The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.

Diagnosing Deception—How Can I Know I’m Not Deceived?

At this moment, in the Church, there are large groups of people who are cripplingly, trenchantly, blindingly deceived. This must be the case, because groups who both claim to be Christian claim mutually contradictory positions to be true. Is Jesus the only way to salvation, or are there equally valid alternatives? Does Christ come to make us healthy and wealthy, or is suffering part of his plan for humans? Does our increase in knowledge mean that our approach to sexual ethics must change as well? Does God bless homosexual unions or not? Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on the divided morality of the Civil War, had this to say: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Either Jesus is the only way or he is not, either health and wealth is true or it is not, and either God blesses homosexuality or He does not. There can be no middle ground between them.

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As I see it, however, the really troubling factor sits deeper than a disagreement about doctrine (although doctrine does indeed matter). The real question—the real nugget of the problem—is that both sides in each debate claim to be following God’s Spirit. Both sides claim to have the same religiously derived affirmation, the same spiritual sense that they are right. Both sides are reading the same Bible, claim to pray to the same Being, and experience religious feelings that validate their positions accordingly. If God is not a contradiction, then one side must necessarily be deceived.

Last month I read a chapter of Jeremiah each morning and night. I was struck, again and again and again at Jeremiah’s uncompromising rejection of falsehood—false prophets, false teachers, those who mislead Israel. His words, speaking for God in Jeremiah 23:31-32, stood out as a particularly clear example,

31 “Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the Lord, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32 Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the Lord, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the Lord.

How can I know that I’m not deceived? If two sides both appeal to the same sets of feelings and data to bolster our mutually contradictory positions, how can we navigate between them? And rather than asking how I can know I’m right, what factors can give me confidence that I’m not a false prophet operating against the Lord?

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The place to begin, if we would have clarity on the issue of deception, is through diagnosing deception itself. In this, I think there might be four components which contribute to deception. The first is that deception is rooted in the corrupted heart. Jeremiah 17:9 states it clearly and simply, The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Every thought, motive, and action of the human heart is to some degree corrupted by a layer of deception. No human has ever had a perfectly pure motive in his or her life. Even our best motives—to acts of generosity or love or sacrifice—are flavored however momentarily by the lurking desire for rewards and recognition. How much more our middling or base desires? We are sneaky and self-deceiving creatures, eager to make ourselves look good, eager to gloss over our misdeeds and elevate the goods we perceive of ourselves. Solzhenitsyn, writing in his Gulag Archipelago, famously said that “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” G.K. Chesterton, responding to a newspaper inquiry on the topic of “What’s Wrong with the World,” responded, briefly and poignantly: “Dear Sirs,” he wrote, “I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”

Because the heart is deceived, this means that our feelings about whether or not we are right are also deceived. The heart is deceitful above all else, therefore the ratifications of my heart are also subject to this overarching deceptive power. This means that the feeling that I am right about something is in itself insufficient. A couple of examples might clarify this further.

solzhenitsyn_timePreachers (like me) often describe a certain sensation while preaching—it is a strong sense of feeling that rushes to enlarge the preacher and his rhetoric with a sense of divine power. We might call this the “preacher’s spirit,” a rising feeling of being “in the spirit” that comes over us. But the trouble with this feeling is that while I might feel it, and feel that I am really preaching the true gospel, I can listen to another preacher who is also feeling it but preaching the opposite of the gospel! There are very bad preachers—bad in doctrine, bad in rhetorical technique—who nevertheless feel the same rush of the preacher’s spirit. We can only conclude that the preacher’s spirit is an unreliable measure of the teacher’s validity.

Another area of confusion is related to the conscience. Many people appeal to their conscience as indication of their religious orthodoxy—what conscience permits, and doesn’t permit, is considered to be a good indicator of right and wrong. Many Christians even claim that their conscience is virtually the same as the Holy Spirit. The problem is that the conscience, although a genuine moral indicator, is deeply culturally formed. I work in an Asian context, and for my many Asian peers it is unthinkable—indeed unconscionable—to walk into a person’s house wearing your shoes. But this is clearly a trained behaviour, and not a divine mandate. On the opposite side of the matter, there are many things to which my conscience registers no opposition whatsoever, but which the Spirit of God interjects His insistent voice (an unkind thought, an improper look, and so forth). Many Christians have simply neglected the training of the conscience, and in the process have come to believe that they have a relationship with the Holy Spirit when in fact they simply have a relationship with their conscience.

