Not many soon-to-be parents have the delight of saying, “Grandmother, guess what? You are going to be a great-grandmother!” My own grandmother eventually received four such announcements from me.
Her response was always the same: “I don’t know why anyone would bring a child into this world.”
She was glad to hold those great-grandchildren in her arms, of course. But her cynical greeting was shaped by the certainty that the world as she knew it was going to hell in a handbasket. The wider church was echoing her concerns. In retracting its anchor from Christian faith and tradition, Western civilization seemed to be cutting itself adrift. Unmoored from religious devotion, our society would hurtle along an inevitable trajectory toward ethical chaos. When I was a kid, the Christian adults I knew believed everyone’s great-grandchildren would inherit a religion-less world of vice and immorality.
They were wrong. Though faith has waned, the culture we now inhabit is fiercely religious. Secular society today is as morally sensitive as the Christendom church ever was. Virtue is championed with religious fervor—and furor.
Douglas Murray opens his book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity with a line from the Catholic philosopher G. K. Chesterton: “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is skeptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.” Perhaps one legacy of a fading Christendom era is that even notionally godless social movements tend to look, feel, and act like religious uprisings, especially in their pious embrace of (reconfigured) virtues. As the secular plows hollow out our collective soul, harbingers of a “new religion” swarm to fill the void.
And for Murray, the “woke” versions of today’s social justice movement bear all the hallmarks of this new secular religious impulse. The Madness of Crowds is an incisive, perceptive, and courageous anatomy of the ideological whirlwinds in which Western societies have been so swiftly engulfed.
Murray offers a sophisticated yet trenchant dismantling of some of the most assertive (and dogmatic) forms of contemporary activism. The four main chapters bear titles that evoke our knottiest topics of public debate: “Gay,” “Women,” “Race,” and “Trans.” Spliced between them are “interludes” on what Murray deems the Marxist foundations underlying certain social justice movements, the glaring absence of forgiveness and reconciliation in their models of “justice,” and the role of social media companies in abetting ideological warfare.
Progressive activists talk of intersectionality, a word meant to show how different struggles on behalf of disfavored groups feed into and reinforce one another. For Murray, the concept of intersectionality is both distracting and false; it contributes to the politicization of everything, which short-circuits any constructive habits of public conversation. In our unforgiving cultural climate, he observes, there are “tripwires” strewn about the landscape, and the moment someone uses terminology even slightly out of date or shows insufficient allegiance to the latest reconfigured idea of virtue, an explosion happens. As the wire is tripped, public shaming begins, careers end, and the internet ensures that the past is never erased.
Of course, there are already plenty of voices eager to cry foul when The New York Times—a self-proclaimed bastion of racial equality—hires a young “social justice warrior” whose Twitter feed is marked with verbal daggers like “#CancelWhitePeople.” There are certainly pundits who would quickly point out that gay activists are behaving in victory as oppressively as their former oppressors. But Murray is not an alt-right radio host or a fundamentalist preacher from my grandmother’s rural North Georgia.
Murray is a British journalist. He is gay. And he is not a Christian. As such, he is unlikely to appear on the roster for Christian conferences and festivals.
Yet The Madness of Crowds is an important book for the church. It cannot become our sole primer for understanding the current cultural moment—like so much diagnostic material on our culture, the book is exhaustive and precise in detailing how one side (the far left) is getting it wrong but comparatively reticent in admitting that the other side (the far right) has warts all its own. And though I think Murray is right to challenge approaches to race relations that accentuate division and demonize “whiteness,” it is difficult to digest all his claims with George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” ringing in our ears.
The book is perhaps most significant for Christian readers because of Murray’s compelling description of social justice as a religion unto itself, at least in its most extreme forms. It’s only natural to wonder about possible lines of kinship between biblical faith and this secular offshoot. Although earlier generations were often reluctant to support social activism, today we are broadly united in treating the pursuit of justice as an essential part of our gospel witness. We are also desperate for common ground with a secular society, rather than mutual suspicion. Yet just as we ought to avoid trusting any political party to represent the full scope of “Christian values,” we ought to hesitate before pledging ourselves to the brand of “social justice” dominating the headlines.
The Biblical Reservoir
The broader movement derives in no small part from the prophetic tradition of Israel’s Scriptures and the apostolic tradition of the New Testament. The Christian gospel is a proclamation of release, a newsflash that a divine ethical system is bursting out of heaven into the world’s mechanisms of power. Jesus preached and embodied a vision of the last being first, and the first last, that was alien to existing Greco-Roman structures and hierarchies.
