Over the last five years, the topic of social justice has become something of a jackhammer in some churches, reducing congregations to rubble, shaking denominations, even fracturing fellowship between old friends. Online cloisters have formed in which anyone to our left must be a social-justice-warrior snowflake or a neo-Marxist. And, in other cloisters, anyone to our right is probably a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi. Meanwhile, the exhausted majority feels caught in the crossfire, hoping for some new way forward.
Many social-justice battles have reached a standoff. People are entrenched behind their respective influencers, waiting for them to hurl the next truth bomb at the other side. I’m not going to reenter the wearying fray surrounding critical race theory, systemic racism, white privilege, cultural Marxism, transgenderism, or other hot topics. (I have done so elsewhere.) Yes, there are extremely important conversations to be had, there are highly seductive false doctrines to be resisted, and there is serious biblical thinking to be done on all of those fronts, but I want to get at what I believe to be a bedrock issue underneath those questions.
In John 17, Jesus prays that Christian unity among his people would become a powerful, visible apologetic to the watching world. Sadly, what should be the beautiful tapestry of Christ’s church has been torn asunder by tribalism in many places. Some churches (thankfully not all) look indistinguishable from the broader tattered and battle-bruised culture. Consider, then, a modest proposal for a way through such schism and strife, a proposal we can sum up in three simple words:
Worship God more.
I firmly believe that worship is the issue below the issue, below the issue, below the issue in our social-justice controversies. If we all take a deep breath, and reset our collective gaze on exalting and enjoying God as supreme, what might happen? I am convinced that we will not merely survive this contentious cultural moment, but that we might actually thrive as a more unified people, a properly awestruck people who “truly execute justice” (Jeremiah 7:5).
Justice Is a Worship Issue
“What,” you may ask, “does worship have to do with justice?” To do justice is to give others their due. God is the ultimate Other. It follows that, for the Christian, true justice starts with giving God his due, worshiping the triune, sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe with everything we are.
“To do justice is to give others their due. God is the ultimate Other.”
When Paul explores a gruesome array of injustices in Romans 1, he does not settle for superficial explanations. He goes deep. Why all the “envy, murder, strife, deceit, [and] maliciousness”? Because “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). We “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). Look deep enough underneath any horizontal human-against-human injustice, and you will always find a vertical human-against-God injustice, a refusal to give the Creator the worship he deserves.
This tragedy plays out in grim detail throughout the Old Testament (and through all of human history after the garden, for that matter). Slavery, murder, rape, child abuse, theft, and other injustices happen when we bow to false gods. Refuse to give the Creator the honor he is due, and we inevitably gorge our worship-appetites on created things. We endow elephants and donkeys with ultimate value that they are not due. As G.K. Chesterton famously said, “Once we abolish God, the government becomes God.” Idolatry — worshiping created things rather than the Creator — is the carcinogenic source of every other injustice.
Pursuing Vertical Justice
If I could poll the people reading this article about what we worship, I assume almost all would happily tick the “God” box. But the heart is deceitful. It would be naive to think that our approaches to justice cannot be sabotaged by our idol-factory hearts. How could we tell if it were so? I have found this fourfold survey of the soul personally helpful, and believe it confronts and draws people to the left and right of the debates over justice. (For the record, I have failed all four, often multiple times in a day.) If we answer honestly and run to the cross of Jesus, the church will be in a better place to pursue true justice in our day.
1. The Imago Test: Are we treating opponents as image-bearers?
When we fail to give God his due, we start treating his image-bearers like abstractions, like foes to be vanquished on a culture-war battlefield, or like soulless exemplars of their identity groups.
Augustine attempted to sum up the entire Christian ethic with the famous line, “Love God and do what you want.” If I treasure God as God, that first affection should recalibrate all of my other affections. I won’t want to swindle, exploit, or oppress you, since you are a living image of the God I love most. Love God, the ultimate Other, and you will show others who bear your Beloved’s image the dignity they are due. Devalue the Original by putting something else in his place, and it’s easier to treat his images like garbage.
