We continue our lessons in social justice arising out of systems or narratives of social justification, and so it behooves us—do you not agree that behooves needs to get back into wider circulation?—it behooves us to look at a number of examples. I am thinking about Trump, and Samson, and King David, and Joel McDurmon, and more. We really need to get this lesson down.
A favorite exercise among conservatives is the game of what-about-ism. This is the informal fallacy of charging your opponents with hypocritical double standards instead of actually answering whatever charge they have leveled. It is a variation on the tu quoque fallacy (“oh yeah, well, you do it too”) Fallacious or not, it can be very entertaining. The point of the game is to reveal the astounding double standards that surround us on every side, and to marvel at their audacity. The game is, by turns, edifying, amusing, and highly instructive. Some version of the game is happening in every direction you might care to look, and they are all on a running clock. No time outs.
I used the term fallacy just above, but it should be pointed out that there are times when it is not a fallacy at all. When you point out, for example, that our current crop of leftists believe that violence is free speech, and that free speech is violence, and that they are the only ones who believe this, that is not a fallacy. That is what we should learn to call “an insight.”
In any society where ultimate questions are being contested, this kind of double standard is absolutely inevitable. The most recent example of this would be the yelling protesters being hauled out of the Kavanaugh hearings. Let’s play us some illustrative what-about-ism. Go.
What about what would have happened if this had been Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, and the yelling protesters had been wearing Don’t Tread on Me T-shirts? How would that have played out? I surmise that the protesters would currently be serving 6 to 10 in a federal penitentiary, and would perhaps be eligible for parole in 2 more years.
Remember this is a fallacy if your people do disrupt the hearings of the other party’s Supreme Court nominations, and you are pointing out that your foes do it too. It is not a fallacy when it is cast as a hypothetical. “This is something we never do, but how would you all react if we did?” That’s a reasonable question.
To Review: Social Justification > Social Justice:
So I have been emphasizing recently how social justice is a construct that is necessarily dependent upon a doctrine of social justification. If we decide to strive for social justice, we need somebody authoritative who will set those goals for us, and who will determine if and when we have attained them. Social justice goals never arise in a vacuum, and are not self-evident. They are dependent upon the narrative.
The goals set forth in the name of social justice are ultimately dependent upon a narrative. They do not appear out of nowhere. The goals set forth in the name of social justice are declared by the socially justified, and the socially justified are established as such by the narrative.
- Biblical narrative > biblical justification > biblical justice
- Social narrative > social justification > social justice
To be specific with a couple examples:
- I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt > by faith they passed through the Red Sea > thou shalt have no other gods before me
- Secularism delivered us from religious wars > “I have a dream” > racism is evil
Now what Russell Moore (and Joel McDurmon) are trying to do is this. They are trying to advance the biblical ethic on race while accepting the secular narrative about race. That dog, as the elderly gent on the front porch in Appalachia once said, won’t hunt.
Joel, for example, accepts the liberal narrative about what faithful Christians in the South were doing a couple generations ago, condemns them for it, and then seeks to have us adopt the biblical ethic from within the context of that narrative. But it won’t work. If the golden calf brought us out of Egypt, why should we worship Jehovah alone?
Those who are authorized to make the determination of what does and does not fit the narrative are the justified. And as the justified, the righteous standard that the social justice goals represent is simply imputed to them, and whether or not they actually possess that righteousness is immaterial. They have had righteousness imputed to them. This is why it matters to the soft evangelical left that Trump is an adulterer, and it doesn’t matter to them at all that Martin Luther King also was. King is justified. Trump is unjustified. King fits the narrative (Seneca Falls > Selma > Stonewall), and Trump is kind of the walking un-narrative with weird hair.
I am here talking about communal justice and communal justification, not about personal holiness and personal justification. But the social dynamic I am describing can overlap with individuals who actually are justified by God, and a parodies of it also occur with social groups that are anything but justified by God. In other words, there is a deep structure of imputed righteousness that will necessarily play out on the corporate level in every society, whether it is believing or unbelieving.
When a society is deeply divided, as ours is, what will happen is that two rival systems of social justification (and social justice) will clash. When the ancients went to war, they believed that their gods were also at war with each other (1 Kings 20:28). In a similar way, when red state America and blue state America collide, as they have very much been doing, their rival systems of social justification and justice are also colliding.
If you want to keep track, therefore, red state America represents the tattered remnants of mere Christendom in America. Blue state America represents full scale apostasy. Put another way, we are watching a battle between the backsliders and the apostates. And there are a large number of faithful Christians mixed into it, hundreds of thousands of them, who for the most part are aligned with the backsliders. They are having trouble making sense out of the whole thing.
So. Still with me?