The overarching point remains the same, that our feelings—religious, conscientious, or otherwise—are unreliable guides to truth because of our deceptive heart.

This brings us to the second component, which is that deception originates in the corrupted will. Here I think we can helpfully revisit Eve’s decision in Genesis 3:6, When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Eve’s choice was a choice against God’s plan—a choice for personal desire, a choice that placed the human will in priority over God’s. It was, in essence, the choice to cling to God’s gifts—the garden, the fruit—but in a way that rejected God as the giver of gifts. Eve confused the gift with the giver, and that act of self-deception was the inaugurating moment for all our subsequent self-deceptions.

Eve and Serpent

The act of placing desire in priority over obedience birthed a confusion that continues to plague us at almost every valence of human life. We are confused beings, often incapable of making moral choices because our inflamed desires war against our capacity to will rightly. One particular expression of this corruption in our faulty reasoning is in the way that we regularly conclude that possession of a gift is license to use the gift. We see this expressed vividly in life itself, sex, and the spiritual gifts. God gives us life—it is a gift—but in giving it we are not licensed to use it however we please. God gives us sex—it is His great and good idea!—and yet He does not license us to use it how we please, but specifically limits and proscribes its use. And God gives us spiritual gifts as well—preaching, teaching, prophecy, and so forth—but the presence of the gift is not therefore license to use it. The gifts must be used under the permission of God and in accordance with His will. When we assume that God’s gifts are ours to use apart from His permission—when we assume that the presence of the gift is itself permission—then we repeat the sin of Eve.

A third component in diagnosing deception is to recognize that deception thrives in a validating community. In Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character.” In time, such company, uncritically evaluated, can lead the believer astray on a vector angled far from God. The reason for this is because communities—especially the self-elected community of friendship—give us power and permission for our desires. We all have friends to whom we turn when feeling sad, or friends to whom we look when we want to have fun. But in the same way we are also aware of times we have turned to certain friends because in their company we experience a kind of permission for bad behaviour—friends with whom we can get drunk, or cause trouble, or gossip, or whatever. In this way, good communities bolster good behaviours, but bad communities reinforce bad behaviours. This is more than simply an echo-chamber effect, it is the magnification of the will’s corruption through companionship giving license to the illicit.

Dead Flower_Pinterest

Bad company, like bad conditions, kills life.

I am reminded here of the chilling words from 1 Kings 22:19-23, when King Ahab, knowing that many of his own prophets were unreliable, demanded that Micaiah, a known prophet of the Lord, speak the truth to him.

19 Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left. 20 The Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said this while another said that. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 The Lord said to him, ‘How?’ And he said, ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.’ 23 Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you.”

Not only was a deceptive spirit at work, but the community of prophets created a validating community which ensured that the deception would remain unexamined and unchecked.

These three factors, then, show the origins of deception—that I choose the thing I want, then validate it with both my emotions and in community. The result of this spiral of deception is the fourth factor in deception—deception bears fruit by redefining God. Psalm 50:21 powerfully describes this attitude, when God saysThese things you have done and I kept silence; You thought that I was just like you. When we give priority to our deceptive hearts, then the end result is that we attempt to form God into our own image, into our own likeness. We shape our theology, our ideas of God, and our interpretations of experiences so that we favor our deceived perspective. We choose our theology over God’s reality, create golden calves to worship and call them Yahweh. Instead of being formed after His likeness, we turn Him into a vile projection of our own wicked desires. He becomes the licensing agent of our own perversions, servant of our lusts, sanctifier of human dissolution and decay.

Golden Calf

To some degree, we each have traveled down all of these deceptive paths—we have listened to our deceptive hearts, we have chosen God’s gifts over God Himself, we have appealed to validating communities to give permission to our choices, and we have redefined God to an image that favors us in the process. Clearly, the first step in preventing self-deception must be to acknowledge my propensity towards deception.

