In this episode of TGC Q&A, we continue in our series “Gen Z’s Questions About Christianity.” Thaddeus Williams answers four challenging questions on social justice and politics.
- Defining and avoiding “The Newman Effect” (0:00)
- Giving others the benefit of the doubt (4:10)
- John Perkins and his approach to racial justice (5:30)
- Similarities and differences between social and biblical justice (7:50)
- Is critical race theory (CRT) biblical? (14:30)
- Engaging politics without siding with a political party (23:50)
- Thinking critically, submitting to Christ’s authority (29:30)
- Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice by Thaddeus Williams
- Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community (Resources for Reconciliation) by John M. Perkins
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Narrator: You’re listening to TGC Q&A, a podcast from the Gospel Coalition. And this is a new series called Gen Z’s Questions about Christianity. In this five week series, we’ll focus on some of the toughest and most common questions the younger generation has about Christianity. How can we winsomely respond to the issues that are driving young people away from the faith.
On today’s episode, Thaddeus Williams answers four important and challenging questions we received on the topic of social justice and politics. Thaddeus serves as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Biola University. He’s the author of several written works and his newest book, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, delves further into the topics he addresses for us in this episode.
So we’ll start with the first question. How should my generation approach social justice conversations?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah. So how to approach social justice conversations. I mean, it just seems like these days mixing the word social with the word justice is like mixing Mentos with soda, it’s explosive. And so my first bit of advice would be don’t practice what I call the Newman effect, the Newman effects. And I’m getting that from a 2018 viral interview between Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, and Channel Four’s Cathy Newman. And it’s sort of a hilarious debate because they’re talking about all these hot button topics. And they covered the gender pay gap, trans-genderism, all this combustible stuff, and Peterson would make a point and Kathy Newman’s response would be, so you’re saying, that became a meme over the last couple of years. So you’re saying women just aren’t smart enough to run top companies. And he’s like, no, not what I’m saying at all. So you’re saying trans activists could lead to mass genocide. He’s like, no, not what I’m saying. So you’re saying we should arrange our society to be like lobsters. And he’s like, no, not what I’m saying at all.
And so it quickly rose to meme status because that’s just how we have conversations now. You hear somebody say something and the Newman effect kicks in. And so we choose to interpret it in the most cartoonish damnedable and inflammatory light possible. So I would say that’s the first way to not engage in social justice questions of our age. Don’t assume the worst of other people think of, if somebody says racism is still a problem, which it is, if the Newman effect kicks in then we’ll say, oh, well, you’re just some kind of neo-Marxist social justice warrior snowflake. If somebody says, well, maybe this or that isn’t racism. Oh, well you’re just an alt-right neo-Nazi white supremacist. And it’s like, there’s got to be a better way to have these conversations.
If somebody says, during COVID-19 you should wear a mask, the Newman effect kicks in and it’s oh so you believe in government tyranny, you love totalitarianism. And they’re like, not really what I was saying. Or we shouldn’t wear a mask and the Newman effect kicks in and say, oh, so you want more grandmas to die. You’re reckless with people’s grandmas. It’s like, come on, let’s be biblical about this in terms of giving charity. Let’s try our best to give the benefit of the doubt, let’s see if there’s a kernel of truth in what somebody’s saying first, before we launch into attack mode. So that’s the first bit of insight, I would say we need to really hear where people are coming from and start with is there a point of contact between our two positions?
The second thing I would say how to engage social justice is to listen hard to both sides and read the best and the brightest on both sides. Because that’s a really good way to inoculate ourselves from being taken captive by some kind of ideology, whether it’s far left or far right. And so I would say, for example, if you’re wrestling through racism and questions of systemic racism, don’t just take the standard sort of mainstream narrative at face value, go out and read some brilliant black thinkers like Thomas Soul or Glenn Loury or Coleman Hughes or Walter Williams or Shelby Steele or Chantal Monique Duson. There’s just a long list of brilliant thinkers who are going to challenge you if you’re buying into the mainstream narrative. And then go read the other side, read Ta-Nehisi Coates, read Beverly Tatum, read folks on both sides so that you aren’t just getting swept up in propaganda. That’d be my second bit of advice.
