Clergy and faith leaders march to counter protest the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. RNS photo by Jordy Yager
An old question has recently found new energy among Christians.
“What does the gospel have to do with justice, particularly social justice?”
Justice has been a frequent topic these days — in the face of a stream of cellphone videos capturing instances of police brutality, conflict over the presence and future of Confederate monuments and racially charged responses to the nation’s changing demographics.
Christians, both as people of faith and citizens of this country, have pondered what to do in this current social climate. They have called for Christians to join or start movements for change as an explicit expression of discipleship and obedience to the prayer that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).
And they have called for the church to make amends for the racial divisions of the past and present.
Others take a different view.
Where some see calls for biblical justice, they see heresy.
This week a group of Christians published “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” a response to what they call “questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church.”
The statement comes just after a short blog series posted by well-known Christian preacher and teacher John MacArthur, warning of the dangers of social justice.
MacArthur calls social justice a distraction from the gospel.
“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results,” he wrote.
MacArthur is one of the initial signatories of The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, which echoes his blog posts.
While Christians from many traditions, races and ethnicities have displayed a concern for social justice, it is a topic that particularly concerns black and brown folks. We have endured a long history of race-based discrimination that did not simply disappear after the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the election of the nation’s first black president.
The Rev. Pamela Lightsey, center, leads advocates from the Black Lives Matter movement as they disrupt proceedings of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. The demonstrators marched into the plenary session chanting slogans and gathered around the central Communion table. Photo by Maile Bradfield, courtesy of UMNS
Statements that dismiss social justice send a message that the ongoing marginalization many minorities still experience and struggle against is of no concern to their fellow Christians.
Or to God.
Or to the Bible — despite ample scriptural evidence that demonstrates God’s concern for the poor and the powerless and anger toward those who create oppressive conditions (Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8, Psalm 103:6, Isaiah 10:1, Luke 1:52-53, Luke 4:18).
Although much about this statement needs discussion, I will highlight one section in particular.
It reads: “We affirm that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions.”
The best word to describe the assertion above is “ethnocentric.”
Who gets to decide which cultures and which assumptions are closer to biblical truth? For most of American history, white Christians have claimed that privilege. That privilege is now being challenged.
I’m tempted to refute the recent statement on the gospel and social justice point-by-point — showing how it falls short of the Bible’s call for justice. But I think our time would be better spent on other pursuits. There’s too much work to be done — work that will be delayed by endless debates.
Here’s my advice.
Many of the people who authored and signed this statement have large ministries and platforms.
Find other authors, preachers and teachers from whom you can learn. People like Austin Channing Brown or the podcasters and bloggers at Truth’s Table or The Witness, where I am a contributor. Or read Howard Thurman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bryan Stevenson, James Baldwin or the other writers who have explored issues of justice.
If the supporters of statements that dismiss social justice as a distraction from the gospel headline a major conference, state your concerns to the organizers. If nothing changes, then don’t go.
If they do an interview on a podcast, find another episode to listen to. If they write more blogs to state their case, share other ones instead.
Statements like these are a distraction. They siphon off energy and attention that could be used to create new organizations and initiatives that help bring about justice and equality.
Instead of writing a rebuttal to the statement on social justice, why not write a proposal for a new scholarship to help underrepresented groups go to college and stay out of debt? Why not donate money to support ministries run by and geared toward racial and ethnic minorities? Why not research a cause and find out how you can get involved?
Refusing to give more attention to the people who oppose social justice is not a statement on their standing with God. This does not mean they are not sincerely attempting to follow Christ. It does not mean that they have not said helpful things on other topics in the past.
It simply means that in this case, they have made statements so troublesome that we must register our objections in visible ways.
Christians should never give up hope that people can change. Yet going back and forth, especially online, about social justice with those who see it as a dangerous intrusion into the church often does not alter anyone’s opinions and may lead to more frustration.
In the end, I think more people will be persuaded to change their minds about social justice by looking at the fruit of the people who engage in it rather than by arguing on social media about the validity of doing so.
Half a century after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it’s easy for people to claim that they would have been among the protesters and marchers and those who risked it all for the cause of justice. Well, the struggle for civil rights never ended. Now is your chance to get involved for love of God and love of neighbor.
A friend recently asked me, “Is Reformed theology for black people?” As president of the Reformed African American Network, I have frequently pondered this question, and it’s one that eludes an easy answer.
