Thursday, October 06, 2022

Church ‘Problematics’ (Part 2)

Yesterday we considered a newly-coined word: “problematics” (and its relatives “problematize” and “problematization”). Social Justice advocates are transforming both secular institutions and churches by showing us we have problems. These problems are all related to racism or discrimination of some sort, and they are invariably systemic.

For the Social Justice advocate, it is not a question of whether we are racist, but in what particular ways. In making this assumption, they neatly sidestep the obligation to prove their case, hoping we will make it right along with them.

An Example

Let’s take a practical example of problematization doing its insidious work. This is an imaginary example — sort of. It actually comes from a church near mine, which is going through struggles with Social Justice issues, and has been hovering between Social Justice and biblical understandings of the problems of “inclusion” they feel themselves to be facing, as new immigrants are now moving into their neighborhood, and many are starting to show an interest in the church.

I’m going to fictionalize for the sake of their privacy, just a little bit … not the substance, but the particulars, if I may. Here are two different versions of the description of the problem they see themselves as facing:

Version 1: Social Justice Problematics: “People of color are being left out of leadership roles at our church.”

Version 2: Biblical Problem: “Our church is potentially missing out on mature, gifted, persons of good character, some of whom may well be visible minorities.”

Likewise, the two paradigms of thought here issue in very different kinds of strategies to address the perceived problem:

Social Justice Solution: “Promote people of color, and encourage white people to absent themselves and retire from leadership roles, in order to make space.”

Biblical Solution: “Always promote those who are mature, love Christ, and have gifts, regardless of any consideration at all of race.”

The Mission of the Church

It makes a huge difference which mission the church sees itself as being on. It changes everything about what kinds of conversations are probable and reasonable, about what kind of solutions are being sought, and most importantly, about what the priorities are. Is it our job to create “equity” among races? Or is our job as Christians to be indifferent to race, and to promote God’s standards of fitness for leadership: spiritual maturity, good character and reputation, and appropriate gifts?

What has skin color got to do with any of that? What does culture or linguistic origin or disability have to do, either? None of them has any status in the kingdom of God, and none of them matter a whit to his glory. The church needs to be the place par excellence in which these worldly preoccupations, these so-called “problematics”, are actually not the real problem at all.

Needless to say, the biblical version of the problem and the biblical solution are in no way going to be pleasing and satisfying to Social Justice advocates. As far as they are concerned, the biblical account has failed to indict racism as the central problem, and then failed to prioritize race as the criterion for fixing it. It has not called on Social Justice expertise to explain things, and it would seem to have no need for any Social Justice input to guide it to a solution. From a Social Justice perspective this is intolerable.

Biblical Solutions vs. Social Justice Solutions

But there are other ways, even, in which the biblical and the Social Justice problematizings oppose each other. Notice firstly, that whereas the Social Justice construction of the problem immediately foregrounds race as the issue, the biblical understanding puts spiritual leadership as the key issue. Secondly, the biblical solution prioritizes the biblical criteria of leadership, whereas the SJ version would actually inhibit the spiritually mature from continuing to take leadership, and would assign responsibility to the less able and less spiritually mature solely on the criterion of skin color. Thirdly, whereas the biblical solution is going to result in stronger leadership overall, the Social Justice version, if practiced, is actually going to weaken and split the leadership, and poison their fellowship by dividing them permanently with the axis of race. And notice that whereas in the biblical construction nobody is being called racist, or even implied as being racist, in the Social Justice version they decidedly are.

We could go on. There is no guilt and manipulation in the biblical version. It leaves open the possibility that any exclusion is due to, say, the fact that many of the newcomers may still be just finding their feet. Or they may have leadership roles within their own community of which the church is unaware. Or some of them may not be mature enough yet for leadership roles. Or their lack of confidence in their linguistic compatibility may be putting up barriers … or any other possible explanations. The biblical version leaves a church open to investigate all real possibilities; the Social Justice alternative forces the church pre-emptively to a race-based conclusion and a racist implication, and does not take any thought at all for objective investigation of what’s really going on.

Which one is going to work out well for the church? Isn’t it obvious?

No Time for Dithering

The challenge for the church is to realize how soon the battle can be lost. Problematics are the very first step in any discussion. Even to know there is an issue that needs to be addressed, somebody has to speak up and say, “Hey guys, it looks like we’ve got a problem, and it’s this …” That first description, given by the first person to notice, can very easily become the baseline for subsequent discussion. Others who respond have to take for granted some of the original speaker’s assumptions, if only to have a discussion. If they say, “No, we don’t see it that way at all,” then further discussion probably never happens. They have to concede a little bit, and say, “Yes, we’ve noticed something like that. What did you want to say about it?”