And my third piece of advice would be, and I’m borrowing this from my friend and mentor John Perkins. John Perkins has been a living legend of the civil rights movement, he’s been doing this work for 60 years. 60 years and he hasn’t budged one inch on the gospel. And his advice to the next generation of justice seekers is number one, start with God. If you don’t start with God, whatever you think is justice ain’t justice, he says. He says, number two, be one in Christ. So recognize that regardless of the melanin levels in your skin cells, regardless of whether you have XX, or XY chromosomes, regardless of your socioeconomic status or whatever, if we’re in Christ we’re family, right? And so we’ve got to start there or we’re just going to devolve into tribal warfare. His third bit of advice is to keep the gospel first. Let’s not redefine the gospel because it’s trendy. The gospel is defined by scripture itself.
Paul says in first Corinthians 15, I passed onto you. What was of first importance, number one priority for a Christian. And then he recites this early, early creed summing up. The Christian gospel Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture. He was buried and he rose from the dead and then he appeared. So it was a substitutionary death and bodily resurrection so centers like us can have a relationship with God. John Perkins says, as you pursue justice keep the first thing the first thing. Keep the gospel center stage. And then he says finally, teach the truth. Teach the truth. In other words, don’t just go with what’s trending on Twitter. Just don’t go with what the latest hashtag don’t buy into mob rule. Don’t go with what the politicians say or the media is spinning at you. Go back to the source of truth as we wrestle through complex questions, and that source of truth is the scriptures. So there’s a few insights on how to engage the social justice controversies of our age.
Narrator: And our next question we received was, how our social justice and biblical justice different or the same?
Thaddeus Williams: I think I would want to start with a point of contact that both versions of justice care about the oppressed, and that’s a good thing. The Bible says over and over again that it’s not a divine suggestion, it’s a divine command to do justice, to love the oppressed, to help the marginalized. This pops up all over the Old and New Testaments. You guys know Micah 6:8, It’s not what does the Lord suggest of you, it’s what does the Lord require of you, right? But to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God. But having said that, there are important differences. Let me just quickly highlight a few. If we’re doing justice being informed by the scriptures, think of that famous wedding passage that you hear pretty much every wedding you go to, 1st Corinthians 13, love is patient, love is kind. In that list of the marks of love is that love is not easily offended. Love is not easily offended.
And so for doing justice God’s way, we won’t be easily offended. This other version of social justice is the opposite. It actually encourages and inspires people to take offense at virtually everything. That’s one simple point of contrast. The second point of contrast is if you read Galatians 5, there’s that famous list of the fruit of the spirit. And in the Greek, it’s a generative of production, which just means it’s fruit produced by the spirit, it’s love produced by the spirit, it’s joy produced by the spirit, it’s peace and patience and kindness and faithfulness, all that produced by the spirit. If we’re doing justice God’s way, our justice pursuits will be marked by that fruit. This other kind of justice, by contrast, it sort of flips around all the fruit of the spirit.
So you should be resentful, you should be ever suspicious of other people, you should always assume the worst of other people’s motives, you should be self-righteous, like I’m more enlightened than them because I hold this or that political position, so it champions a form of self-righteousness. So I would say that’s a second mark. You can know the tree by its fruit as bearing love, joy, peace, patience and kindness or the opposite. A third point of departure between the two is that in a biblical view of the world, Paul builds this argument in Romans 1 where he says, you’ve got Jews and Gentiles and they’re kind of in this ethnic strife where the Jews feel like they’ve got God’s law so they have a leg up on the non-Jew and the Gentiles are thinking, well, we don’t buy into all these wacky fairytales, we’re superior.
