On Social Justice Protests and Our Misguided Quest for ‘Unity’

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Notwithstanding the myriad reasons professional athletes in America are protesting the national anthem, President Trump, law enforcement officers, the military, or other social, civil, or political issue, entity, or individual, there appears to be a certain degree of naivety connected with the stated goals and objectives of these demonstrations. Many players have stated that the protestations in which they are involved are meant to show ‘unity.’

But my question is, by whose or what standard of measure?

In Amos 3:3, the question is asked, rhetorically, “How can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” It is a question deserving of thoughtful and contemplative consideration as unity, however one chooses to define the term, is not an abstract concept. It is not an idea that is devoid of contextual boundaries. If there is to be unity between individuals, whether two or two hundred million, it is established and maintained on the basis of objective principles that are fixed and immutable, not on precepts or propositions that are subjective and changeable.

I personally deem it inexcusable and beneath the dignity of the Office of the Presidency that the President of the United States, regardless of political party or ideology, would refer to any individual, let alone any American citizen, as a “son of a bitch” (as has been reported in the media.) It is with that thought in mind that I believe President Trump should publicly apologize to the individual(s) to whom his derogatory remarks were targeted.

The President of the United States, irrespective of ideological or political differences between himself the populace, is nonetheless the representative of all of this nation’s citizens, not merely those who elected him to office. As such, he must endeavor to consistently demonstrate the level of character, demeanor, maturity, integrity and, as necessary, restraint, that is befitting the office which he happens to hold not by his own volition but by the will of the American people.

That said, however, I find the protests being engaged in by these athletes to be somewhat short-sighted, particularly with regard to their stated purpose and intent which, to me anyway, seems rather ambiguous.

You will get no argument from me that the pursuit of unity is an admirable undertaking. But what makes it an admirable endeavor, for the Christian especially, is that the Lord commands and expects it of us. In 1 Cor. 1:10, the apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Conversely, Rom. 12:18 urges, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”

Understanding that the admonitions in the aforementioned texts are directed toward believers and not unbelievers, the point is no less germane to those who are outside the church in that unity, as a pursuit, requires context. In the case of these professional athletes, one cannot say that their protests are designed to ‘show unity’ if there is no objective definition of what ‘unity’ is.

You see, it is one thing to appear unified but another thing altogether to be unified.

This point is underscored in 1 Jn. 2:19 where the apostle John, in addressing believers about imposters within the church, declares, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

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As I observe the current wave of civil disobedience in America, I am reminded that such protestations are nothing new. The act of taking a knee or raising a clenched fist, among other such gestures, has been embraced by countless individuals as symbols of dissent and disagreement for decades (if not longer.)

As a veteran of the United States military (Army), I consider it both an honor and privilege to have spent six years of my life defending the Constitutional rights not only of professional athletes, but all Americans, to peacefully express such opposition as is being expressed by many professional athletes without regard to ethnicity, sex, socio-economic station, or political ideology or party affiliation.

I took an oath to defend these rights because they are grounded not in subjective propositions but in the objective truth of imago Dei (Gen. 1:27). That is, the biblical precept that human beings are created in the image God and that, as His image-bearers, they inherently possess certain unalienable rights, privileges, and protections under the God-ordained mandate that governments – all of which are established by God – are responsible for ensuring those rights are protected and applied equally and indiscriminately (Rom. 13:1-7.)

As theologian Dr. William Edgar writes:

“Humanity clearly shares certain attributes with God. What is certain is that there is a tacit connection between the image of God and the honor due the human being.”Created & Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture, p. 164

All this to say that, like the idea of ‘rights’, the idea of ‘unity’ must be objectively conceptualized in order to be considered a universally valid argument. It is not enough merely to profess to be “against” injustice apart from an objective definition of what justice is, and it is God, through His Word, who provides that definition.

“Blessed are those who keep justice, who practice righteousness at all times.” – Psalm 106:3 (NASB)

In our efforts to navigate the current milieu on matters of social justice, what we often fail to realize is that at its most fundamental level, the call for justice is essentially a call for human beings to practice God’s standard of righteousness “at all times.” It is our failure to do this that has given rise not only to the contemporary protests of today, but also those of the past.

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But the reason you and I don’t practice God’s righteousness at all times is we’re innately incapable of doing so. As much as we’d like to believe we possess the capacity in and of ourselves to change, the truth is we do not. As God declared to Noah, “…for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21b).”

To harbor a paradigm of injustice that is measured against anything other than God’s standard of righteousness is an exercise in futility. Because, ultimately, human-centered solutions will prove insufficient to address what is fundamentally a spiritual problem.

