Bryan Stevenson the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the main protagonists of the movie Just Mercy recently had an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air Podcast. (Yes, I listen to NPR at times. Don’t judge me…) The interview was certainly thought-provoking and Stevenson brings his share of insights to the conversation from representing people who have been illegally convicted or unfairly sentenced. The main point he wished to convey through the interview was that the listeners should deal with the racism of not only this nation’s past, but also of its present. One of the key mantras of today’s social justice movement.
But out of the entire podcast there was one story in particular that left quite the impression on me. It was the story of three young black men, who broke into a house to steal a TV and were confronted by the homeowner, an elderly black man. But instead of backing down, the three young men decided to kill the older man and steal his TV anyway. After telling the story Stevenson laments, “What type of society could produce young men who would do such a thing?”
It’s an interesting question… and certainly not a question that I would think to ask? This story and the question Stevenson poses here is critical to understanding the social justice movement. And questions like this should, especially for Christians like myself, make us take a step back, and discern on how we are to respond and engage with “Woke Christianity,” the Christian branch of the social justice movement.
Who is to blame for the sins that left this elderly man dead? Do the young men bear any responsibility? Does the “social system” that influenced them (however broad we wish to define that) bear any responsibility? We get a sense of what Bryan Stevenson thinks. But what should our response be as Christians?
there are real issues but… solutions aren’t so obvious
When I was in middle school, my dad served as the coach for a competition my friends and I were doing called Odyssey of the Mind. Each team of middle school students were given a creative prompt for a skit and had most of the school year to write the script, memorize the parts, create the sets and costumes for the show, and then go perform. But getting a group of middle school kids to commit to a single idea for a skit was daunting. It was like herding cats and we were willing to throw away weeks’ worth of work on one skit on a whim just because we found a small flaw in it.
My dad provided some sound advice that has always stuck with me. If you’re going to critique something, you better have an idea of how to improve it or replace it with something better.
We need to understand that the social justice movement has significant ties to Critical Theory, which emerged at the Frankfurt School back in the 1930’s. It was a tool, initially used to evaluate literature and critique (there’s the word “Critical”) the social and historical influences on the works to reveal and challenge these power structures. To be clear, I don’t believe that this critique, in and of itself, is a bad thing.
However, the real issue with Critical Theory occurs when Critical Theory as a tool becomes Critical Theory as a guiding star, especially when applied as a political and social movement. The theory claims that ideologies, often instituted by the oppressors, influence people to become something that they wouldn’t be in their natural state. That we are at the mercy of the systems and ideologies that govern our groups and we cannot see anything with particular clarity, unless you are oppressed. Then, and only then, can you actually see reality as it is.
It purports to provide liberation if we could only dismantle all of these systems that have shaped and molded people over all these years. But beyond that liberation experience, there is a void of any clear picture of what will replace these “power structures” once they are torn down.
For example, what are we to make of studies that show black men have to send out 50% more resumes to get an interview than white males on average? Or what about all of the studies done on the lingering effects of redlining practices within cities? Just a few deeper and authentic conversations with friends is all it takes to understand that our experiences can differ substantially, and those experiences seem to be tied, at least in part, to our race, gender, and sexual orientation. So it’s not completely unfair for Bryan Stevenson to be posing his question. Not everyone’s outcome in life is the same. Research in the social sciences demonstrate these patterns do exist even if they are often impossible to see in practice. We all do a disservice to the conversation if we don’t at least admit that disparities do exist.
But how we “deal with” said disparities, as Bryan Stevenson would challenge us to consider, can vary quite considerably. Ask someone how much of someone’s experience is based on any individual or combination of group identifiers and you are sure to get a variety of answers. Has Colin Powell’s son experienced more oppression than the son of two white parents who can’t stay off the pills or stay sober for a day?