That’s fine, and all very normal, provided the first person to problematize is honest and open. Perhaps he or she really has seen something, and something worth noticing. Perhaps follow-up discussions would not only be a good idea but maybe also rather important. So far, so good.

But what happens when the first problematizer is a manipulative voice … a power-player, or perhaps somebody oblivious but indoctrinated with a poisonous way of thinking? Then the original problematics become a very big problem. It takes extra effort for participants in the subsequent discussions to go back up the track and say, “Guys, I think we’re viewing this the wrong way.” It can be done, but it’s not always easy, particularly if discussion has seemed to be making progress, and particularly if somebody in the room has a stake in making sure that the problem keeps being seen only one way.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers?

Moreover, for the most part Christians tend to be pretty conciliatory folks. (With a few noteworthy exceptions) they tend to be eager to get along with others, to hear what others have to say, to validate different points of view as much as they can, and to make concessions to reasonable variety within the church. Most do not tend to confront, rebuff, put down or silence others. They tend to want to talk things out, and to negotiate some sort of get-along plan. If they don’t see an issue right at the start, they’re likely to let discussion proceed a fair distance before coming to any point of blunt refusal to agree.

But all this means that Christians will, on the whole, tend to give away far too much far too early when the manipulative perspectives of Social Justice thinking are brought to bear on their situation. The problematizers get control of the narrative before the gatekeepers are even really aware, especially since Social Justice advocates are not at all renowned for announcing, or in many cases, even being fully aware of, their indoctrinated perspective. They don’t tend to say, “Hey, this is maybe a Social Justice take on our church, but …” They just tend to advance their agenda as if it’s the whole truth; which, in many cases, they may genuinely believe it is.

That’s why it such a serious problem that Social Justice advocacy does its truly controlling work at the problematizing level. It gets people to accept its construction, its description of what the real problem is — which is inevitably a problem along racial lines, with white villains and ‘colored’ victims. It takes over and maps the situation in a particular way, which afterward tends to become the primary way in which people visualize what’s really going on.


Then, having achieved this alchemy, this changing of everybody’s perspective, it has a secondary bad effect: it straightjackets all the subsequent work that needs to be done. It constrains what sorts of reaction is allowed to count as responding to the problem. Only solutions that foreground issues of race are considered honest, relevant, responsive and honest anymore. So, for example, only when brown faces populate the leading roles is the first stage of actual work done. And when that step is achieved, it will be a confirmation that Social Justice had the right diagnosis all along: “You see? You should have had these new leaders in place all along. Don’t you see how much you needed my problematics to help you to do the right thing?” All the results will seem to confirm the rightness of the original theory: the problem all along was race, “So the next time, you’d better listen sooner, right?”

This is why understanding the dynamics of problematizing is so important to the local church. Social Justice is not like other issues. With other issues, you have time to note the problems, investigate the causes, and then decide on proper responses. Social Justice advocates never allow such time. They force the conclusion immediately, using the tools of accusation, shame and guilt as vigorously as they can apply them. Before the church is aware of what’s going on, it shapes the problem for them, controlling what they are permitted to see, say, think and even notice from that point forward.

The Enemy at the Gate

Because of this, there is no alternative but to fight against Social Justice at the very first gate. Social Justice nonsense assumptions must not be granted space … any space at all. Our temptation, yours and mine, as reasonable people and Christians, is to say, “Well, their description is a bit Left, but maybe they’ve got a point,” and maybe we go with them as far down the path as we can before we consider taking issue with them. But since they control the agenda by means of shaping the path ITSELF, any steps down the path of problematizing are steps too far. There’s no road back allowed once we go down the trail some distance with them.

So, we have to resist the problematics. We have to refuse to accept that the Social Justice description of the problem represents reality. Because it doesn’t. It’s just their ideologically-bent construction of the situation, not an impartial and fair analysis of what’s really going on. We don’t want to say to anybody, “Take your agenda on the road: you have no place here. We will not even listen to your complaints, or give countenance to your partisan bellyaching. You have no case, and no place with us.” That just seems unchristian.

But that’s where we are. We cannot surrender the right to control our sense of the problem to people whose problematics strategy is entirely given over to devilish divisions along the lines of race. We have to resist them from the very first moment, if only long enough to ask ourselves, “How do the facts illuminate this situation? What does the history of our congregation actually reveal? Where are the alleged perpetrators of this ‘racism’? And does the word of God describe this situation differently from the way this person’s trying to direct us?”

The answer is that it always does, of course. Social Justice priorities are not God’s priorities. His priorities are on the twin objectives of the proximal value of interpersonal fairness and the ultimate goal of divine justice, not on human reconstructions of “justice” to meet the present fads of the day.

Discerning the alternatives takes time. Social Justice ideology will be no help in this — none at all — even from the beginning stage of problematics.

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