And unless our innate sinfulness becomes central to the ongoing conversation on matters of unity and justice, we will find ourselves right back here again, incessantly engaged in circular tit-for-tat arguments that are neither of any temporal nor eternal benefit.

In Christ,

Darrell

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nbcnews.com
wbur.org
postmoderngentleman.com

The Struggle for Social Justice is a Struggle with Ourselves


There is great emphasis being placed today by Christian social justice activists on remediating the adverse effects of historical and contemporary injustices, particularly as it relates to its generational impact on people of color in America.

I will speak more to that in a moment.

But let me say, parenthetically, that by ‘injustice’ I’m referring specifically to sins, that is, demonstrable violations of God’s objective and equitable standard of righteousness – as revealed in His Word – committed by human beings, either institutionally or individually, against other human beings who, regardless of ethnicity, sex, or socio-economic station, are equal image-bearers of God (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26).

I thought it necessary to insert that caveat, as I find context is often missing in the continuing discourse regarding the pursuit of social justice and racial reconciliation.

Words have meaning.

And words like ‘injustice’ and ‘reconciliation’ are used so casually today, that it is often difficult to navigate the myriad arguments being posited by those who are so dogmatic that such pursuits are mandated by the gospel.

Scripture is unarguably clear that we who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, that is, who, by the sovereign will and unmerited grace of God (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 2:8-9), have confessed faith in Him as Savior (Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:9) and, consequently, are living lives of deliberate and conspicuous obedience to Him as Lord (Lk. 6:46; Rom. 12:2; Jas. 3:13; 1 Jn. 2:28-29) are to strive to meet the tangible needs of the poor and oppressed for the glory of God (Prov. 14:31; Jas. 1:27), regardless if that condition is the result of methodical or immethodical means.

Perhaps it is our failure to live up to this calling that prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lament:

“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

Though I sympathize with the sentiments expressed by Dr. King, I find his words problematic as they seem to infer that social change is to be realized only by choosing either to not “wait on time” or to “wait on time” (as if they were the only alternatives toward achieving the ends he envisioned.)

But with all due respect to Dr. King, and to those who share his perspective on these matters, the reason the change he sought after for so long took – and continues to take – time is, ironically, a matter not of chronology but theology. But even that is secondary to the fundamental question of why we pursue social change to begin with.

Though not normally couched in theological terms, the truth is the very concept of ‘social change’ is fundamentally rooted in a God-infused desire within us that we relate to each other, and the world around us, in ways that are consistent with the nature and character of the One in whose image we are uniquely created.

As religion professor James Davison Hunter comments:

“The passion to engage the world, to shape it and finally change it for the better, would seem to be an enduring mark of Christians on the world in which they live. To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private. This is the mandate of creation.”To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

I do not consider myself a social justice warrior (SJW). That’s not a knock against those who identify as such, I simply do not see myself as fitting into that category (such as it is).

Nevertheless, I am not naive that a fundamental tenet of the gospel is that Christians address, in practical terms (Jas. 2:15-16), the legitimate needs of those – believers and unbelievers alike – who have been taken advantage of by systems and structures designed to marginalize their worth and significance as unique creations of God (Prov. 31:8-9; Eccl. 5:8).

But it may surprise you to learn that meeting the material needs of the poor and oppressed – the measure by which many SJWs define a society that is ‘just’ and ‘equitable’ – is not all the gospel is designed to do. In fact, it is not even what the gospel is principally intended to do.

As theologian David VanDrunen writes:

“Because the common kingdom (the world) will remain the common kingdom until Christ returns, and because the objective normative standards for cultural activities will ordinarily be common to believers and unbelievers until the end of the present world, Christians should strive for modesty and honesty in cultural affairs. Christians should be modest in their expectations about what they can accomplish with regard to the cultural institutions of this present world. We can contribute in many small ways to making the common kingdom a better place, and occasionally we can be instrumental in forging large, systemic improvements to our cultural environment. But the fact that the common kingdom will remain the common kingdom should instill a profound modesty and humility in us. Whatever contributions we make, small or great, are contributions to a cultural arena that is temporary and fleeting.”Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture

The gospel of Matthew records that a wrongly-imprisoned John the Baptist sent some of his disciples to inquire of Jesus, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” To which Jesus answered, “Go and report to John what you hear and see; the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

It is interesting that Jesus was so specific in reminding John that the poor had the gospel preached to them, as opposed to enumerating the many ways in which He undoubtedly could have made their social station in life more equitable. The SJW-Jesus would have responded to John not that “the poor have the gospel preached to them” but that “the poor have food to eat, clothes to wear, homes to live in, violence-free communities, a guaranteed minimum wage, and a color-blind judicial system.”

