Of all the people groups and religions in this world, Christians should be the most aware of injustices in society, it is encoded in our DNA.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Last year, before the Pandemic, I was out to lunch with an older pastor who asked me: “What does the term “Woke” mean.” My answer was simple: The idea that we are aware of the injustices around us and speaking up and seeking to bring justice to situations of injustice. Tim Keller has argued this point, as have Eric Mason and many others. If you are awake to something, you know it is happening and are trying to engage in some means of alleviating the injustice. When you see the homeless man on the street, you do not pass him by, you do whatever you can at that moment, even if that’s just offering a prayer, to alleviate that persons suffering. If you are aware of a problem of injustice of any kind, you come alongside the victims and walk with them until Justice has been done, so much as you are able. Like Jesus, you show up at the well when you know that the women is going to be there so you can minister to her need. Christians need to be aware of what is happening in the world around us or we cannot speak the hope and peace of Christ into those situations. It is hard to: “Be the people of prayer where the world is most in pain” (N.T. Wright), if we have our heads in the sand (or clouds). It is also hard to obey the words of Jesus when we are ignoring the very people He constantly spent time with.
This is in no way an endorsement of what is called “wokism” a worldview that has taken on religious-like qualities in the last year (if it even exists at all, hint, hint, it’s a strawman). But it is an endorsement of the fourth of Bebbington’s Evangelical Quadrilateral, Activism. Activism is the idea that we as believers have a calling to active and compassionate engagement with the culture around us in order to bring glory to God. Activism takes Jesus calling to be “Salt and light” as not merely a spiritual call, but a physical call as well. In the early days of Evangelicalism in America this was manifested in, abolition, the creation of hospitals, temperance societies, orphanages, city missions and more. The people who made up the church were generally involved in many of these activities, men and women working alongside each other meeting practical needs while preaching the cross of Christ from Scripture leading to conversions to Christ. Evangelicalism was effective because it met both physical and spiritual needs in its communities, it was affective because it was, awake.
But beginning with the battle over Slavery in the South and continuing into the 20th century the Church began to abandon the activism which was central to its mission. The nation’s largest denomination, the Southern Baptism Convention, was formed because of an unwillingness to deal with the injustice of slave holding, refusing to biblically discipline those who captured, raped, sold and murdered slaves. The explanation, according to Mark Noll was that of the Gnostics: “The physical body is of little to no importance, so long as the soul is saved.” This was the exact opposite of the attitude of Johann Leonhard Dober and David Nitschmann when they landed on the island of St. Thomas in the Carribean from Herrnhut in Saxony (modern day Germany) in 1732 and set up their ministry to the slaves there, living among them, advocating for their freedom, learning their language, supporting themselves through their own pottery making. The very reason today why the Moravian Church is still well-respected in the Caribbean today. To Dober and Nitschmann, the people they were trying to reach were the victims of oppression. The Moravians themselves had been a persecuted people and had only just, in the 1720’s under the protection of Count Nickolas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf. The followers of the martyr John Huss, they understood what it meant to be oppressed for religious reasons, in that regard, they had more in common with the slaves they were reaching than the later American Protestant Southern Baptists. They were awake and aware what it was like to be a persecuted group. None of that is to say that they understood what it was like to be a slave in the Caribbean or the American South, as Philip Schaff notes in On Slavery: “American Slavery is a unique creation, known for its barberry and cruelty.” They did, however, understand what it meant to be a persecuted and oppressed group, to be disinherited and marginalized. (NOTE: I cannot emphasize enough that this is NOT a 1-1 Comparison, the oppression of a people due to their skin color goes well-beyond the sin of mere-religious persecution). Of course, sometimes in pursuit of activism we sought out one means of oppression to alleviate another, as George Whitfield did when lobbying General James Oglethorpe to officially adopt slavery so he could employ slave labor to build his orphanage. In the pursuit of justice for one group, we have often adopted unjust means towards another.
The point is, Activism is an essential part of global evangelicalism and at one point it was a central part of American Evangelicalism. We were not always consumers of the word alone, but also doers. Of course, if you lose the action part of your faith, something is going to replace it, that something in this case has largely been idle talk, gossip, slander and culture wars. None of which get us out actually living the gospel we are proclaiming and are turn-offs to those outside the faith and inside the faith alike. Again the Southern Baptist Convention can be used as an example here as the only way to classify August Boto’s calling Rachel Denhollander and other Sex Abuse survivors as “tools of Satan” is that it is Slander. Activism that is rooted in the winsome love of Jesus, that is rooted in compassion as much as conviction, comes alongside these victims, it investigates their allegations and does Justice for the oppressed. This was, Jesus own calling as he lays out when he quotes Isaiah in Luke 9:26. He comes to bring justice to the oppressed and he did it and he will continue to do it. By Boto’s own standard, Jesus is a “tool of Satan” for speaking up against the religious leaders for the way they oppressed the people through demanding purity in their traditions. If Jesus sends us out as he was sent out, then we are sent out to do the same thing that Jesus did in the same manner Jesus did. That means that Gospel Orthodoxy (right teaching) cannot be separated from Gospel Orthopraxy (right practice). Which includes having the proper attitude towards the disinherited.
