I’ve been pecking away little by little on a follow up to my last post, Some Questions I’m Asking While Off to My White Evangelical Church. It occurred to me that there are some more questions I’ve been chewing on but didn’t get out in that post. But I also wanted to parse out the concerns I raise from real interest and needs with respect to Christian engagement with issues of social justice, for what it’s worth. My goal with all these questions is not to criticize for the sake of criticism and it’s certainly not to dismiss legitimate concerns. I wish to honestly evaluate if how we are going about the task of racial reconciliation is counterproductive to the cause of Christ’s kingdom.
In the meantime, Darrell Harrison over at Just Me Thinking wrote this fairly piercing piece, How Woke Theology is Hurting the Black Church. The heart of his concern is that present day social justice movement efforts are subordinating, if not undermining, the root of a Christian response to the ills of this world–that is, the need for redemption and forgiveness of sins through Christ. Highlighting the work and influence of James Cone, a noted Liberation theologian who Harrison believes is captivating the mood of the current discourse, Harrison writes;
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 a particular ethnic people, to whom salvation is 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? 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.
I’ve observed that a common retort to present day social justice efforts is describing it’s adherents as embracing a social gospel and liberation theology, not holding to biblical theology or maybe not even real Christians. In other words, it’s easy to reject efforts as simply being a social gospel. To some extent, this can be true. But this low hanging fruit can become a much too easy way of dismissing sincere Christians who are looking to live out the gospel in their lives. Here is where I would caution haste assessments of what’s actually going on with the present day movement and those who espouse it, less we unjustly accuse brothers and sisters of Christ of being heretics.
You’ll find a lot of the woke Christian crowd to have solid theology and would repudiate the idea that they are rejecting the need for atonement of sins and reconciliation with God through Christ. They would heartily affirm that hamartiology is at the root of our need for Christ as well as the sociological issues they seek to address. They would not say they are pushing for a social gospel but a social application of the gospel in the interest of love of neighbor to areas of correction.
So how is it that issues of social justice become the primary concern if people actually believe the gospel? What is actually happening? This is a question that Harrison’s piece has spawned and one I’ve been chewing on for some time. It’s not based on empirical evidence, only my observations.
As I brought out in my last post, the church was complicit in upholding cultural standards of the subjugation of black citizens. Particularly in the South, it was quite normal on one hand, to uphold a robust Christian doctrine and on the other hand, deny black citizens equal valuation as citizens of earth and heaven. Don’t believe me? Google the name Robert Lewis Dabney, a leading voice in 19th century Southern Presbyterianism that enthusiastically endorsed institution of slavery for black people. Sean Michael Lucas, a Presbyterian church historian, seminary professor and pastor in the PCA, did his doctoral work focused on the work of Dabney. In this Reformation21 article here, Stephen Berry shows this stark contrast. The Reconstruction period through the Jim Crow era saw little improvement in correcting this inconsistency of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. As I wrote about in Church in the Age of MLK, Dr. Lucas’ treatise on the development of PCA that led to it’s split from the larger Presbyterian body in 1973 over concerns of theological progressivism showed the huge blind spots that many conservative leaders had. Those who were upheld as model pastors and theologians also upheld segregation and prohibitions against non-whites. This is just within Presbyterianism that was only a segment of the overall landscape that was quite comfortable ignoring the plight minorities. To be sure, The Southern Baptist Convention has it’s own set of “heroes.”
As issues of persisting racism, prejudicial treatment and a generalized lack of concern charged at the white church, seem to captivate segments of the church today, especially relative to police brutality, education, and poverty, it occurs to many Christians that based on this legacy of cognitive dissonance, it is possible to divorce the root and cause of the gospel with a consistent application of the gospel. This is why I think there can be a repudiation of people, especially white Christians, who respond with addressing these concerns with having our corrections anchored in the gospel. How did that work during slavery through Jim Crow?
So I believe what happens is this: in an attempt to avoid a schizophrenic gospel, tempered by the lengthy historical reality of racial injustices, consistent application becomes key in the interest of embracing a holistic gospel. But the application can take on a life of it’s own, becoming the driving force for sociological correction that subordinates reconciliation through Christ to a secondary status. Christians who uphold the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the need for trust in his work and person, the need for personal repentance and holiness can so immersed in correcting injustices and identities that the sociological tail ends up wagging the theological dog. It’s easy to allow cultural captivity to influence kingdom work and I continue to ask if that’s not what we are seeing?
Again, this is just my assessment based on observation more than anything else. I’m hoping some further questions and thoughts I’ve been pecking away at provide some food for thought on ways we might be getting derailed. That is my goal anyway. So let me get back to that.
Image: courtesy of NYPost
I’m doing a paper on so-called “woke theology” and I thought your following comment is brilliant and spot-on: “in an attempt to avoid a schizophrenic gospel, tempered by the lengthy historical reality of racial injustices, consistent application becomes key in the interest of embracing a holistic gospel. But the application can take on a life of it’s own, becoming the driving force for sociological correction that subordinates reconciliation through Christ to a secondary status.” Thanks for articulating this