Reformed theology is part of the flood of teachings that tumbled forth from the Protestant Reformation. While all Protestant Christians trace their ecclesiastical lineage to the Reformation, Reformed theology represents a distinct branch of the church. Theologians and churchmen such as John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and Jonathan Edwards advanced the tradition, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God and a precise, scholarly brand of theology.
One issue black people have with Reformed theology is its Eurocentric roots. Reformed theology came to America by way of European countries, including France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands. White, educated men crafted the teachings, wrote the books and led the churches. They did not have black people in mind.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Reformed theology for black Christians is the fact that many Reformed believers condoned slavery or were even slaveholders themselves. All of their focus on meticulous exposition of the Bible didn’t lead them to conclude that people should not be property. Moving forward to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Reformed Christians, like many conservative white evangelicals, were either silent about the struggle for black civil rights or they outright opposed it.
Given the history of slavery and racism practiced by white Reformed Christians, black people are an unlikely group to identify as Reformed.
But that doesn’t mean it didn’t resonate.
The rise of Christian hip-hop has played a role in a recent surge of interest in Reformed theology among African-Americans. With groups like Cross Movement paving the way in the 1990s, another wave of lyrical theology emerged in the 2000s. One of the most influential groups of this period was the label Reach Records, which featured artists such as Sho Baraka, Trip Lee and Tedashii. Along with other Christian rappers including Shai Linne, Flame and Voice, these artists were black, urban and unashamed of their faith.
Contemporary Reformed thinkers such as John Piper, R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur influenced these Christian rappers. Quotes and sound bites even showed up in the songs. The music and the culture these artists embodied introduced many young black Christians to Reformed theology — without necessarily labeling it Reformed theology.
Other factors, too, have aided in the rise of self-professed Reformed black Christians. Greater access to seminaries that teach Reformed theology as well as church planting efforts in predominantly black, urban neighborhoods have broadened pathways into the tradition.
In the past few years, though, many black Christians have reconsidered the Reformed label. In many ways, the 2014 killing of Mike Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., served as a turning point. Younger black Christians became more vocal about systemic injustices such as mass incarceration and police brutality. They explored how their faith spoke to the persistent issues of inequality that harm black people.
These were themes that many white Reformed pastors and theologians seldom addressed. When they did talk about justice, it was most often focused on individuals, and not the collective, systemic nature and impact of racism over generations.
On top of that, the 2016 presidential election saw 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted throw their support toward the Republican candidate. While conservative white Christians usually vote Republican, black Christians expected Donald Trump’s racial rhetoric and support from white nationalists and white supremacist groups to at least dampen white evangelical enthusiasm for him. Instead, white evangelicals actually showed slightly stronger support for Trump in 2016 than for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.
Black Christians realized anew how big the rift was between their core concerns and those of their white Reformed co-religionists.
Five hundred years after Martin Luther challenged Catholic clergy on key church teachings, the Reformation continues. This time the transformation needs to emphasize not only orthodoxy (“right belief”) but orthopraxy (“right action”) as well. Reformed theology prides itself on intellectual explorations of the faith. In the 21st century, though, it must also embrace an ethical approach to the Bible, especially regarding race and public justice.
As an African-American, I am learning to draw more intentionally on the expansive black church tradition to address these modern times.
The black church has always highlighted the demands of the Bible when it comes to public action. The Rev. Charles H. Pearce, who helped establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Florida in the 19th century, put it this way: “A man in this state cannot do his whole duty as a minister except if he but looks out for the political interests of his people.”
Religious beliefs motivated black women and men to pursue racial justice even at the risk of their lives. Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, John Perkins and a multitude of black Christians whose names will never appear in a history book saw the inseparable connection between Christian faith and righteous practice.
The modern-day Reformation must also bring to the forefront those groups that have been historically muted or silenced because of prejudice.
Black and brown people, among whom Christianity is growing exponentially in the majority of the world, must articulate the doctrines in a way that makes them relevant to present-day. Women, as half the population and equal as God’s image-bearers, must have a vocal and visible role in this movement. White Christians must follow and learn from those whom society has often marginalized. Today’s Reformation must be an inclusive one that makes room for both women and men, all economic classes and every tribe and tongue of those who believe.
Christianity is a worldwide religion that includes a diverse array of people. The challenge of the Reformation in America today is to reflect that heterogeneity while maintaining unity in the midst of it.