your time, brother.