On the matter of social justice, many SJWs are quick to focus on how Jesus met the material needs of the poor yet give little, if any, credence to the fact that the spiritual needs of the poor were of much greater concern and importance to Him (Mk. 8:36; Jas. 2:5). But to whatever extent social justice is a gospel mandate, it should never be misunderstood to be the ultimate or sole purpose of the gospel (which, in fact, is what many Christian SJWs have done.)

You see, the works Jesus performed were never for the sake of the works themselves, nor the benefits derived thereof, but to point people to Himself as the Savior of sinners not the Savior of society (1 Tim. 1:15).

We’ve got it backwards, my brothers and sisters.

Collective societal reformation happens only as a result of individual spiritual transformation, not the other way around. The Scriptures warn us that we should never expect perfect justice in a world comprised of those who, because of sin, are inherently unjust.

“If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.” – Eccl. 5:8-9

What we, as Christians, must understand is what makes the pursuit of social justice a gospel mandate is it is first and foremost a mandate to change hearts not just minds. As theologian John Calvin states so well, those who dispense justice are doing God’s work not merely man’s:

“For to what high standards of probity, wisdom, mercy, sobriety and innocence must they hold themselves, when they realize that they have been ordained ministers of divine justice? How impudent would they be if they allowed the slightest iniquity access to their judgment seat, which they know to be the throne of the living God? How bold they would be if they pronounced unjust sentence with their lips, perceiving that they are meant to be the instruments of God’s truth? With what conscience would they sign some wicked decree with the hand which, they know, ought to write down God’s own verdicts? In short, if they remember that they are deputies of God, they must make every effort and take every care in all they do to represent to men an image of God’s providence, protection, goodness, mildness and justice.” – Institutes of the Christian Religion, Robert White translation, pp. 759-760

There is a lot of kingdom-building being undertaken today under the guise of social justice as a “gospel mandate.”

By “kingdom-building”, I am speaking in the sense that a more just, equitable, and fair society and world is what many SJWs would argue is what the gospel is fundamentally intended to accomplish.

But with that, I would respectfully disagree.

Yes, Christ is building a kingdom, but that kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36).

Societal equity is not the mandate of the gospel.

Racial reconciliation is not the mandate of the gospel.

Gender equality is not the mandate of the gospel.

Equal opportunity is not the mandate of the gospel.

Ultimately, the mandate of the gospel is to make Jesus Christ known to those who do not know Him (Matt. 28:19).

And in coming to know Him, we love Him; and in loving Him, we obey Him; and by obeying Him, we become more like Him; and in becoming more like Him, we more consistently reflect to a world thirsting for righteousness the image of the One in whose image we are all created.

That is what true justice looks like.

Performing the works of the gospel is of no lasting societal benefit apart from preaching the word of the gospel.

Jesus understood this.

And, as His followers, so should we.

Humbly in Christ,

Darrell

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Seeking a ‘Social Savior’

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“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
John 1:29


As I continue to scan the landscape of Christian social justice activism, that is, social justice-labeled activities that are said to be carried out “in the name of” Christ, I’ve noticed many Christian activists have a tendency to proffer to the world an image of Jesus that is tantamount to that of a sanctified social worker, a holy humanitarian, an exalted egalitarian.

This visage of Jesus as a “Social Savior” is borne of a proclivity many Christian social justice activists have to leverage the works of Christ as the primary impetus not only for individuals who profess to follow Him to do likewise, but also institutions, such as governments and corporations, so that an equitable, just, and impartial society and world, which they believe Christ envisioned for mankind, ultimately becomes reality.

It is through this paradigm that such works of Christ as healing the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:13), and the blind man (Jn. 9:6-7), and feeding more than 5,000 people on one occasion (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 on another (Mk. 8:1-8), as well as His love for the poor (Luke 6:20) and the oppressed (Luke 4:18), are viewed as evidences that mandate Christians to take upon themselves, in accordance with Christ’s words in Jn. 9:4, to “…work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no man can work.”

This kind of sanguine worldview may seem admirable, perhaps even virtuous, to some, especially given the current milieu in which Christianity – and white evangelical Christians in particular – are being called to account for the deliberate and systematic misappropriation, to put it mildly, by their ancestors of various biblical precepts for the express purpose and intent of enslaving and otherwise oppressing black people in America.

That Christianity was practiced in such a deliberately iniquitous manner is both a sad and unarguable fact.