A Davidic Example:
David was a ruler after God’s own heart. His personal sin with Bathsheba is very well known, as is his personal repentance, along with the grace and forgiveness that he received (Ps. 51:7). But we often forget that he was also a king over a nation, and that he was the leader of a political faction or party within that nation. Quite apart from the issues of his own individual salvation, we also need to see how the ramifications of his sin factored into the political fallout.
David was the leader of the godly in Israel, and yet he had been guilty of adultery and murder (2 Sam. 11:3; 2 Sam. 11:15). He consequently became the butt of the jokes of all the leftist late night comedians. Cartoonists had a field day. Gray beards in the Senate shook their heads in faux-dismay over him, and he was a major figure in the songs favored by drunkards in taverns (Ps. 69:12). Nathan, the prophet who had courageously confronted him over his sin (2 Sam. 12:7ff), was nevertheless on his side politically—he was part of the same political party together with Bathsheba that successfully resisted the machinations of Adonijah (1 Kings 1:11). Although Scripture is not silent about David’s great sin, it is noteworthy that the court records of Chronicles leave Bathsheba out of it. Ahitophel—apparently Bathsheba’s grandfather—thought he had a sufficient rationale to go over to Absalom’s side when civil war broke out. There certainly was dirt on David, and Joab knew about it. That is one of the reasons why David had trouble controlling Joab—Joab knew an awful lot.
So David’s personal forgiveness and David retaining this throne were two different issues. Although Psalm 51 does include his plea for cleansing, it also includes his petition not to have his dynasty fail. David knew that Saul by his sin had forfeited the empowerment to the Holy Spirit to rule, and inability to rule effectively is described in just this way—the Spirit departed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). David also knew that he had forfeited his right to the throne in a manner even more grotesque than Saul had done, and so he prays that God would show mercy to him in this respect as well. “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). If the Spirit departed from David the way the Spirit had departed from Saul, then David was done as king. And he knew it. And as it was, he was almost done as king.
Now David had forfeited Nathan’s support in the sense that he was not qualified for that support. He did not deserve it. He had also forfeited God’s support, and God keeping him on the throne was a matter of mercy. If we want to emphasize how David did not deserve Nathan’s support, we should remember that Nathan knew all about this. No one knew this better than Nathan did. And yet Nathan still supported him politically. It would be folly to accuse Nathan of compromising with sin when he was the one man in Israel who had risked his life to confront that very sin. David had already killed one man to keep that sin hidden. Why not two? So Nathan was anything but compromised.
So David was personally justified and forgiven, but this was not the same thing as being the justified representative or leader of all Israel. He was for some, and not for others. That was why there was a civil war. Because of the outcome of that war, and God’s rejection of Absalom, the line of David was established, and he became the justified leader of Israel, and not just a justified and forgiven sinner.
Trump the Justified:
Let’s jump three millennia and see if these principles are still operative.
What has happened with the rise of Trump, and his die-hard followers, is this—we have seen a wholesale rejection of the older liberal system of social justification, and the adoption of another one, radically distinct in some ways, and in other ways just like it. This is why the left is freaking out. Trump has had his credentials revoked by them a hundred times, over thousands of offenses, any one of which would have taken out—at the socks—for life any non-progressive leader just twenty years ago. Just over ten years ago, a politician could be run out of public life for saying a few kind words about a friend who used to be a segregationist (Trent Lott). But today it is plausibly alleged that Trump got it on with porn stars and paid them hush money, and on his side nobody cares.
This is more a rejection of the old system of double standards (read, social justification) than it is an introduction of the idea of double standards, as though somebody just thought of it. This is a new system of social justification vying with an old one.
Now—let this be plainly acknowledged—this new system appears to be every bit as carnal as the old one. The new Trump system is not the arrival of the kingdom (contra “militant normal” Kurt Schlichter), but the old civil order (in both senses of the word civil) was not exactly the good old days of Christian civilization either (contra David French). And besides, it was only civil back then so long as progressives were allowed to hold the gavel.
What we should learn from Trump is not the “tricks of the trade,” or “how he does it,” but rather the simple lesson that the old system of social justification was actually not made out of titanium. It could be defied—this was always a reality, but which many Christians were simply afraid to do. The takeaway lesson from Trump is how a person justified by one system behaves when condemned by the standards of another one. The answer is that he doesn’t care. Now Trump doesn’t care what they think because he only cares what he thinks. Now let us begin by acknowledging that there really should be better reasons for not caring about what the left thinks than that. Great.
I am quite prepared to grant that Trump doesn’t care what the leftist idol says because he only cares about what another idol says. But what are we to make of those Christians who say that “civility” requires us to do obeisance at the old altar of the old idol? Nothing doing. If Trump could get away with what he is doing simply by not caring what the old idol says, the fact that he was just listening to a new idol should teach us a few things. We Christians should have—long ago—started not caring about the old idol because of what the living God says. If Trump the poltroon is making short work of the gods of the swampy establishment, then why in the blue blazes weren’t ambassadors of the risen Christ making shorter work of them a long time before?