Try this quick thought experiment. Picture three people you staunchly disagree with on political and social-justice questions. Now, one by one, think this true thought about them: made in God’s image. Picture their faces. Made in God’s image. One more for good measure. Made in God’s image. Is that the first time you’ve thought of them that way, instead of as a nemesis in a culture war? If so, then we are hardly giving the God who said “Let us make man in our image” his proper due (Genesis 1:26). Lord, forgive us.
2. The Red/Blue Test: Are our minds hyper-politicized?
The more vertically unjust we become, the more obsessively political we become. That’s easy to do these days. The last six years, politics have dropped like a bucket of ink into a bathtub, coloring all of life red or blue. Even spheres that were mostly apolitical are now rife with political quarrels — sports, cartoons, cake-baking, chicken sandwiches, superheroes, plastic straws, bathrooms, even phrases like “beating a dead horse,” “no can do,” and “ladies and gentlemen.”
“The more vertically unjust we become, the more obsessively political we become.”
When everything is politicized, politics clouds our consciousness and erodes our lives. Are we too busy dismantling systems to do the up-close-and-personal justice of chucking a ball around with a son who is due quality time? Do we spend more time in the pointless drama of comment threads than in the great redemptive theo-drama of Scripture? Do we think more about the latest trending political hubbub than about who God has revealed himself to be? Are we more emotionally invested in the triumphs of our red or blue teams than in the advancement of the gospel to every tongue, tribe, and nation? Are we more obsessed with slaying ideological opponents than with the sin in our own hearts?
If so, then we are not giving “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17) his proper due. Lord, have mercy.
3. The Justification Test: Are we seeking righteousness apart from Christ?
The more vertically unjust we become, the more we can be caught in a hopeless tailspin of self-justification. Picture the justice-seeker on social media. How might posting daily online outrage become a misguided quest for 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.” In short, our justice pursuits can become a false gospel, a way of establishing our righteousness apart from the work of Christ on the cross.
This constant imputation of guilt to others — they are the phobics and fascists; they are the snowflakes and Marxists — offers a subjective sense of goodness, but it is hardly the real thing. Do we find our moral status in Christ and Christ alone, or in our proud positions on “the right side of history”? Are we preaching the gospel to ourselves daily? Are we apathetic about telling others the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection, while ever-zealous to convert others to our justice causes? Then we are not giving the God who is “just and the justifier” of sinners (Romans 3:26) his proper due. Lord, be gracious.
4. The Fruit Test: Is the Spirit less evident in our lives?
The more vertically unjust we become, the more we are fueled by resentment, suspicion, rage, smugness, and assuming the worst of others’ motives. Oh, how easy it is for our hearts to slip back into their fallen default mode when questions of social justice arise. How easy to jump to unflattering conclusions about others.
“I believe we should have sheltered in place.” “So you’re saying you love tyranny!” “I think we should not live life behind masks and locked doors.” “So you’re saying you hate science and want more grandmas to die!” “I believe racism still exists and, as Christians, we should do something about it.” “So you’re saying you’re into critical race theory and pushing cultural Marxism!” “I don’t think racism is the best explanation for this particular disparity.” “So you don’t think racism exists or that we should do anything about it.”
Painting others in the most damnable and cartoonish light is no small matter. It is sin. It violates God’s second greatest commandment to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). It also breaks the divine bans on slander and bearing false witness.
Let us ask honestly: What is our quest for justice doing to our hearts? Is it making us more distrustful, easily offended, and quicker to slander? Is it stripping our souls of the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control? If so, then we are not giving the God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6) his proper due. Lord, change our hearts.
Deep down, we all long for something more beautiful and hopeful than the grisly ideological battlefields of our day. Which way do we look? Alexander Solzhenitsyn closed his famous Harvard speech (appropriately titled “A World Split Apart”) with a good answer to that question:
No one on earth has any other way left but upward.
Indeed, in all the sideways social-justice drama, let’s take a breather and look upward together. Let’s recalibrate our hearts. Crack open our hymnals. Get together across our differences. Break bread. Read the word. Enjoy God together. Relish his goodness out loud and face-to-face. In the words of Deuteronomy 32:3–4, let’s join the Israelites of old:
I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
ascribe greatness to our God!
The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.