And ask if all cis-gender white males are accountable for the majority of social ills we see today and you are bound to get a similar variety of answers. Do first-generation immigrants to the nation who happen to be white bear the same responsibility as an openly racist person? They still experienced privilege. What about affluent African Americans who have no ancestry back to slavery. They still get lumped in with the rest of the black community.
But the biggest giveaway is if you ask what specific legislations will resolve these disparities? Quotas for top executive positions like the one California passed? Are there also going to be quotas for NBA and NFL players? Or how about for janitors, nurses, construction workers, or trash collectors?
Or how about reparations for descendants of slavery? It’s one with precedent, but seems incredibly difficult to try and legislate so long after these offenses were committed.
In the 1860’s the legislative goal was clear. Abolition of slavery. In the 1960’s it was clear, desegregation and voter’s rights. But now… the critique of power structures is full throttle, but is there an answer offered for how exactly we will correct these so-called “systemic sins?” And does the church have an answer for these issues? Does the gospel come into play?
the spectrum of gospels
The late Christian philosopher and author Dallas Willard stated in his book The Divine Conspiracy, “When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social and structural evils.” The book was published in 1998. By no means ancient, but pretty prophetic of the movement that is really churning just two decades after he wrote it.
Christians who subscribe to the right wing of theology, as Willard elaborates further in his book, believe that the gospel message is essentially the good news of forgiveness for the individual. Taken to its most lackadaisical application, this gospel message serves as simply an insurance policy for the afterlife. A Get Out of Jail Free card if you will. That because our sins are forgiven, we’re not expected to be perfect and therefore there isn’t really a day-to-day change in how my life is to be lived or any obligation to conform to any particular way of living. This theology fights completely against anything that feels even remotely like a “works-based” religion and as a result has no framework for considering social and structural evils or what personal response, if any, is warranted.
But how can that gospel message deal with passages in the Bible like in James 2, that state a “faith without works is dead?” Not that the works save us or justify us before God, but that if there isn’t a change in how we live our lives and care for those around us, isn’t it fair for other Christians to doubt whether we actually have experienced the true life-changing salvation? A salvation from knowing God intimately (not just propositionally) and trusting in the willing sacrifice of Christ for our justification. A salvation that allows us to live in the Kingdom here and now and not simply await the afterlife.
Does that gospel not appear shallow in it’s ability to affect us in the here and now? If Jesus really did raise from the dead, shouldn’t that change something for us and how we live in this life?
Cue the left wing of theology, that provides a response to this apparent disconnect between faith and works that can so often be observed within the church. The pendulum swings from one side of the spectrum all the way to the other and then emphasis gets predominantly placed on urgent, expedient, and desperate attempts to effect change. In essence, to bring heaven down to earth. But oftentimes when we try to bring heaven down, we accidentally bring hell up instead.
How have proponents of “Woke Christianity” decided to contend with these structural and social ills that seem to be everywhere and yet at the same time are persistently just beyond our ability to grasp and define? Two ways… Shame and silence.
If you don’t believe me, listen to Bryan Stevenson’s podcast and listen to how prominent the shame tactic is in his mission to have America deal with her sins. The church is adopting a similar approach. It’s present in campus ministries. Getting members to stand and stew in the shame of being a particular race or gender and undeservedly enjoying their privileges all their life. It has even worked itself into so much of the social justice content coming out of evangelical and mainline churches.
But is shaming in keeping with how Christ wants us to deal with one another? Are we really supposed to be assigning guilt, defining their character, and shaming simply for the color of their skin or the Y chromosome they do or do not have? Shaming isn’t a sustainable motivator for kids so why should we expect adults to be different?
And silencing. “Shut up and listen.” “Listen and believe.” “Believe all women.” You may have heard of some if not all of these. We should listen to people. That doesn’t mean we have to agree. And telling people they no longer have a voice within the church, or that they are invalidated because of the group they are a part of is an incredibly reactionary and dangerous way to try and resolve these conflicts. It’s the quickest way to end important and difficult conversations and shove them underground. We need to talk about these issues. All of us, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, etc.