And so Paul, in the first three chapters of Romans, he says, “Hey, Jews, you have the law and you break it, you need grace. Hey Gentiles, you have the law that God wrote in your heart and you break it, you need grace.” And so all this crescendos in Romans 3 with that famous statement that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, all. In other words, the Jews and Gentiles couldn’t play these games of, well, we’re oppressed and you’re the oppressors, therefore we’re good and you’re bad. Paul wouldn’t have any of that because he knew if he played those games, he would effectively be planting C4 at the foundations of the church. It would blast Christian unity to bits. And so you could picture a first century Jews saying, well, I’m at the Lord’s table, there’s Rufus the Roman over there. I don’t see my brother in Christ, I see Rufus the Roman.
The Romans are our oppressors and so I’m not going to break bread with him. But he could go to the other side of the table, the Rufus the Roman, and he could say, well, that’s not my brother in Christ over there, that’s Judah the Jew. His ancestor fought the Maccabean Revolt where I lost my grandpa. And so now I’m going to blame him. I’m going to treat him as an exemplar of his people group. And now you would just have a never ending game of grievances versus real church unity. So this is why Paul argues that, look, all have sinned so everybody get off your high horse, but now there’s this new identity in Christ and he says, “In Christ, there’s neither a Jew nor a Gentile. In Christ, there’s neither a male nor a female. In Christ, there’s neither slave nor free. You are all one in Christ.”
And so that’s where a biblical approach to justice is going to start. This other kind of justice goes the exact opposite direction. They would say, let’s treat every individual who comes across your path over the course of your day and don’t see the individual image bearer of God before you, see a cipher or an exemplar or a proxy for their entire group. So I meet a black person, I meet a white person, I meet an Asian person, I meet a Hispanic person, and instead of seeing that unique image bearer, it’s automatically, well, okay, you’re oppressed, you’re the oppressor. And I’ve seen it play out in the last few years in the church and that is not a recipe for church unity. And that’s why again, Paul would have none of that in the first century, as he’s seeking to bring all these diverse tribes together.
But again, social justice be, as I call it in the book or this other version, this counterfeit version of justice plays these kinds of tribal warfare games that are not helpful if we want to pursue real justice. So there you have three differences. If we’re easily offended, if we’re bearing the fruit of resentments and assuming the worst of others and self-righteousness, and if we’re grouping people into identity groups, rather than the biblical identity groups, we’re all fallen in Adam, but we can be brought together as family in Christ. If we’re missing that, then we’re missing biblical justice.
Narrator: The third question Thaddeus addresses on this topic, is critical race theory biblical?
Let’s talk about critical race theory. So let’s start with the positive. Critical race theory, one of its core tenants is that race itself is a human construct and it’s a human construct that has been invented to oppress. That’s an idea that as Christians, we can say a hearty amen to. You don’t see the word race in scripture. You see ethnos, there’s different ethnicities and different cultures and different nations, but this language of race where your skin tone makes you a certain kind of person, whether superior or inferior is completely and utterly foreign to a biblical view of reality. And so that’s one point that we could say amen to critical race theory. The Bible has been saying that for thousands of years, so it’s a good thing that critical race theorists have caught up on that point.
But having said that, critical race theory does smuggle some ideas in that I think are deeply incompatible with the biblical view of reality. And so let me just highlight a few. If you read Robin DiAngelo’s bestseller, White Fragility, if you read Ibram X. Kendi’s-
Thaddeus Williams: If you read Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist or Stamped From the Beginning, if you read Beverly Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, if you read this literature, you very quickly see that the whole human race is divided into these group identities. And so DiAngelo, in some of her work she has a handy chart that breaks it down and says, look, if you’re white, you’re automatically the oppressor. If you’re male, you’re automatically the oppressor. If you’re straight, you’re automatically the oppressor. And if you’re a Christian, you’re automatically the oppressor. So I’m over four. I’m like the ultimate super-villain in DiAngelo’s universe. And here’s the problem with that is that it ends up treating, again, individuals not as the unique image-bearer of God and hear their story, but it actually causes us to prejudge based on skin tone or XX or XY chromosomes or economic status or faith commitment or things like that.
