It is well known that the so-called “culture wars” in our country have been heating up over the past few years. In our current context, words like woke and critical race theory are often used as verbal umbrellas for a set (or sets) of ethical ideas. In our circles, we often tacitly agree that many of these ideas are false and possibly theologically dangerous. But to disentangle these ideas, to properly define them and theologically vet them, is no small task. What if I throw the good out with the bad? What if I unwittingly ignore the law of love? However, of far more pressing concern for the individual pastor is speaking the truth to my people. I am to help them “hold on to the good and reject the evil” (1 Thess 5:21-22). I am called to my flock, not a platformed philosophical debate. A good starting point, therefore, is to take some of the common viewpoints and phrases being used and examine them in the light of Scripture.
It is with this in mind that I had the pleasure of reading Confronting Injustice by Thaddeus Williams. In it, Williams attempts to help Christians navigate through current issues of social justice by asking relevant questions and comparing the answers with God’s Word. The book is divided into four parts, with an epilogue and several appendices.
The author’s approach to this topic is simple and straightforward. He begins by pointing out that justice (both social and otherwise) is never a “maybe” for the Christian. God commands it of us. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that anything our world calls “justice” rings true to Scripture. Williams sums it up well: “We can’t separate the Bible’s commands to do justice from its commands to be discerning. The oppressed deserve more than our good intentions…this means carefully distinguishing true social justice from its counterfeits.” (3-4) He then introduces a basic conceptual dichotomy, namely, Social Justice A (Biblical, what we should seek) and Social Justice B (what we should not seek). This conceptual dichotomy frames the discussion for the rest of the book. Williams uses it to set up three categories of questions that affect Biblical theology and Christian life: worship, community and salvation, treated in sections one, two, and three, respectively. In essence, what he’s doing is forcing the reader to ask, “Does my view of social justice correspond to what the Bible says about, e.g., worship?”
It is here that the book really shows its worth. In the first section, worship, Williams takes us back to the fundamental reality of the first commandment. We are creatures; we have a Creator. But more than that, we were created in his image. We are his “image bearers.” Williams uses this phrase throughout the book, and to good effect. If I make the mechanism of my ethical actions the color or gender of the people around me, I’ve missed the image-bearer truth that underlies us all. Williams also points out that very often worldly concepts of justice (Social Justice B) jettison the Creator altogether. This forces things like meaning and identity back onto the individual. This is idolatry and brings consequences. “In sum, making an idol out of the self is just plain mean. We were never designed to bear the God-sized weight of creating and sustaining our own identities. It puts an unbearable weight on people’s shoulders when they are indoctrinated to follow their hearts, be true to themselves, and dream up their own identities….Our churches must serve as trauma recovery centers for those crushed by the mainstream credo of self-creation” (32). It is this weight, the author points out, that pushes people to look to the State or social acceptance as a replacement idol (33-35).
In sections two and three, Williams continues comparing Social Justice B with what the Bible says on community and salvation. He makes several pertinent points. For instance, with Social Justice B the “gospel imperative” is overthrowing all systems of oppression and racism. How can a Christian possibly square that with the Fourth Commandment, let alone the true Gospel of full and free forgiveness through Christ? What is more, modern social justice philosophies almost wholly ignore forgiveness as a mechanism of human interaction, despite the fact that as human beings we desperately crave forgiveness and seek feeling “justified” in who we are. “What we are slowly realizing as a culture is the impossible demands of justice and our irrepressible need for justification. Before grace found him, Luther lashed his own back bloody…all to earn status as ‘a Very Good Person.’ Today we virtue-signal, we hashtag our solidarity, and we self-censor lest we utter blasphemy. This is what penance looks like in the twenty-first century…but we can never do enough justice to earn the not guilty sentence. Jesus can and did. Social Justice B obscures that great news” (116). For Williams, one of the primary tragedies of Social Justice B movements is that it teaches people to misunderstand the forgiveness we have as God’s people—both the forgiveness of sins we have from our Savior, and the forgiveness we show to each other.
I must confess that I found this third section extremely thought provoking. Williams’s observations on forgiveness as an ethical mechanism helped me clarify my own thoughts. For instance, though Williams doesn’t talk much about it, the mechanism of affirmation is used extensively in modern social justice thought. One wonders if this isn’t a deliberate trick by the old, crafty serpent: replace the mechanism of forgiveness with one of affirmation, which, in practice, leads people to harden themselves against God’s Law.
Overall, I found the book to be a very profitable read. Though I wouldn’t characterize it as “light” reading, it is definitely engaging. I led my Board of Elders through parts of it and they enjoyed it. Williams’s style is approachable and proves more than capable of holding your attention. He comfortably pulls in philosophical, historical, and pop culture references that pertain to the point at hand. In addition, Williams has a very good understanding of Law and Gospel. He points out sin and its effects (16-17). He also knows his Savior; in fact, his knowledge of Luther’s understanding of grace makes a Lutheran pastor smile (115-116).
It should be noted that there are several spots where the discussion is more secular. The author spends much time going through several philosophical terms that are part of the modern discourse. Generally speaking, the treatment was well done, although at times it felt too argument-based for me, and too much like the book was slightly getting off topic. For instance, chapter 8 raises the question of crime statistics for black and white Americans and for police responses to them. Williams brings in data, statistics, and quotes from apparently relevant voices like Ian Howe, CEO of black charter schools in New York City (97). This is all well and good, but it felt a little too “capitalism is better than socialism” for my tastes. In fact, appendix C is titled “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” so it is something Professor Williams feels is important. While I agree with him from a political standpoint, I don’t consider these the strongest parts of the book, or even germane to the overall point. If you buy this book, it should be for the theological insights, not necessarily the critiques of college campus Marxism.
Prospective readers should also note that section four is almost entirely devoted to questions on epistemology and worldviews. I found it interesting; others may not. The same can be said about the short testimonials that end each chapter. Suffice it to say that some are better than others, and many can be safely skipped. Also, not to overstate the obvious, but the book is mainly a critique of ideas on the left side of the political spectrum. Williams recognizes this and alerts the reader at the start. He is fair in his approach, but most of the subject matter is dealing with leftist philosophy, not positions on the right. Readers should expect that going in.
In general, I enjoyed the book, and I learned something. I would recommend it to others who are interested in these issues.