Christian leaders in the civil rights movement lowered their buckets deep into these wells. They had detected a groaning for release, a biblical groaning that many privileged and comfortable were unable to hear. These brothers and sisters of color (and their allies) heard the singing of the Israelites in Egypt, the cries of Jeremiah from a hole in the ground, and the songs of weary apostles locked up in prison. From this biblical reservoir they pulled up living water that spilled into rivers of justice—though dams still persisted downstream.
Faithful churches rightly identify with this tradition. They have absorbed Martin Luther King Jr.’s loving critique of the “white moderate” Christian, and they seek to emulate his example of hopeful lament as they confront persistent injustices.
What do the prophets and apostles of Scripture have in common with today’s social justice warriors? Quite a lot, actually. But some differences are too vast to ignore.
The more radical forms of social justice marked by reconfigured virtues, ideas, and practices that the Bible cannot quite accommodate. Take the idea of “identity,” for example. Progressive ideology treats race, gender, sexual orientation, and perhaps even political allegiance as central to understanding who we are. These features are certainly important. But ultimately, a biblical anthropology grounds human identity in our common status as divine image-bearers. Racial discrimination, patriarchal abuse, and violent assault are especially appalling for Christians because the victims bear the imprint of our God.
Radical social justice advocacy also tends to encourage a degree of zealotry that Scripture would never countenance. Evangelicals are well aware, of course, that the church has often used God’s word as a pretext for self-righteousness, public shaming, and pious judgmentalism. But many justice activists indulge in these same vices, often with minimal restraint. Indeed, The Madness of Crowds narrates scene after scene of the movement’s take-no-prisoners aggression against those who dissent from its dogma and tread on its sacred cows. For Murray, the foundation of woke activism is outrage. Its liturgy is worked out via verbal onslaughts on social media. As these displays of fury take center stage, the vital, underappreciated labors of veteran aid workers, NGOs, local agencies, and Christian ministries are often overshadowed, dismissed, or even shamed for being insufficiently progressive.
Undoubtedly, evangelicals have done grave damage to the church’s public witness by aligning too closely and uncritically with certain political forces. We haven’t done ourselves any favors, either, by scoffing at terms like “social justice” without bothering to understand why certain people—people with sincere hearts for justice—might be drawn to that banner. But the alternative can’t be shifting our allegiance from one flawed political movement to another, even if some targeted shifts (in some specific areas) would be a good idea. As The Madness of Crowds makes clear, both the underlying philosophy and the ideological excesses of certain strains of “social justice” should give believers considerable pause.
Generosity and Grace
“I don’t know why anyone would bring a child into this world.”
Perhaps the prophet Amos’s mother said the same thing. And today, many mothers and grandmothers of color may be echoing my own grandmother, yet with greater justification. No mother living amid injustice had greater reason to celebrate the news of a coming birth than Mary of Nazareth. The child she would bring into this world would be its only hope. Even so, he would die violently.
How might we, as the followers of her child, carry on the biblical tradition of justice alongside, and sometimes in partnership with, a rigorously secular social justice movement?
Murray is not writing to answer that question. In fact, his conclusion—though certainly not bereft of constructive wisdom—offers very little in terms of workable solutions. But in reading his book, I was painfully struck by his observation that “we have created a world in which forgiveness has become almost impossible.” He adds:
[W]e seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption.
The great mystery of Christian faith is that the God who cherishes justice (more than any of us) has secured redemption from injustice through an unjust death at the hands of political power and a maddened crowd. I am not sure how it all works—and I know the cross of Christ does not justify injustice.
But as I witness the constant outrage from fellow Christians across social media, often directed at one another—and as passion for “justice” spurs hatred toward “the other” in public spaces—I want to cling all the fiercer to the way of God’s prophets, who were called to righteous anger, yes, but also to divine compassion. Their zeal for condemning wickedness never outweighed their love for a wayward people. In this, they anticipated the example of Jesus, who said of Jerusalem, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matt. 23:37).
This spirit of generosity and grace is missing from much of today’s social justice movement. Perhaps the people of God—recipients of grace beyond measure—can help fill in what it lacks.
Andrew Byers is a lecturer in New Testament at St. John’s College of Durham University, England. His books include TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Cascade Books) and Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (InterVarsity Press). He blogs at hopefulrealism.com.