As author and researcher Richard Reddie notes in a 2007 article for the BBC on the Atlantic slave trade and abolition:

“Religion was…a driving force during slavery in the Americas. Once they arrived at their new locales the enslaved Africans were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant, and Christianity formed part of this. Ironically, although the assertion of evangelization was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans, very little missionary work actually took place during the early years. In short, religion got in the way of a moneymaking venture by taking Africans away from their work. It also taught them potentially subversive ideas and made it hard to justify the cruel mistreatment of fellow Christians.”

Conversely, theologian and author Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, acknowledges:

“Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality  and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. The typical criticisms…about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel. Historian C. John Sommerville claims that when Anglo-Saxons first heard the Christian gospel message they were incredulous. They couldn’t see how any society could survive that did not fear and respect strength. When they did convert, they were far from consistent. They tended to merge the Christian other-regarding ethic with their older ways. They supported the Crusades as a way of protecting God’s honor and theirs. They let monks, women, and serfs cultivate charitable virtues, but these virtues weren’t considered appropriate for men of honor and action. No wonder there is so much to condemn in church history.”

So, admittedly, there were those, including many Christians, who, while professing to be followers of the God of the Bible, appropriated the teachings of the Bible in such ungodly ways as to devalue, disparage, and destroy those who were equally the bearers of God’s image (Gen. 1:27Acts 17:26) as those who, “in the name of” God, volitionally chose to oppress, maltreat, and, on many occasions, murder them.

But, be that as it may, to whatever extent the gospel was leveraged in such base and sinful ways is not the fault of Christianity. Quite the contrary. It is the fault of that which Christianity unambiguously and forthrightly addresses. Namely, the innate depravity of the human soul (Gen. 4:7, 8:21b; Eccl. 7:20Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23; Gal. 5:17.)

The reality of this universal heart condition is echoed in the words of educator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who once confessed:

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

To view Jesus as merely a “Social Savior” is a misguided and short-sighted proposition, as it fails to take into account the fundamental root cause of many of the historical and contemporary socio-ethno inequities which many Christian social justice activists, particularly blacks, are seeking to redress by advocating for such propitiatory gestures as the removal of Confederate statues and monuments and the paying of reparations for slavery.

Notwithstanding the innumerable and tangible good works performed by Jesus for the practical benefit of those to whom they were graciously and mercifully imparted, those works were subsidiary to the primary reason Christ came into the world which, contrary to what many Christian social justice activists – and others – believe, was not to remedy socio-political or socio-economic inequities by improving the material, financial, or social station of those with whom He interacted, but to point people to Himself as the long-awaited Messiah.

This reality is underscored in Jn. 20:30-31, in which the apostle John declares:

“Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” 

You see, a problem many Christian social activists have today, is in their zeal to pursue social justice in the name of Christ they too often confuse Christians with Christ.

This is something that should never happen.

As theologian and historian Thomas J. Kidd cautions in a 2012 Patheos.com article titled Slavery, Historical Heroes, and “Precious Puritans”:

“The Christian faith has only one perfect hero. He is our proper object, not just of emulation, but of worship. We all fall far, far short of his example.”

In other words, only Jesus is Jesus.

We are not.

Even in our most well-founded expectations that those who profess to believe in Jesus display a certain level of consistency in living out that belief (Eph. 5:1-2), we must never lose sight of the fact that when an individual professes faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9), it is their salvation that is instantaneous not their sanctification (Phil. 1:6; 1 Jn. 1:8, 10).

It is with this thought in mind that we would do well to consider the words of theologian John R.W. Stott who, in his classic work The Cross of Christ, reminds us of this spiritual reality:

“For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; whereas God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be.”

Stott’s words highlight the futility of espousing a Jesus who is merely a “Social Savior”; whose coming to earth is viewed strictly in terms of how works-righteousness (e.g. removing statues, paying slavery reparations, etc.) can be a means toward the kind of society in which justice, equity, and righteousness are normative (2 Pet. 3:13).

At the risk of disappointing many of my social justice warrior (SJW) brothers and sisters, Jesus is not a Social Savior.

Christ came into the world save sinners not society (1 Tim. 1:15; Matt. 10:34-36).

If the works of Christ were in and of themselves sufficient to inaugurate the kind of egalitarian social structure so zealously desired by many Christian SJWs, then, I ask you my brother and sister, why was it still necessary for Him to die?

Exactly.

Humbly in Christ,

Darrell

Is the Gospel No Longer Enough for Black Christians?

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Located on one of the most historic streets in the United States, particularly for black Americans, Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta, stands the venerable Big Bethel AME Church.

