Here’s why we need to have this conversation
I am a follower of Jesus.
I love the Church, but there are many instances when I don’t like the Church.
We need to have this conversation because while there continues to be growth and vitality in some parts of the body, there is a cancerous decay in other areas. This disease has been exposed with the recent events of racism in the United States.
I’m saddened by the silence of my Christian friends. I’m also disturbed by their criticism of the growing anti-racist movement. Those outside the Church don’t know our doctrines, but they see and point out the glaring hypocrisy in our words and actions. True healing and revitalization will only happen when those from within the Church can speak up. And so I write this letter.
The response of Christians during these events have torn down our painted facades and revealed our crumbling foundations. These are the criticisms I have against the Church, against our Church, against myself:
- We have trivialized the suffering of the oppressed through our denial of the existence of oppression.
- We have lost our identity and mission by corrupting our soul with the idolatry of politics.
- We have stripped justice from the Gospel and forfeited our calling as defenders of the oppressed.
- We have become selfishly lazy by substituting public declarations of prayer in place of sacrificial action.
While the Church has been a powerful force for good, we’ve also been on the wrong side of history, and ultimately on the wrong side of God. This is one of those times.
Our silence on racism and injustice will ultimately silence our message. Here is how we’ve strayed, and what we must do to restore our integrity.
From Denial to Advocacy
Though most of us would admit that racism exists, we minimize the extent of its prevalence and the magnitude of its influence. We diminish acts of racism as anecdotal incidents rather than a persistent trend. We intentionally ignore the voices of millions of African Americans and other minorities who testify that they experience racism constantly.
We have heard the cries of injustice and the pleas for help from our brothers and sisters… and we have called them liars.
It’s not coincidental that the portion of our Church who deny the existence of widespread racism are white. For the most part, white people don’t experience racism and are unaware of the privilege it brings to them. Many white people also don’t have African American friends who can tell them about their experiences. Especially within the Church, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking there is racial harmony through our limited interactions with other races at our camps, conferences, and conventions. We don’t do life with them every day as they experience racism as an African American.
To even come close to understanding the extent of racism and its impact, we must follow one of Scripture’s relational virtues: be quick to listen and slow to speak (Jm 1:19). If you don’t have a black friend, or friends of other races, well, there’s your starting point.
As we listen to the stories and experiences of our black brothers and sisters, we need to listen with judgement or preconceptions. We must allow ourselves to enter into their stories, we must feel what they feel, and mourn what they mourn (Rm 12:15).
All of us non-black Christians will never fully comprehend the heavy burden that African Americans bear, nor the weight of betrayal and isolation they must feel from their supposed spiritual family ignoring their plea.
We can say things and do things that we think will help, but our misguided good intentions absent of the consultation of our fellow black Christians often does more harm than good. One such instance is the declaration of “All Lives Matter” as a counter to “Black Lives Matter.”
At best, this is an ignorant attempt at racial reconciliation that diminishes the plight of our black brothers and sisters. At worst, it’s an intentional rejection of the validity of their suffering. If God tells us to feed the poor, would we respond with, “But, all people need food” or “Rich people need food too?” Yes, we know that everyone needs food, but the point is that the poor are hungry right now and need that attention. Yes, we know that all lives matter, but the point is that black lives disproportionately matter less right now, and that needs attention.
Racism and injustice can only be fought when it is identified, and we can only identify it when we listen to those who experience it. A primary contributor to the Church’s denial of racism is its lost ability to empathize with others, specifically African Americans. That in itself is racism.
As a Church, we have denied justice to the oppressed because we have denied that injustice exists. Such a reality destroys the illusion of harmony and comfort that we’ve constructed for ourselves. But our denial is creating deeper fractures in our foundation.
Let us listen first and speak later. Let us see through the eyes of our black friends and allow our hearts to be broken. When one of us suffers, the whole body suffers (1 Co 12:26). And we must realize that racism is infecting and disabling the body of Christ.
A Hard Reset on Political Allegiances
As Christians, we should have an immediate and visceral reaction towards racism and any form of injustice. I would assume and hope that was the case for many of us upon learning about yet another murder of African American by police. Yet any inherent sense of justice we have is often superseded by a less important but more dominant question: “What does my political party think?”
Many Christians would be repulsed by the suggestion that politics guides faith, and would prefer to believe that faith drives politics. Yet our views, and even the phrases we use, are often taken directly from the new outlets we consume and the political leaders we follow.
We shy away from speaking out on social justice issues because we view them as political issues. We take cues from political leaders and media on what we should be for and what we should be against. We predictably fall in line with political party views whenever any social issue comes up. We’ve turned politics into our golden calf.
If you see racism as a political issue, politics has already become your god.
Gradually over the years, the Church has made an unholy alliance with politics. We sought political power to achieve our religious goals, and so aligned ourselves with the party that most closely identified with us (initially). Unfortunately, these religious goals often meant creating a more comfortable environment for ourselves rather than creating a more just world for others.
And just as gradually, that political party’s values seeped into the foundations of our faith and eroded away our identity. The party became our church. The constitution became our bible. The leaders became our priests. The politics became our god.
It convinced us that we should not make statements against racism because its on the wrong political side, despite Scripture clearly telling us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (Pr 31:8-9).”