What can be done, then, to prevent further self-deception? Above all else I will require something from outside myself, an outside help. If deception is rooted in the heart, then I require something external to help straighten things out. I am reminded, then, of Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude, that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is, of course, an impossibility—how can I ever have a pure heart so that I can see God? I cannot—but perhaps the inverse is then true, that those who look to God will be purified in heart. The implication would be that a sustained gaze at God is necessary to purify our sight, our hearts, and our minds—that under the illumination of the vision of God our self-deceptions are in time consumed.

This looking to God is an iconoclasm that takes two forms, and these two forms are two treatments for deception represented in two commitments. The first is a commitment to pursue God as He really is, and not as I want Him to be. This is an attitude of submission to God which permits Him always to define Himself to us, to startle us, to make Himself Lord and master of our perceptions of Him. In this, we reject all our ideas of God in favor of God Himself, all our best thoughts about God are submitted to Him for His own personal review. I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed. Grieving the loss of his wife, Lewis had become frustrated with the fake images of her embedded in his mind. He didn’t want the image of Joy, he wanted Joy; He didn’t want his idea of God, but God. Not our silly and haphazard constructs of divine ideas, wood and paper and tape and paint—but the real thing.

Lewis and Joy Gresham

In this, the Christian who would be undeceived must maintain a sustained gaze at God, seeking Him and nothing less than Him, craving, longing, desperate to see the fullness of His glory, majesty, presence, and being. This will require a commitment to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. After all, if my heart is deceived, then my heart’s idea of God is also likely to be deceived. I need an idea from outside my heart, and that idea is found in Scripture. How God has revealed Himself in time is of greatest importance when we are filtering out our own, broken ideas of who God is. Such a commitment to the whole of God will also mean not choosing one section of Scripture over another, not putting God in a war with God by placing love in contrast with judgment, or holiness in contrast with mercy. Such a commitment over time means that the more we look at God, the more we permit Him to shape our affections, emotions, wants, and desires.

The second form of this iconoclasm is a commitment to pursue reality as it really is, and not as I want it to be. This is a rejection of subjectivism, of projecting on the world my own desires, of permitting reality itself to be iconoclastic. Proverbs 12:22 says that Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight. God considers deliberate falsehood an abomination—it is even enshrined in the ninth commandment that we shall not bear false witness. To act as a false witness, in a court of law, is to contribute to the murder of an innocent person. When we bear false witness toward the world, we commit a kind of murder against the truth. It is a lie where we read the world as we want it to be, and not as it really is. It is, again, an extension of the lie of Eve, who chose God’s creation over God’s will, who chose her version of the world over God’s revealed version of the world.

Again, the Christian who would be undeceived must choose a fundamentally iconoclastic posture of approach to the world. In epistemological humility I must refuse to map my own perceptions onto the world, I must reject subjectivism, I must suffer reality to veto and break my initial judgments and perceptions. Against the choice of Eve, I commit to rejecting all gifts in exchange for the giver. St. Augustine’s famous prayer is illuminating here as well, “O Lord, The house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.” Break down my old understanding, my own weak and foolish constructs, and reveal to me the magnificence and fullness of who You really are.

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In the early Church, during the era in which the Nicene Creed was being composed, the Church was very nearly overrun by a grand deception. Followers of Arius argued that Jesus was not actually God, but merely the best of God’s creatures. For a time, it looked as if the Arians would win the day—they had the support of a majority of the Christian world and of the Emperor as well. But by grace Arianism was defeated, made subject in the end to the revealed truth of who God is, and especially to Who He is in Christ. We may face similar deceptions today, and they may sweep across the highest echelons of the Church so that even the elect are deceived and the entire ship of the Church appears to all to be off course. And yet through it all God Himself will never be deceived, cannot be deceived. The truth remains unchanged by human fickleness. In the meantime, both sides may be wrong, and one most certainly is! May God strengthen His people to seek to be undeceived, to settle for nothing less than the fullness of Him and Him alone.