Which let me just be perfectly blunt about this. The word prejudice means to prejudge. That’s just the basic meaning of the term, to prejudge. In critical race theory, racism is redefined as prejudice plus power. And so the argument is white people hold all the power. Therefore, only white people can be racist. And I hear something like that, and it just strikes me as a cop-out because when Hitler was penning the anti-semitic, racist screed of Mein Kampf, he didn’t have power. He was in jail. But it’s still racist. And that racism still needed to be taken to the cross of Jesus. When Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, says to the Jews, “Your number is up. We’re coming for you,” or he refers to the “white devils,” I would want to say, “Farrakhan, run as quickly as possible to the cross of Jesus in repentance of your racism.” And so that’s one of the problems with the way CRT, or critical race theory, redefines racism, so that it’s only a white people problem.
I endorse the historic definition of racism before it was redefined in 1970 by a far-left white scholar named Patricia Biddle-Patha as prejudice plus power. Racism has always meant prejudice plus pigmentation, prejudice plus pigmentation, which means I look at the melanin levels in your skin cells, and then I prejudge whether you’re superior or inferior, whether you have insight or you have nothing worth listening to. I would argue that CRT because it shuns the traditional definition of racism and embraces this white liberal Patricia Biddle-Patha redefinition, that it’s actually racist. It is actually racist in the historic sense of the term because now people are being prejudged based on their pigmentation. And this is happening in the church. And so a movement that markets itself as anti-racist is actually, I’m convinced, profoundly racist to its core.
And let me give just one concrete example of this. I have a dear friend. He was a contributor to my book about all this, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, a brother out in New York named Edwin Ramirez. And Edwin Ramirez says he started getting sucked into this ideology as a person of color and as a Christian. He started believing that he’s automatically oppressed. All of his white brothers and sisters are oppressors. And he said it just replaced the fruit of the spirit in his life, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, all that good stuff, with everything we were talking about, resentment and suspicion and assuming the worst of others’ motives and making snap judgements and prejudice and self-righteousness, all of that.
But he said the breakthrough for him came at a rural church where he was, basically him and his family were the only not white people there. And they busted out his all-time favorite hymn. And Edwin says he looked in the front row, and there was a sweet, old white lady with her palms outstretched to the ceiling, just worshiping Jesus with all of her, with every fiber of her being just worshiping Jesus. And he said in that moment, it was like the scales fell off his eyes, and he was able to see, like, I’ve been conditioned to believe that by virtue of her skin color, so I’ve been prejudiced based on pigmentation, to see her as my oppressor. But that’s my sister. That’s my sister in Christ. We’ve been adopted by the same father, so we’re family. We’ve been redeemed by the same son. We’re inhabited by the same Holy Spirit. And that was such a breakthrough moment for Edwin.
And so that’s what I see critical race theory doing practically to people, is it eats away at their sense of the family of God in a very profound sense and instead resorts to tribal warfare. Now, I know I’ve been rambling, but give me one final point on critical race theory. One of the core tenets that you find in a lot of this literature is that if there’s any disparity between racial groups, and Ibram X. Kendi says as much in How to Be An Anti-Racist, then the only conceivable explanation is racism.
And I, when I was writing the book, had to do a deep dive into the research on this and saw that that’s just so simplistic. We end up seeing racism in places where it isn’t, and we end up missing racism in places that it is. Quick examples here. Imagine a blacklight, because there’s a lot of conversation about, “Oh, well CRT, it’s not a worldview. It’s just a tool.” Well, a blacklight is a tool that justice seekers use. If you’re an investigator, say there’s a murder scene in a hotel, you can use a blacklight as a tool to help you spot, “Oh, there’s some blood splatters over there. We need to investigate and run some DNA.” A blacklight as a tool is helpful to doing justice.
But I describe critical race theory as a busted blacklight. It’s a broken blacklight because when you turn the lights off and shine it, it shows … It can’t distinguish between what’s a legitimate blood splatter, like where has injustice happened? And what’s just like a mustard stain on the wall? And so things that actually aren’t racist get called racist. And it’s such a busted blacklight that many blood spatters, real forms of racism, like for example, Planned Parenthood targeting minority communities, to stay true to the vision of its founder, Margaret Sanger, to eliminate Black people, that doesn’t show up on the blacklight of critical race theory. And so even if it isn’t a worldview, if it’s just a tool, it’s such a busted tool that I don’t think it really helps the church move towards true justice.