It’s time to disentangle ourselves from our politics and reset our perspectives and allegiances. We must stop asking ourselves, “What does my political party say?” and start asking, “What does my God say?”
And to that question, it’s very clear:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mc 6:8)
We are called to justice. Racism is injustice. We must speak against it and act against it, both in the world and within the Church.
Reclaiming Our Calling to Justice
As our faith was being bound to our politics, it was stripped away from our calling. Social justice became secondary to evangelism, and even less important than self-serving ministry. Eventually, it was no longer part of the “Gospel.”
We have so rejected our call to pursue justice that we’ve vilified anyone who advocates on its behalf, both inside and outside of the Church. In doing so, we’ve diminished the power of the full Gospel and abandoned our sacred calling.
Therefore racism and injustice is no longer an issue worthy of the pulpit or the pew. It then becomes absent from or daily lives.
When God lays Israel’s sins before them, He said their worship was empty because they ignored justice (Is 1:2-15). In order to correct their evil and restore their relationship with God, He doesn’t tell them to worship more, pray more, or evangelize more. He tells them to “learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed (Is 1:17).” Israel suffered their consequences because they followed after other gods and failed to uphold justice.
Jesus’ very tangible “social justice” ministries often were done in service to people who never ended up following him, whether it was feeding them (Jn 6) or healing them (Lk 17:11-19). Jesus also specifically fought for the rights of racial minorities. He told the story of the good Samaritan to counter racist mindsets (Lk 10:25-37), He spent time in a town of racial minorities that His followers despised (Jn 4:27-42), and He disrupted businesses in the place of the temple designated for all races, fighting for their value and right to worship God (Mt 21:12-13). Among the many criticisms that Jesus had against the religious leaders was that they “neglected justice (Lk 11:42).”
As we follow the narrative of the early Church, one its greatest internal struggles was racism. It literally took a miraculous act of God to get the first followers to share their faith with people of other races (Acts 2:1-12, Acts 8:26-40, Acts 10). Paul and Peter, two of the early Church’s most powerful leaders, had an intense argument over racism (Ga 2:11-21). It’s for this reason that Paul had to write the the same line, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile,” to multiple churches in order to combat racism (Ro 10:12, 1 Co 12:13, Ga 3:28). James, the half-brother of Jesus, drew a sharp line in the sand, stating that “faith is dead without good works. (Jm 2:14-25)”
Our mission is clear: “Defend the weak and uphold the cause of the oppressed…Deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Ps 82:3-4).”
Justice is commanded of us. Justice is our identity and reputation. Justice is inseparable from the Gospel.
Pray Towards Action
For far too long, the Church, and particularly the American Church, has been in decay. We’ve gorged ourselves with conventions and programs, waking up only to participate in petty disputes that inconvenience our comfortable Christian culture.
I believe prayer is the most powerful asset we have for internal and external change. Yet in times of crisis, the Church has been renowned and mocked for making public declarations of our intent to pray without any commitment to action. We’ve become the digital “hypocrites on the street corner (Mt 6:5-8).” Are we actively and persistently praying against racism and injustice as if people’s lives depended on it? Are we praying for God to “use us” (like we do in so many other things), in the fight against injustice? Or when it comes to racism, are we hoping that God will magically make it go away without asking for our involvement?
We must stop announcing that we will pray, and simply pray. But the act of declaring our intention to pray is often an excuse for inaction. Prayer often requires no accountability, while action does. And we the Church are called to act. Make no mistake, God will act in the world through us (Pp 2:13). God created us and redeemed us with the intent to do good works (Ep 2:10).
In recent years, we have occasionally risen up to anger and protest, but the cause is often petty and embarrassing. We mobilize to be loud when schools don’t teach what we want, when buildings don’t display our favorite Bible verses, or when brands don’t cater to our traditions – all under the banner of “persecution.” We have become weak and fragile, easily hurt and offended, trying desperately to grasp on to any superficial sense of purpose. This is not the Church that Jesus built.
We are a Church that puts the interests of others above ourselves (Pp 2:3-4). We are a Church that tireless does good for the sake of others (Ga 6:9, Heb 13:16). We cannot represent the sacrificial heart of Jesus if we demand convenience and liberties for ourselves, yet are passive towards the oppression of others.
This is my letter of criticism and encouragement to the Church. I write this as an attempt to inspire a callous and dormant body towards love and good deeds (Heb 10:24).
We are at a pivotal time in history. We join a “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us to bring the kingdom of God on earth (Heb 12:1-3). Though God will always dispense His love and justice through His people, whether it’s through the full force of the Church or through a small committed few, we have the choice of how our generation of the Church will be defined. We are in jeopardy of joining those who participated in the transatlantic slave trade, those who owned and oppressed slaves, and those who supported segregation and lynching, all disgustingly in the name of God.
This cannot be our legacy. Our reputation and our message are at stake. When we make the audacious claim to be the voice of God in this world, the credibility we stand on will be the good work we do (1 Pt 2:12). For our generation of the Church at this time, our good work is the fight against racism.
Let us be defined by an unrivaled compassion for the oppressed and an unquestionable commitment to fight injustice.
So Church, let us “loose the chains of injustice, … set the oppressed free, … then your light will break forth like the dawn. (Is 58:6-10)”