“Big Bethel”, as it is affectionately and reverently known, was founded in 1847, the same year educator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass began publishing his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star, and the slave Dred Scott filed a lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court claiming his temporary residence in a free territory should have made him a free man.

It didn’t.

But, I digress.

For all its notoriety as the oldest predominantly black congregation in Atlanta, Big Bethel is equally renown, if not more so, for a simple two-word message which, for nearly a century, has stood conspicuously affixed atop the church steeple against the backdrop of an ever-expanding Atlanta skyline.

It reads: Jesus Saves.

The message that “Jesus Saves” has been the clarion call of black Christians in America since their earliest exposure to Christianity in the 1600s. It is this unwavering, and perhaps unfathomable, faith in the redemptive power of the gospel that was the impetus for slave-poet Jupiter Hammon, the first black person in America to publish a work of literature (1760) and whose entire earthly existence was as a slave, to attest:

“Now I acknowledge that liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly, and by our good conduct, prevail on our masters to set us free; though for my own part I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad, if others, especially the young Negroes were to be free. For many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves; and it may be more for our own comfort to remain as we are. That liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge so from the conduct of the white-people, in the late war, how much money has been spent, and how many lives has been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us. He has done it in some measure, and has raised us up many friends, for which we have reason to be thankful, and to hope in his mercy. What may be done further, he only knows, for known unto God are all his ways from the beginning. But this my dear brethren is, by no means, the greatest thing we have to be concerned about. Getting our liberty in this world is nothing to our having the liberty of the children of God. Now the Bible tells us that we are all, by nature, sinners; that we are slaves to sin and Satan; and that unless we are converted, or born again, we must be miserable forever. Christ says, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, and all that do not see the kingdom of God, must be in the kingdom of darkness.” – An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York, 1787

In excogitating these words of Hammon, the question naturally becomes: what could possibly have possessed a man, whose every breath of his existence on this earth was as someone else’s property, to see beyond his station in life to something that was of infinitely greater significance to him?

I believe this question to be germane to the current milieu in America, as many black Christians have begun to advocate a purely activist theology borne of a soteriology that proffers the idea that the preeminent, if not sole, mandate of the gospel is the pursuit of “social justice”, the manifestation of which is evidenced primarily by the bringing about of such realities as socio-ethno egalitarianism and the eradication of all human suffering and oppression, particularly of those whose melanin happens to be of a black or brown hue.

There are many black Christians today who, believe it or not, would assert that, collectively, the plight of black people in 21st century America is tantamount to that of Jupiter Hammon in the 18th century. This, I believe, is because words like slavery and oppression are applied so flippantly and, dare I say, ignorantly today as to divest them of their historical significance with regard to legitimate injustices that were perpetrated against God’s black and brown-skinned image-bearers (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26).

But at the risk of incurring the wrath of many who will read this blog post, particularly those who self-identify as social justice warriors (SJWs) or “race workers”, not every perceived injustice involving black people can be attributed to ‘racism’ (another term which, like slavery and oppression, is losing its force due to overuse.) Nonetheless, that is secondary to the matter of how blacks who profess to be Christian are to respond when injustice – as defined objectively in Scripture – does, in fact, rear its sinful and ungodly head (Lev. 19:15; Jer. 22:13).

Since the founding in 1773 of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia – the oldest black church in all of North America – the church has served as both the soul and heartbeat of social and political consciousness for black Christians in America. Organized both politically and spiritually, black churches were not only given to the teachings of Christianity but were faithfully relied upon by their members to, under the biblical precept of imago Dei (Gen. 1:27), address specific socio-economic issues that directly impacted them.

This infrangible and abiding bond with the church is conveyed rather soberingly by author Richard Nathaniel Wright who, in his book 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, declared that: “It is only when we are within the walls of our churches that we are wholly ourselves, and that we keep alive a sense of our own personalities in relation to the total world in which we live.”

Interestingly, if not ironically, the forging of these bonds between blacks and the church was necessitated, to a great extent, by the hypocrisy of people who failed to live up to their own stated ethos concerning the equitable treatment of their fellow human beings. Case in point, on October 21, 1774, the Continental Congress, in an address to the people of Great Britain, declared:

“When a nation, led to greatness by the hand of liberty, and possessed of all the glory that heroism, munificence, and humanity, can bestow, descends to the ungrateful task of forging chains for her friends and children, and, instead of giving support to freedom, turns advocate for slavery and oppression, there is reason to suspect that she has either ceased to be virtuous, or is extremely negligent in the appointment of her rulers.” 