Narrator: And the final question we received was, “As a Christian, how should I be involved in politics if I don’t fit either political party?”
Thaddeus Williams: I would say if you find yourself sort of politically homeless that that’s a good thing because the thing we all want to be very careful of is we don’t want to fall into what a colleague of mine at Biola University, Rick Langer has a great term for this. He calls it hermit crab theology, hermit crab theology, and what he’s getting at here is that a hermit crab doesn’t have its own shell. It’ll find like a Coke can on the bottom of the sea. It’ll find somebody else’s shell, and it just sort of jams itself inside and makes that home. So, hermit crab theology says, “Oh, well, here’s some preexisting shell of say the Democratic Party, or here’s the preexisting shell of the Republican Party, so let’s just jam Jesus inside that shell.” In other words, let’s mount Jesus on the back of a donkey if you’re Democratic or an elephant if you’re Republican. Here’s the problem with hermit crap theology, is that Jesus won’t be bound by any human-made shell.
He’s bigger and better than anything that either political party in this country, the US has to offer. So, we want to be very careful to keep first things first. Our first and foremost loyalty is to King Jesus and his kingdom, his Lordship. Now, if we find ourselves just walking the political party line, then we need to take a hard look in the mirror and say, “Who is my Lord?” This was a hot question in the first century, where you had the Caesars of the Roman Empire claiming their own deity, where you had to go out and burn a little pinch of incense once a year publicly. You had to burn this pinch of incense and you had to declare it out loud. You had to say, [foreign language], which means worthy art thou our Lord and God, Caesar. So, worshiping politics, worshiping Cesar was part of what our earliest brothers and sisters in the first and second centuries were up against.
That’s usually why they were lion lunch. It’s usually why they became human lampposts in Nero’s courtyard. It’s usually why they were, there was mass extermination attempts, because they refuse to bow to the pseudo-Lordship of Caesar. Their core claim was that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. So, if we time warped back to now, we need the same encouraged to say the same thing. We aren’t going to bow to this or that presidential candidate as if they’re the final answer to all of the country’s problems. We need to be able to have a prophetic voice, to be able to expose hypocrisy and sin on both sides. But, the problem is once we get locked into an echo chamber, it’s like heresy to say anything that critiques your side, and as Christians, again, break out of the hermit crab shells and be free to critique both sides, because Jesus is king and he’s superior.
So, that’s my main answer to that is we do not want to fall into the trap of hermit crab theology because when you do that … let me give one quick concrete example. Let’s all time-warp back to the 1970s. Down in Chile, in South America, there was a presidential election and one of the candidates is named Salvador Allende in Salvador. Salvador Allende is saying, “I care about the poor. I want to institute socialist policies to redistribute wealth. This income equality is so unjust. I’m going to fix it.” So, there’s all these statements by Christians in Chile in the early ’70s saying, “Yes, yes, the Bible calls us to care about the poor. Salvador Allende cares about the poor. Let’s rally all of our support behind him.” So, they did and Allende wins. Well, true to his word, he starts instituting socialist policy. Within the first year in Chile in the early ’70s, inflation skyrockets over 500%.
He collectivizes agriculture and the poverty rate more than doubles within the first year. So, a political party marketing itself, as we’re going to help the poor, ended up having devastating effects on the poor and added to their number. So, we need to be super discerning as Christians engaging politics, to not settle for bumper sticker slogans, to not settle for the slick marketing, because the truth is there’s been so much damage done by political parties claiming to do one thing and doing the exact opposite. Communism and socialism in the 20th century marketed themselves as we’re about social justice and helping the poor. They led to the deaths, the body count of over 100 million image bearers of God in less than 100 years. So, that’s my final takeaway point, is we have to be super discerning as we engage the political realm, not settling for soundbites, but thinking critically and ultimately submitting to the ultimate authority, the Lordship of Jesus.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of TGC Q&A, in our series on Gen Z’s questions about Christianity. Be sure to tune back in next week as we bring you another episode in the series.