Don’t Sleep on Woke Christianity

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.

Social Justice in a Post-Christian Society

Avengers: Endgame was a unique theater experience. I can recall going to see many several of the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies shortly after they hit the big screen but those experiences pale in comparison to that of watching Endgame.

I couldn’t find more recent data on how many people have seen Avengers: Endgame since it debuted this past April, but this article indicates that their survey conducted prior to its release showed that more that half of Americans planned to see the movie. It currently sits at the top for the highest grossing movie of all time at the box office, with a gross of nearly $2.8 billion worldwide (although they had to use some trickery to get there). The amount of conversation devoted to this movie among friends and families probably serves as enough of an indicator of how popular this movie was.

The movie felt like a cultural moment. It was the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the culmination of their first big overarching story line that weaved throughout each of the preceding films. It signaled the end of a chapter of movies that had been made for over a decade leading up to this point and it’s difficult to see anyone except Marvel Studios pulling something of this magnitude off again.

Yet, the euphoric feeling of that culminating movie didn’t really last too long. Yes, another Spider-Man movie came out (which I haven’t seen yet so no spoilers please!) and more Marvel movies are slated to hit theaters for the foreseeable future. But unless we plan to partake in Comic Con, there aren’t really opportunities for us to engage in these superhero stories beyond purchasing our tickets, reclining back in the theater, and wolfing down some popcorn. We can discuss the movie among friends and families, but even the novelty of that conversation wears off as time passes. It seems like it pulled so many of us together, but only for a short while. It’s like the movie points to something we all want, but the MCU thus far, even through 22 movies, hasn’t quite fulfilled it.

Can the MCU point to something that we desire? And what implications can it have for discussions on social justice, and how do we go about fostering good conversation.

we’re living in a post-christian society

We are divided along political, racial, geographic, gender, and generational lines. Except for the rare case like Endgame, there aren’t too many opportunities where we come together despite these differences. But were there always this few opportunities for community?

We could take a look at organized religion as an example. It’s no secret that church attendance is in decline, especially among younger generations. Studies everywhere show that pretty much across the board numbers are dropping as indicated in the figures below. Whether it’s the argument that science has disproved the claims made in the Christian belief system, the scandals and hypocrisy that have eroded its credibility, or the dangers posed by fundamentalist religions, there have been a number of reasons to avoid associating with any type of religion. However, as we can see from this graph, a significant portion of the nation belonged to a church just a couple generations ago.

Church membership was incredibly stable up until the late 90’s when it started to sharply decline. And this trend is represented even more starkly in the following chart.

I think it’s safe to say that these charts point to a seismic shift in our culture over the past few decades and as with any change their are side effects, often both good and bad.

Set aside the metaphysical claims made by religions for a minute and consider what the institutions of religion have provided historically. I mentioned that the Marvel movies have given reason for about half the nation to sit in front of television and movie screens a couple times a year for a few hours to enjoy what are essentially mythical tales. Consider that even today after all this decline in church membership that 50% of the nation are still members of a church that get together weekly to take part in a narrative of their own. A narrative that they have continued to take part in over vast periods of time. It’s almost like a weekly Comic Con and yes, some of the people are just as interesting.

We all know that these communities have not always been a perfect reflection of the diversity of the community at large and as I mentioned earlier there are understandably concerns with the church. But traditionally churches have provided a place for people to come together and ideally consider how they were meant to live both in relationship with God, or the highest ideals for life, and with one another. Why do you think an event like the Notre Dame Cathedral fire had such a profound impact on people religious and non-religious alike?

Notre Dame Cathedral

There’s a reason that churches were placed in the center of communities and often had their steeples set at the highest elevation within towns. They served as a central meeting place. The ideals taught there were embraced largely by the surrounding community. And the prioritization of religion within the community provided a space that could draw people together to commune, share meals together, and take part in a narrative. Something starkly similar to I think what we try to find in the MCU movies (kudos if you can find the pun in there). Yet, can movies replace the type of community an institution like the church produces?

where can we go for community?

It is within communities that we have conversation. I don’t think that’s a radical idea. The question is what can replace the role that religion has played historically as people leave the church? And where do we hear and engage with difficult topics like social justice?