And yet, less than 20 years after those words were spoken, the first Fugitive Slave Act was enacted that outlawed any efforts to harbor or impede the capture of slaves. It was another 70 years until slavery was officially, though not totally, abolished by president Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, only to be replaced by the equally unjust and inhumane peonage system in the post-Reconstruction South.

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But for all the influences that may or may not have been factors in black churches becoming the bastions of social and political activism they were (and are), foundational to that existence was the proclamation of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).

The truth is there is no gospel and, conversely, no church – regardless of ethnic composition or denominational affiliation – apart from the life-changing message that ‘Jesus Saves.’ It is that message which, I fear, is being lost as increasing numbers of black Christians become convinced that their primary loyalty is to an ecclesiastical legacy rooted in a socio-ethno missiology that emphasizes societal reformation apart from spiritual transformation.

It is this concern that served as the impetus for my posing the question that is the title of this blog post; a burden that is echoed in the words of esteemed theologian D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who, in his excellent work Preaching & Preachers, remarked that:

“The people, they say…are interested in politics, they are interested in social conditions, they are interested in the various injustices from which people suffer in various parts of the world…so they argue, if you really want to influence people in the Christian direction you must not only talk politics and deal with social conditions in speech, you must take an active part in them…But I have no hesitation in asserting that what was largely responsible for emptying the churches in Great Britain was that ‘social gospel’ preaching…It was more responsible for doing so than anything else…This concern about the social and political conditions, and about the happiness of the individual and so on, has always been dealt with most effectively when you have had reformation and revival and true preaching in the Christian church… My argument is that when the Church performs her primary task these other things invariably result from it.”

At the risk of coming across as facetious, let me remind you that the words “You must be born again” are still in the Bible. Open yours to Jn. 3:7 and you will find those words there (perhaps in red letters.) I point this out because most people’s paradigm of morality is anthropological not theological, which is why we fail to see the futility of trying to fix ourselves (Jn. 3:19).

A social justice-centered gospel will take you only so far (Mk. 8:36).

How can we for whom the gospel was sufficient – and necessary – to change us, expect something other than the gospel to change someone else?

To believe that an innately sinful society inherently possesses either the capacity, or the ability, to bring about the kind of equity so zealously desired by social justice advocates is both unrealistic and naive.

Jesus made this point abundantly clear to the Pharisees when he said to them:

“You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.” – Matthew 23:26 (NASB)

As Christians, we must be about the business of changing not only minds but hearts (Eze. 11:19-20).

That said, however, the question remains: Will the gospel in which you profess to believe be enough for you if and when those hearts and minds do not change? Not all of them will, you know.

What, then, will you do?

What will be your response?

Will it be that of a man like Jupiter Hammon who, though a slave his entire life, kept his “eyes on the prize”? Or will it be more in line with Malcolm X, demanding your rights “by any means necessary”?

These questions are not to suggest the “religious fatalism” that W.E.B. DuBois cautioned against in his seminal work ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ but, instead, are meant to reorient us to the fundamental truth that gave birth in the first place to such revered black houses of worship as Big Bethel Church in Atlanta, and Bethel A.M.E. Church in Indianapolis, and “Mother Bethel” A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia – the truth that Jesus Saves.

Such is the essence of the gospel and the message of the church.

Apart from that, everything else is secondary.

Everything.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Darrell

Related:
Hijacking Social Justice (Podcast) – The Mortification of Spin
Darrell Harrison on The B.A.R. Podcast with Dawain Atkinson on “woke theology” and social justice
A Little Ol’ Fashioned Diversity – The Mortification of Spin
Conservative Presbyterian Seminary in St. Louis to Hold Conference Featuring Leftist Teaching on Race – The Tennessee Star

How ‘Woke Theology’ is Weakening the Black Church

“The business of Christianity is not simply to make us feel happier or even to make us live a better life, it is to reconcile us to God.”

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones


There is a movement afoot, particularly within black evangelical circles, to extol, if not exalt, social justice as the raison d’etre, that is, the most important reason and purpose, of the church today.

I say ‘particularly’ because the aforementioned movement is not restricted only to the realm of black evangelicalism. The truth is there are also certain elements within white evangelicalism which, being motivated to some extent by a collective acquiescence to the idea of “white guilt“, have attached themselves to this movement like a caboose to a locomotive.

The problem with movements, however, is they invariably beget labels (e.g. “social gospel”, “liberation theology”, etc.). And labels tend to subtly, though eventually, reorient our focus from that which is of utmost importance, namely, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to an ethno-centric “gospel” constructed from a collective worldview espoused by “woke” theologians and philosophers who are considered by many to be the most socially and culturally aware on matters of social and liberative justice.