Yet Another Angle: Trump and Samson:
Many conscientious Christians have no idea what to do with Trump, or what to think about him, or how to react to him. Let us compare him to Samson and see what happens. The reactions to Samson vary considerably—Robert Jeffress has taken to praising the high quality of harlots in Gath, and Matt Chandler thinks that perhaps we should start saying a few kind words about the king of the Philistines, most notably his passion for health care. This is not the first time in history that this kind of thing as happened.
Consider Trump as a Samson figure, with thanks to my friend Jason Elmore for pointing this out to me.
Both Trump and Samson were hair gods. Both were outsized titans—one physically and the other in business. They both arose in a time when the general populace thought “doing what was right in their own eyes” was the way to go. Both of them are famous for various sexual escapades, driven by the desire to grab whatever it was they wanted to grab. Both are known for conflicts arising at banquets—Samson with his riddling at a wedding reception, and Trump for being taunted by Obama at a banquet. Both had a taste for foreign women, and Samson apparently liked getting tied up for sex. I can’t think of any other plausible scenario that has Delilah tying him up repeatedly just before the Philistine commandos rushed in. In other words, kink was almost certainly a factor that explains why Samson would “go along.”
Now if you are an average red state Israelite watching the fiery foxes go running through the Philistine crops, you find yourself kind of enjoying these scenes. The evening news is more entertaining than it used to be. At the same time, it is something of a guilty pleasure. You think wistfully to yourself that is not the way Thomas Jefferson would have handled it. Also, at the same time, you mutter thoughtfully, this is going to create trouble for us, and we are not at all sure whether Samson is being entirely helpful.
If this parallel continues to hold, then our future should be pretty interesting. If Trump goes down, the chances are pretty good that buxom women will be involved in it. If Trump goes down, it is likely that he will be turned over to the bad guys by people who were supposed to be on his side, but enough about the RNC. And if Trump goes down, it is likely that he will take down an awful lot of people on his way out. The Temple of Dagon on the Potomac now lies in rubble; President Pence gave a moving speech there, dedicating the memorial. The setting sun shone quietly on the obelisk. The Marine Corps Band played beautifully.
So how does this fit into my social justification scheme? For MAGA hat wearers, Trump is entirely justified. For the people who show up to yell at his rallies, it really doesn’t matter to them how many lady parts he’s grabbed. But to folks who love the Lord, it does matter. Some didn’t vote for him (like me) because that kind of thing matters. Others voted for him, quite reluctantly, because the alternative was a woman renowned for breaking down the women who complained about her husband grabbing their lady parts. The dilemma is acute. If God had wanted us to vote, wouldn’t He have given us candidates?
But Bill Clinton was justified under the old order. Hillary Clinton remains justified under the remnants of the old order. But that order is crumbling, and about to come down. Trump is entirely justified within his new (sizeable) faction—and that is one marked difference between him and Samson. There is no indication of a large pro-Samson party within Israel. Everybody seems kind of disoriented by him. He is somehow representing us, they say, and we are not really sure about it.
To the extent we have a society-wide narrative at all anymore, and I am not sure we have enough of one to count, Trump is not justified. Neither is Brett Kavanaugh, incidentally, for those watching the histrionics there. But the societal breakdown is real, and the left is discovering that there are those who can successfully apply the new rules to them. Al Franken. Matt Lauer. Harvey Weinstein. Charlie Rose. Les Moonves. Their justified status is visibly eroding. The old tricks don’t work anymore.
Time for God to raise up justified preachers of the gospel that actually justifies. Time for the blue staters to discover that their god is lying on the threshold with the head and hands knocked off. Time for the red staters to discover that their etiolated and backslidden connections to Jehovah and His Christ won’t cut it anymore.
Don’t Touch the Narrative . . .
So with regard to the left, if you acknowledge their narrative, and you cede authority to those they have appointed to be the justified, you are good as far as they are concerned. When you accede to their demands for certain ethical behaviors, you can attach Bible verses to those demands if you want. Knock yourself out. They think it is kind of cute. You can still get back channel funding from Soros.
But if, like me, you condemn every specific instance of actual racial injustice that is ever presented to you, and you have always condemned them, but you deny their narrative, you remain a mortal enemy. They know the importance of the narrative, even if we do not. They know how important it is to have justified priests and preachers, even if we don’t. They know the importance of systematic theology, even if we do not.
Last thing. Fix it in your mind. Ethics are grounded in both history and doctrine. You cannot simply notice a point of ethical overlap with an alien system and make peace by celebrating that overlap in isolation. If you do, you are in the process of selling the farm. You are in the process of giving away the store. You are in the process of assuming room temperature.