As I discussed in my previous two posts, the news and politics don’t seem to provide a great locus for dialogue. And if the church is no longer the place for many of us to tease out these principles where do we have to go? K-12 public education? Colleges or universities?

Public schools are probably the closest to offering this type of community because students have to live in community with each other for hours a day for years. But consider the fact that schooling for most people ends by your mid- to late twenties. Is there an institution that can take the place of church for adults? The workplace? Meetups? I honestly can’t think of one.

a conversation on the hierarchy of values

Let’s assume we find some place to have conversation. Whether it’s in a church or elsewhere, what type of conversation are we having? When we tackle difficult issues like social justice, what we are often discussing is what values are of most importance. Kindness, love, justice, freedom, fairness, etc.

It often seems that the virtues of kindness and compassion are king within the social justice movement. Often there is no narrative offered to support why these virtues are of most importance. To many who subscribe to this belief, these virtues are self-evident. We ought to be kind and compassionate towards others.

I would ask the hypothetical question, do you think the self-sacrificing scenes throughout the MCU movies would arise from every other culture in the world both throughout history and geographically? I would think we would be naïve to think it would. The question then becomes where did we learn that kindness and compassion were important?

With the diminishing attendance at church and role of religion in society, we are trying to replace the Judeo-Christian narrative that for a long time has served as one of the most substantial influences in our culture with the virtues that we believe to be self-evident without a religious narrative coupled to it. But can this modern social justice narrative adequately fill that void? Author G.K. Chesterton seems to indicate that they aren’t the same in his following quote.

“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

Consider the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. How would you define each of these?

Take kindness for example. Kindness as I mentioned is pervasive throughout the current democratic party’s platform and it seems straightforward. Kindness would probably be defined most often in this setting as tolerance and permissiveness. A “stay in your lane” mentality. Wokeness may even be considered kindness. Is that what Paul was referring to in this passage?

Or consider joy. Joy in isolation from these other fruits can be reduced to happiness. Do whatever makes you happy. Don’t change yourself. Don’t commit or get tied down. Life is short. Life for your enjoyment. Is this what Paul meant by joy?

When Paul wrote about these fruit he didn’t mean for them to be used in isolation because it is in their isolation that they each become distorted. Yet, we have done exactly that. We have separated these virtues that were learned over a long period of time through interaction both with myths and narratives and with other people through community. We thought they were self-evident and have distorted their meaning and application in life. And now they have gone wild and have taken on a life of their own.

why narratives are important?

So what was it that made Endgame so special? With more movies came the opportunity for more screen time for characters to develop their narratives. We got to see the maturation of their personalities into some absolutely beautiful moments of sacrifice, love, and courage for one another.

I know I left the theater feeling like the movie exceeded any expectations I had for it. It truly was a masterpiece of storytelling. I have to believe that’s a large part why people got so emotional, even to the point of requiring hospitalization.

There isn’t a problem with Endgame. It’s just that a movie like this is limited to providing entertainment and a limited amount of conversation because we can’t live within the story. We can contemplate the significance of the inclusion of female and minority superheroes and the virtues of the characters on screen, but at the end of the day none of us will be fighting alongside Tony Stark, Captain America, and the rest of the gang.

Without a story that we can participate in, I’m not sure that we have the ability to tease out how all of these virtues should interact. That’s where a narrative like the Christian narrative is different, because the story claims to occur within human history.

God as depicted within the Bible demonstrates in part all of these virtues interacting with one another. Even the statements “God is love” and “the greatest of these is love”, only have meaning within the context of the greater narrative and his interaction with humans throughout history. Similar to how the self-sacrifice of certain Marvel characters (avoiding spoilers here) has that much more significance because we know their backstory, the story of God’s relationship with humans and eventual self-sacrifice can illuminate these virtues and give them life.

It’s through our engagement with this narrative and the stories of others in the context of church in our communities that we can start to see how we can respond with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the midst of difficult situations and confront these problems. We can avoid the temptation to elevate one virtue above the rest and as a result diminishing all of them.

what narrative does the church provide?