Again, this mindset is not exclusive to black evangelicalism, and yet it is within that milieu that this movement, I believe, is doing the most harm.

I make that statement neither lightly nor disparagingly. I was raised in the Black Church. The affinity I have for its history and traditions is borne not only from education but experience. I appreciate the invaluable sacrifices and contributions to black ecclesiology of figures like Absalom Jones, Morris Brown, Jarena Lee, John MarrantBetsey Stockton, Henry Garnet, and Richard Allen.

I spent half my life, into my early 20s, as a member of Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church, located in Atlanta’s West End in the shadows of such venerable HBCUs as Morehouse, Spelman, Clark-Atlanta, and Morris Brown, where I worshiped alongside many family members and friends to the music of black gospel stalwarts as Walter and Edwin Hawkins. In fact, to this very day, the Hawkins-penned Changed, a powerful testimonial of spiritual redemption in Christ, remains one of my all-time favorite gospel songs.

It was at Chapel Hill that I witnessed people of all ages “catch the Spirit” during high points of what often seemed unending worship services. It was at Chapel Hill that I watched royally accoutered choirs march slowly into the sanctuary to the uplifting refrains of We Are Soldiers In The Army. It was at Chapel Hill that I passed those faux gold-plated offering plates – you know the ones – with the red crushed-velvet matting, to congregants sitting next to me in pews that, likewise, were fashioned with red crushed-velvet padding as if to match the aesthetics of the offering plates.

It was at that small church on Northside Drive that, Sunday after Sunday, I listened to the verbum Dei, the Word of God, preached – from the King James version of course – from behind an old wooden lectern with the letters ‘IHS’ engraved on the front. And it was at Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church that “the doors of the church” were always open, inviting sinners like me to step out from those crushed-velvet cushioned pews, walk that red-carpeted aisle, sit down in the lone wooden chair placed front-and-center of the sanctuary by a white-gloved deacon or deaconess, and “get saved” as it were.

All this to say that there is nothing about the so-called “Black Church experience” to which I cannot personally relate. Which is why, though I am Reformed – and, thankfully, Reformed theology is slowly but steadily gaining exposure within contemporary black evangelicalism – there will always be a place in my heart for the Black Church and, likewise, an equally heartfelt desire to see a recovery of biblical orthodoxy as its primary raison d’etre.

But, alas, I find what many term “social gospel” to be somewhat prohibitive to that end in that it relegates the central message of the gospel, namely, deliverance from the spiritual bondage of sin through faith in the propitiatory and substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ as secondary to a temporal “deliverance” defined primarily in terms of the socio-economic empowerment of black people (also known as ‘black power‘) and the embracement and affirmation, particularly by white people, of black social and cultural normativity.

It is an ideology that is more anthropocentric (man-centered) than theocentric (God-centered). As Dr. James H. Cone, whom many regard as the founder of black liberation theology, explains:

“Black Theology is a theology of black liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity. Black Theology is a theology of “blackness”. It is the affirmation of black community that emancipates black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people. It affirms the humanity of white people in that it says no to the encroachment of white oppression.” – Black Theology: A Documentary History, Volume 1: 1966-1979

Having defined black theology, Cone, in another of his writings, outlines how the Church must apply that construct in bringing about the emancipation he envisions for black people. He declares that:

“The Church cannot remain aloof from the world because Christ is in the world. Theology, then, if it is to serve the need of the Church must become “worldly theology”. This means that it must make sure that the Church is in the world and that its word and deed are harmonious with Jesus Christ. It must make sure that the Church’s language about God is relevant to every new generation and its problems. It is for this reason that the definitive theological treatise can never be written. Every generation has its own problems, as does every nation. Theology is not, then, an intellectual exercise but a worldly risk.” – Black Theology & Black Power: The White Church and Black Power, p. 84

There is much within the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of James Cone with which I disagree. Not that what I think matters to him or anyone else. Nonetheless, there is a degree of dualism in Cone that seems to suggest the belief that the gospel is both sufficient and insufficient at the same time.

Given the extent to which Christianity was leveraged by white people to oppress black people, one would think Cone would argue for a new religion altogether, one whose doctrine would inherently provide greater potential to achieve his stated goal of black liberation completely independent of the cooperation or concurrence of white people. Or, if not a new religion, then, perhaps an existing one would suffice to make up for what Christianity somehow lacks in effectuating the kind of social change Cone, and those who might share his worldview, seek.