So when your Brother comes to you and tells you that they were racially profiled by a police officer you do not dismiss their story, you listen to them and believe them, advocate for justice on their behalf until justice is done or until you have actual tangible evidence to the contrary. Or when your sister in Christ comes to you and tells you she was raped or sexually assaulted you listen to her story and you believe her and advocate for justice on her behalf until justice is done or you have tangible evidence to the contrary. If human beings are steeped in sin and depravity, a Genesis 3 and Romans 1 assert, then of course we are going to build sinful systems and of course God is going to work to correct those systems through His Holy Spirit, especially when it is His Church committing or perpetuating injustice (Ps 37, Isaiah 1,Ezekial 34, Jeremiah 7, Malachi 2-4). Purity Culture has been oppressive to both men and women, but especially to women as it has stripped them of their status as Image bearers of God and made them responsible for men’s thoughts, which we ourselves should be able to control. Sinfulness in policing is harmful to both the police officer and the victim. It should be our desire to eliminate injustice wherever it is found, since injustice hurts both the oppressor and the oppressed, though it is disproportionately harmful to the oppressed. I have written before that activism that is rooted in true biblical justice, in the Justice of God, seeks to completely eliminate the categories of oppressed and oppressor and reconcile them to one another through Christ (Eph 2:11-21).
This is the spirit behind the idea of Evangelical Activism, if Christ tore down the dividing wall of hostility in his flesh through his work on the cross, then to simply swap the role of oppressor and oppressed is to not do biblical justice, but to just change the role. Like when Nabopolassar rose up and freed Babylon from the Assyrian Empire and then conquered Assyria, simply reversing the roles of oppression and oppressed. The Jewish leaders of Jesus day, the people of Jesus day in general, were expecting the Messiah to raise an army and throw off the oppression of Rome and wipe our Israel’s enemies. Jesus preached that this was not how his kingdom was to come, but that it would come through reconciling man to God and man to man. Without that reconciliation, there would never be a chance to stop the cycle of oppressed become oppressor or vice versa. Christianity spread so rapidly in the first century precisely because it did not adopt the means of the world, but did the opposite, not becoming the oppressor or a destroyer of cultures, but a reconciler. The Apostle Paul is a great example of this as he sits in a Roman house chained to a Roman Guard. We find him not fighting for his release or trying to get away through trickery. He is not even vying for power or speaking as a revolutionary against Nero. Instead he tells the Philippians in chapter 1 that the Gospel has been proclaimed and believed: “even among the household of Caesar.”
If this is what the Gospel is meant to do as we both speak it and live it, why is that not happening in our own time? The answer is the theology behind the idea mentioned above: “The physical body is immaterial as long as the soul is being saved.” As I stated then, this is Gnostic view of the body, dichotomizing flesh and spirit, dividing them so that one (the body) can be discarded. Since the body, in the view of Gnosticism is “inherently evil” the goal of the soul then is to get free. This leads to a doctrine called: “The Spirituality of the Church” which was adopted by the SBC upon its founding. The doctrine finds its roots in Augustine (though I would argue that is a misreading of Augustine) and came to full formation in the America’s among the common sense theologians of Princeton like Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge. Though it was always present as part of Dominion Theology and Inter Cantera in the Roman Catholic Church. The doctrine justifies cruelty to fellow humans because it is the Soul that matters and is eternal. Like it or not, this view ignores 1. The creation, God made our bodies and called them good, 2. Jesus desire that we live whole lives in Him and 3. that we one day receive a resurrected, physical body and do not enter heaven as “disembodied” souls. If Israel’s calling was to seek the Shalom of her neighbors and Jesus takes the calling of Israel on himself and then hands it off to us through the Holy Spirit, than activism that is seeking the shalom of all human life made in the image of God needs to be central to Gospel proclamation.
So where does that leave us? All of this means that we should be aware of and seeking to rectify injustice wherever and in whatever form it takes, awake to the fact that people are being harmed by a sinful world. Reclaiming a doctrine of the body that is rooted in Creation, not in sinful man’s minds. We also need to recognize that this is the norm for global evangelicalism and that our aversion to activism of any kind is an aberration that puts us in the evangelical minority. It is time for us to retrieve what we left behind, to stop fighting over peripheral issues that have no bearing on the Gospel and live out what we once did, denouncing heresy and being awake to and speaking out against injustice. Because that is what we are called to, taking up the mission of Jesus as He builds his Kingdom through us, a kingdom that is built on the Justice of God, not on the injustice of sinful man.