As Christians, we should be very aware of the pathological nature of both individual and social ills. That is, social ills are not just easily individualized and conceptually isolatable bad actions, ideas, practices, policies, or stereotypes. Rather, just as a pathological liar lies habitually and without even taking note of it, or just as a disease can infect a whole body with looming death yet appear perfectly healthy, so economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and the like can be embedded within whole social systems, producing symptoms that may even seem quite normal and ineradicable, though we feel the existential burdens of their bitter fruit. And this pathology affects even reason itself, both individually and collectively.
We call it sin, and we recognize its far-reaching effects. Not only has sin brought about spiritual and physical death, but sin has broken man’s community with God (Gen. 3:24-25), broken his community with neighbor (Gen. 3:16; 4:1-8; Gal. 5:14-15), corrupted his economic activity (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 3:5; Mic. 2:2), corrupted his habitation and environment (Rom. 8:19-21), and has even distorted his very mind and reason (Matt. 15:19; Rom. 1:28; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18). The Scripture shows that this corruption of mind and reason is in fact much more radical than even the “instrumentalized reason” of the dreaded critical theorists, such that we are commanded,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:2)
Our minds must be “renewed” in order to escape conformity “to this world.”
“This world,” according to the Scripture, comprises not only individual sinful acts but corrupt interpersonal relationships, oppressive political and economic structures, and even systemic sins which characterize whole churches (Rev. 2-4) and nations (Tit. 1:12). The “world” is the global systems, patterns, powers, and principles (Col. 2:8) under the tyranny of the “Prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2) who claims to have all its kingdoms at his disposal (Matt. 4:8). Albert M. Wolters argues that the “world”
…designates the totality of sin-infected creation. Wherever human sinfulness bends or twists or distorts God’s good creation, there we find the “world.” (Creation Regained)
James also writes of this “world” in his Epistle:
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (Jas. 4:4)
And what is the immediate context of this passage? Humanity’s unbridled passions, greed, and pride:
You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (4:2-3)
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (4:6)
As the Apostle John tells us, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 Jn. 2:16).
If we widen the aperture to capture the whole context of James’ “friendship with the world” in chapter 4, we see him contrast the rich and the poor, the high and the lowly in chapter 1; condemn partiality against the poor, calling the rich oppressors, interpreting Christ’s “blessed are the poor” as literal poverty, and analogizing verbal blessings to the poor, without action to change their physical circumstance, with “dead faith,” all in chapter 2; he condemns “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” in Chapter 3; and he sternly warns the rich in chapter 5, telling them of the impermanence of their material gain, listing their frauds and oppressions of the laborer, and condemning their presumptuous expectation of profits without God.
This is “the world” according to James, and friendship with its systems and its oppressions is enmity with God.
And to be honest, though there seems to be much push-back against understanding issues like racism, sexism, classism, etc., in this way, even the most anti-social justice Christians are often heard speaking of other cultural and society-wide sins in a similar manner. We hear of “the culture of death,” “the sexualization and pornification of society,” “the culture of victimhood,” “the culture of dependency,” “the feminized society,” and even such socio-historical ratiocinations as “they were men of their times.” Are not supposedly illicit ideas like “the commodification of society,” “the exchange society,” “the racialized society,” “the patriarchal society,” or the “hierarchically group stratified society” equally valid subjects of social critique? They too are part of this fallen “world.”
Now, an aspect of many worldly social theories which runs afoul of orthodox Christianity is not in their insistence that individual and social ills are properly pathological (in the sense defined above), but in their rejection of the Word of God as the final arbiter of what is properly pathological and properly constitutive of individual and social ills. Recognizing the existence of oppression, subjugation, and tyranny is one thing, and is found within many systems of thought, predominately the Scripture itself; but making perceived pathologized relations of oppression itself the metric for what morally requires corrective social action will often leave fallen humanity calling “evil good and good evil,” putting “darkness for light and light for darkness,” and “bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20). Why? Fallen humans are pathologically “wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight” (v. 21) and are just as often not conscious of their own personal or social sins, let alone the root cause of their own actions (Jer. 17:9); that is, sin is pathological.
Therefore, the solution must likewise be radical and comprehensive. As Christians, I hope that we all know we are duty bound “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke,” “to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house,” and “when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh” (Isa. 58:6-7); that we are to “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech. 7:9-10), whoever he may be; and that God will judge all those “who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless” and “those who thrust aside the sojourner” (Mal. 3:5). As discussed above, we are not to be friends of the world, with its tyrant Prince and corrupt systems, but are to work against them.
Nevertheless, the assumption of nearly every worldly ideology, viz., that the primary—only?—means of overcoming “the world” is through external social change and revolutionary social action, is pure rubbish. As our Lord has declared, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). The basis of all enduring social change is the glorious declaration that the God-Man has won the victory. All movement toward the eschaton and all social action should proceed on this premise. Christ has overcome the devil, taken up the throne, and His Kingdom is here and expanding. It is He who is making all His enemies His footstool and it is His cosmic redemptive work which will put down all rule and authority (1 Cor. 15:24-26). Though we are participants in this redemption, by His grace, and ought always to seek His justice in every realm of life, it is nevertheless not our social action which draws us forward into the eschaton, nor creates the New Heaven and Earth.
It is a fact of Christian verity that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). We must recreate social structures out of love for our neighbors, yes; but we cannot recreate the hearts that have created these unjust structures, nor the hearts that continue to reinforce them. Yes, we can create social conditions which deter men and women from practicing evils like racism, classism, sexism, prejudice, and discrimination in the public realm—and we absolutely should; but we cannot thereby remove such corruptions from our hearts. Social action itself must be gospel driven, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). The gospel alone can remove the stony heart and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26). It alone looks to He who will “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
Of course, and to conclude, it is blasphemous and contradictory to use the gospel as an excuse for social inaction; the need for individual regeneration can never serve as terms of compromise with human suffering. In fact, our actions will be judged on the Last Day “according to the Gospel” (Rom. 2:15-16), when God will judge the lawless, “the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,” again, “in accordance with the gospel” (1 Tim. 1:8-11), and Paul declares that prejudicial and oppressive systems, even if apparently natural or innocuous, are “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). The gospel is not simply a set of propositions to be believed, but an announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, and He lays claim to the whole of it. Heralding this transforming gospel into our society and culture, while living consistently with its individual, social, and cosmic claims, is the primary means given by God to overcome “the world.”