But if the gospel isn’t sufficient for all of life, the question then becomes: why believe the gospel at all? If Christianity is to be understood merely as a moralistic prescriptive for the social ills of people who are of a particular ethnicity, or of the world at large, then, what is there to distinguish Christianity from Islamism, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other “ism” that holds as one of its core tenets the equitable treatment of one’s fellow human beings?

“The black man’s response to God’s act in Christ must be different from the white man’s because his life experiences are different.” – James H. Cone, Black Theology & Black Power

The problem with “woke theology” is it emphasizes a teleology of Christianity that is one-dimensional. It does this by reducing Christianity to what Cone described as “worldly theology”. In other words, a theology whose primary raison d’etre has less to do with the spiritual redemption of a sinful people, that is, the world entire, and more with the corporeal redemption of people who are of a particular ethnicity to whom salvation is to be viewed in terms of, as Cone stated, “the affirmation of black community that emancipates black people from white racism.”

A recurring thought in the black theology of James Cone is Jesus as the divine “liberator” of black people from the scourge of white oppression. It is a view which, in my mind, begs the question: why does Cone see the God of Christianity – Jesus Christ – as this great liberator and not Allah? Or the Hindu triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva? Or the Buddha? Or any other religious deity for that matter? The answer is simple, really. It is because only the gospel of Christ deals with that which gives rise to oppression to begin with – our sin.

“Some folks good no matter what dey color, other folks bad.” – Cal Woods, freedman (emancipated slave)

Regardless by what label we choose to call it – ‘black theology’, ‘social gospel’, ‘social justice’, ‘liberation theology’ – any so-called “gospel” that proposes to resolve or redress the injustices human beings inflict upon one another apart from addressing the root cause of those injustices is short-sighted, naive, and destined to fail.

Above all else, the gospel of Christ is a theology that deals with the reality of the human condition (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 3:23). It is a condition which John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, describes as “a hereditary corruption and perversion of our nature, which in the first place renders us guilty of God’s wrath, and in the second produces in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19-21).”

“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that your are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” – 2 Cor. 3:3 (NASB)

A ‘woke theology’ that is devoid of hamartiology is weak soteriology. Social change is accomplished through heart change; and heart change is fundamentally what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about (Eze. 11:19-20; Rom. 12:2).

In whatever sense people may or may not view Jesus as a “liberator”, as does Cone, He is first and foremost the Liberator of human beings from the bondage of sin through His propitiatory death on the cross (Rom. 6:10; 1 Jn. 3:5). It is this spiritual liberation that the Black Church – and the Church universal – must again commit itself to preach. For it is only in Christ that we find freedom from the sin that leads to oppression of every kind (Mk. 7:17-23).

“In all likelihood the revival we crave and need will come at a time we least expect through a means we too often neglect: the simple though diligent application of the Word of God to all of life.” – Thabiti Anyabwile, Reviving the Black Church: A Call To Reclaim A Sacred Institution

Now, lest I be misunderstood, none of this has been to suggest that the Church should not be involved in practical ways in advocating for social change that is rooted in the biblical precept of imago Dei (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26). Nevertheless, we must never lose sight of the fact that as much as the gospel of Christ is about life in this world, it is also about life in the next (1 Jn. 5:11-12).

The work that is involved in “working out” our salvation (Phil. 2:12) should never be misconstrued as salvation, for a liberation that is merely temporal in substance but not eternal is not true liberation (Mk. 8:36).

It is in light of this reality that I am reminded of the account of a black woman, a teacher, by the name of Eliza Davis George. History records that on February 2, 1911, during the morning devotional hour at Central Texas College in Waco where Ms. George taught, she had a vision of black Africans passing before the Judgment Seat of Christ. Weeping and moaning as they passed, many of them were saying to Him, “No one ever told us You died for us.”

Stay woke.

Humbly in Christ,

Darrell

Related:
Another question: on being woke and Christian – Lisa Robinson
The myth of race – The Cripplegate
How the social gospel is becoming the dominant theology in evangelicalism – Christian Research Network
The Gospel is not social – The Heidelblog
How the social gospel movement explains the roots of today’s religious left – Christopher H. Evans
The Marxist roots of black liberation theology – Dr. Anthony B. Bradley
What is the social gospel? – Nicole Leaman
What we don’t know about black social gospel: a long-neglected tradition is reclaimed – Gary Dorrien
Why the social gospel isn’t the gospel – Tim Falkan
Evangelism and Social Justice – Ed Stetzer
Why your morality will never be enough for God – Silverio Gonzalez

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