It’s been a wild ride recently with the George Floyd protests on top of Covid19 shaking our world. The news cycle appears to be moving on to other things, but before we move on, I wanted to wonder aloud with you about our Christian commitments in the face of injustice.
I notice a reluctance in myself and I wonder where it came from. It is a reluctance to engage full-on in the protest against injustice. Then when I scan the horizon of my evangelical tribe, it appears to me that there is a collective reluctance. I realize that’s a loaded observation and I can’t prove it, but I’m noticing it. I need to nuance that observation because it doesn’t apply across the board. I’m noticing that well-informed evangelicals are urging their constituencies to engage in issues of injustice. I think of Tim Keller and recent Christianity Today articles as examples. So there is movement, but it seems that my tribe of white evangelicals are slow to take up the charge. There appears to be a latent fear that it is only “liberals” who engage in such issues. There’s that tendency to label again. We don’t want to be lumped with “that group” so we don’t engage.
As I question that reluctance in myself, I think we also should question it collectively. It is hurting our witness to the world as the body of Christ and we need to talk about it. A few contributors to this reluctance have occurred to me.
First, our evangelical faith was largely taught us in terms of going to heaven when we die. That was what we understood salvation to be—leaving this world which would be destroyed, to be taken to another place called heaven.
Let me be clear. I believe we go to heaven when we die. I just don’t think that’s our final destination. The Bible speaks very clearly about a renewed earth in which the eternal kingdom of Jesus is consummated. So our final destiny is earth—yes, a renewed earth, a changed one, but still earth…this dirt! Right here! So that means that what happens on this dirt is of ultimate importance. We are participating in the preparation of the planet and human society for the return of Jesus Christ. We don’t permanently abandon this place nor does God dispose of it like a Coke can. It is his good creation, awaiting renewal and the consummation of Jesus’ Kingdom.
The second contributor also relates to our understanding of the gospel—the evangel. We think of God saving us from our personal sins, forgiving the things that make us guilty or shameful. I believe that too, but the gospel is a lot more than that. Sin is not just our bad stuff (actions) but also our bad nature which results in abusive relationships and corrupt leadership. Because of sin, human society is corrupt. Yes, there’s plenty of good in it, but there is always a sinful self-serving orientation in social, political and economic systems. Add to that, the spiritual and temporal powers at work in our world which spread their influence through philosophies, ideas, worldviews, etc., and you’ve got a recipe for pervasive injustice. So sin is not just personal, it is also corporate, societal.
Take capitalism—an economic system—as an example. Most evangelicals I know would call themselves capitalists. They fear the evils of communism and have deep concerns that socialism will lead to totalitarianism. I share some of those concerns. Yet, could any of us claim that capitalism is a “Christ-like” system and has managed to controvert the effects of sin? Just take a look at corporate greed, the mortgage lending crisis, price-gauging, sweatshop labor and on and on. We have to be honest. If the capitalist system is our preference, we can’t claim that it is more “Christian” than other systems. In fact, it is liable to exploitation and abuse as are other systems.
If we start going down that road, everything is up for grabs, right? Well, no. There may be good reasons to adhere to an economic system, a political platform or a governmental structure. But the better we understand the reality of sin and the reality of spiritual powers, the more careful we will be not to endorse one system or one way of thinking as “the Christian way.” Our presence in the systems of this world helps alleviate the effects of sin and spread the love and justice of God. That’s why Jesus said we are the salt of the earth.
A third contributor is our fear of being “tainted.” I feel pompous and arrogant just writing that word, yet I’ve heard it many times, plus I recognize remnants of it in myself, so I put it out there. We don’t want our evangelical faith to be associated with liberal theology which undermines the truth of the Bible. The liberals have a history of involvement in social and environmental issues whereas evangelicals have been historically committed to evangelism. Let’s face it, we’ve called them “tree-huggers” and “do-gooders” with a chuckle. But now, global warming is staring us in the face. So do we walk that back or do we hold to our position? What will it be?
Another example of tainting…we cannot embrace some of the positions on gender and sexuality endorsed by Black Lives Matter, for example. So we decline to get involved in issues of racial justice. Rather than take a nuanced stand forcefully upholding racial equity, we pull back. The world around us recognizes implicitly the need for justice and the reality of systemic racism, but Christians are skeptical, or perhaps waiting to find an expression that meets all their criteria for involvement.
Another example is the pro-life movement. Evangelicals have been a strong voice against abortion and have contributed to creative solutions for the crisis of unwed pregnancy through adoption and fostering. But guarding the sanctity of life is more than being pro-birth. Are we saying anything about the death culture that prevails in our cities due to drugs, gun violence and social disintegration? Have we been co-opted by the polarization that divides the issue along the lines of the second amendment? Is there not something that the body of Christ should be saying about the prevalence of violence and death in our nation?
There are many other contributors to our reluctance to engage in areas of justice. My point is this: If we do not raise our voice against blatant injustice in our land and the world we will discredit ourselves as witnesses of Jesus Christ for generations to come and inadvertently contribute to the decline of the church.
It’s ironic and tragic, because the Bible is full of God’s repugnance at injustice. The church becomes his model society, breaking down walls of separation to embrace people of every conceivable language and ethnicity. Jesus described his ministry in piercing terms quoted from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).
We will never find a perfect way to fight injustice in our world, but we must take a stand. Our voice must be heard and we must do the hard work to reform oppressive societal systems. I hope to find ways to engage more fully and I hope that many of my evangelical community will lead the way.
I have a nagging deep suspicion that I will also wonder about with you. I wonder if our reluctance to go toe to toe with injustice in our society might owe to self-protection. We are afraid that if others get a place of privilege, we will lose our advantage. We fear change because it would put our prosperity and personal security at risk.
If that’s true, it makes me shudder (literally) to think what Jesus would say in response. I don’t want any part of that self-preservation…at the same time, I recognize it’s in me and all over me. So let’s face the music folks. If we stand by and do nothing in the face of injustice we will face a just judge who will uncover our secret motivations and bring them to light. If we haven’t gotten rid of them by then, it will be too late.