The trojan horse
Quite possibly the biggest reason the church needs to be careful with the “Woke Christianity” movement is directly tied to Critical Theory and it’s inability to be implemented at large scales. The reason the Trojan Horse worked on the city of Troy was because the horse, this apparent gift, was appealing to the Trojans. They would have never taken it within the city walls if it wasn’t. The reason that this woke movement has gained the traction that it has is because it is cloaked in good intentions. Good intentions that we must recognize and appreciate in our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. But good intentions cannot justify the hardship this will bring to churches and how it will hurt people.
We need to be observant of how other organizations are handling this social movement and notice the trends. Others have tried it, and the results aren’t good. Critical Theory only works if there’s something left to critique. It’s like a parasite living off its host. It can linger on as long as the host lives.
Critical Theory will leech life out of whatever organization or entity that tries to wield it. Read about Evergreen University with the Bret Weinstein situation. Or observe how the Christian magazine Relevant handled the Cameron Strang situation. Look at the split occurring within the United Methodist Church. Or heck, look at how even Hollywood has a tendency to eat its own.
What’s the common thread that weaves through all of these stories? An inability to forgive. And we as a church must fervently remind each other of our needs to forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Because if we cannot still allow for the forgiveness and redemption of individuals, even the overtly sexist or racist individuals, then we will tear each other to shreds. Endless critique, and often unjustified critique, without grace will undermine our churches and destroy communities and relationships.
And we’re robbing ourselves of some of the most beautiful aspects of the gospel if we don’t forgive like this incredible man did for his brother’s killer.
so what is the gospel message for a divided nation?
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28-
Jesus offers us an invitation to join his Kingdom. A kingdom where we all will be able to be united in Him. Where we will no longer cling to our heritage, skin color, gender, or class as a source of identity. It seems cliché, but we need to realize how radical this actually is.
Study history and you will realize that these struggles between men and women, different races, and different classes are not a fluke or bug but the default state of humanity. Critical Theory proposes that it’s ideologies perpetrated by oppressive power structures that make these divisions occur for their own gains. Oppressive leaders and groups have certainly exasperated these divisions at times. But to think our natural state if all these power structures were removed would be to sing Kumbaya together, is naive.
Furthermore, we need to be cautious about absolving people of responsibility for their actions and assigning blame to the systems that created them. Not holding those young black men accountable for killing an elderly man because they grew up within an oppressive society is a slippery slope and I don’t see anywhere in the scriptures where God says that if you belong to a particular group or had a certain set of experiences, you’re excused.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” -Romans 3:23-
That’s where the power of forgiveness is most necessary.
And we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. But did Jesus say the Good Samaritan represented the idyllic neighbor because he went to the Roman government as an activist to get them to care for the man who was severely beaten? Oh wait, the Samaritan met the immediate needs of the man. Is there anywhere in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus teaches us that moral posturing and virtue signaling is the evidence of a life truly rooted in God? Or that seeking equal outcomes for all people was the goal of his Kingdom? I don’t recall those parts of his ministry.
This drive for acceptance and understanding of one another is a good thing, and it’s fundamentally a very Christian thing. But I think God actually calls us to more. We are to care for the needs of others. Get down and dirty with serving, not just being an activist or advocate. We’ve been too quick to name those who become “woke” as heroes when we are to be humbled far more to actually move towards and love others, even the ones we’re less inclined to love.
The Bible tells a story from beginning to end of a God trying to help his people learn how to treat their neighbors well while also discerning what values and ideals of those neighbors should or should not be adopted. Israel wasn’t very good at it. The church as recorded in the New Testament struggled with it. And we will continue to have a hard time living up to the challenge. We’re naturally bad at this.
But fortunately we have a God who is willing to forgive, willing to lead the way, and willing to pay the penalty that can afford us true unity in him. And that’s a gospel message I think is needed to heal the wounds we still see today.