by Dr. Thaddeus Williams
The first commandment, to have no gods before God, is where any authentically Christian vision of justice must start. When we worship idols instead of God, slavery happens, murder happens, rape happens, child abuse happens, theft happens. Devalue to Original and it's easier to treat the images like garbage.
That is what is so profound about Paul’s take on injustice in Romans 1. He does not merely note that humanity is “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, [and] maliciousness,” then blame all of that injustice on society and dream up a utopian political solution the way Marx and Engels did. Paul does not look at the bad fruit on the human tree then suggest replanting it in the different soil of some new political ideology. Paul knows that the human tree is so hopelessly sick down to its roots that whatever soil you plant us in, toxic fruit will form. No amount of political revolution, social engineering, or economic policy-tweaking will stop envy, strife, deceit, and maliciousness from sprouting out of our diseased hearts. Why were all the utopianisms of the modern era doomed to fail? Because the evil did not originate in politics, society, or the economy. It is no doubt EXPRESSED there, but evil ORIGINATES in human hearts that “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” and gold and power and sex.
This, then, is how Paul adds depth to our picture of injustice. Look deep enough underneath any horizontal human-against-human injustice and you will always find a vertical human-against God injustice, a failure to worship God as God, a refusal to give the Creator what the Creator is due. All injustice, we might say, is a violation of the first commandment.
Consider white supremacy. The belief that white-skinned humans are superior to other humans can and has led to many non-white humans not receiving what they are due. That is an injustice we must work to make a permanent thing of the past. But there is a transcendent dimension to the injustice of white supremacy, something almost no one is talking about that keeps us from chopping at the roots of racism. It makes race, not God, supreme. It worships and serves created things rather than the Creator. Racism, therefore, is not merely horizontally unjust—depriving other creatures what they are due; it is also vertically unjust—failing to give the Creator his due by making race an ultimate object of devotion. Why is racism so evil? If we leave God out of our answer to that question we will fail to grasp the true diabolical depths of racism and find ourselves swatting at chimeras of the real problem.
Dr. Thaddeus Williams serves as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Biola University and the author of REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History The above post is an excerpt from his book “21 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice” (forthcoming 2019).