So what is the meta-narrative offered by the church in regards to social reform and change? I’m still unpacking for myself just how significant the story of the Bible is. I will spend the rest of my life doing so. But if I could try to boil it down to a few relevant ideas they would be these.

First off, I find it interesting if you consider the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, how the Israelites told the story of their own nation’s history. These are the stories they passed down orally and then eventually wrote down to explain their origins. They descended from people who were lazy (Abraham), deceitful (Jacob), willing to trade their brother into slavery (Jacob’s sons), drunk (Noah), disobedient (Adam and Eve), murderous (Moses), and idolatrous (the rest of the Israelites) among a variety of other mistakes.

The story they chose to tell of their own nation’s history was brutally honest about how they had failed their God. They don’t applaud these behaviors, but decided to remind themselves of how often they fell short. Maybe a little honesty on the shortcomings of our past is healthy to have.

Second, I would consider that Jesus didn’t spend his life trying to change Rome’s system of government. He spent his ministry investing mostly in 12 men, a lot of time in prayer, teaching principles, performing miracles to heal the sick and lowly and communing with the outcasts and dispossessed. He restored relationships between the dehumanized and the society at large by giving value to the very people that no one at the time saw value in.

It was in this way that he would build his church and change the world in a grass roots manner. The locus of change was the individual that resulted in widespread impact. The early church constantly showed that community could be formed across racial, generational, class, and gender lines. A little more of that sounds like exactly what we need today.

Lastly, when John starts his gospel off with the phrase “The Word became flesh”, I think we need to consider how significant this statement is. The Greek used here for Word is “logos,” which essentially means in the context of this passage that God revealed Himself by speaking.

If we were in a classroom and a dog were to randomly show up in the room and be running around there would be chaos and confusion. However, if a faculty member were to come into the room and explain that their dog got off the leash and that it was friendly, everyone in the classroom would suddenly have context for the situation. Order would be restored. John is essentially saying that Jesus has provided context for the chaos of our world and revealed God to us through his speech and language to provide order.

Speech is important for all of us to figure out the chaos around us. There may be temptations to silence certain voices, but I would argue this silencing of differing opinions would be to our detriment. There’s a reason we have the First Amendment. There’s a reason John emphasizes the importance of “logos.” And there’s a reason you see cultures go in terrible direction when people are silenced. We need to value others thoughts even when we don’t completely agree. It’s through truthful and honest conversation that we can mold each other. We need more of it not less.

where do we go from here on social justice issues?

Does that mean we do nothing then within politics? I don’t believe that to be the case. I think we should advocate for change and when it’s in our power, try to make changes, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s happening in our own lives, families, and neighborhoods. Should we look down on progressives? By no means. Compassion for the dispossessed and disenfranchised is to be lauded and we should be able to discuss these issues. The desire to want to do something is not a bad instinct.

Should we disparage conservatives for resisting social reform? I don’t think so. There are stark differences between statutes that abolish slavery and ones that provide reparations. Just like there are stark differences between giving women the right to vote and requiring women on executive boards. Some regulations should clearly be supported. Others, despite seeming similarly compassionate, may not produce the same effects they are desired to. And systematic sin, if you’re willing to call it evil, is not always rational and therefore rational solutions cannot always be found for these issues.

Systemic sin is real. It’s difficult to quantify, but always present. And as we see in my own post from four years ago, I think it’s important to be patient with one another because viewpoints on these difficult subjects often change over time. I’m sure mine will change and evolve even more over the coming years.

Unfortunately the solutions to these pervasive issues are not so easily prescribed. Let’s resist the urge to buy into quick solutions, look for the principles that can be developed to move us from pity to action, and try to rebuild the sense of community that has been lost. Maybe you will find that in church, or maybe new institutions will come about to fill this void.

And maybe… just maybe, these issues may start to resolve themselves without policy. Whether you’re a Christian or not, we have to admit that the historical figure of Jesus changed the world and undermined the Roman empire by communing with those on the outskirts of society and not through political and legislative means. I think it’s through rediscovering our local community and investing there, that the public sentiment of the nation will be changed and good conversation can resume.