***The fuller version of this blog post (initially posted on 05/07/2020), is now expanded and available as a separate and complete mini-e-book on Amazon here ***
Ok, so it happened again!
First, it was Ahmad Aubrey, and now it's George Floyd. So why do these acts keep happening? --acquitting the guilty, condemning the innocent, throwing justice out the window? Sadly, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg of many such 'newsworthy' events of racial discrimination and systemic oppression happening all over the world--now mainly in the news in America. 'Pandemic' could better describe the reality of racism in some parts of the world! Pandemic, remember, is an adjective, and though often used when describing diseases (like COVID-19), it could simply mean something widespread, prevalent, pervasive, or rife. Injustice could and should very well be treated as a pandemic that requires a global response, especially from Christians.
I am black. Though I have experienced subtle attitudes of racism towards me (living and serving in places other than my home country, Ghana), to be honest, lots of my 'white' friends are very 'nice' to me. Besides, I am married to one! And she's one of the most balanced Christians I know with respect to her understanding and heart toward issues of Justice and compassion. Growing up in Ghana, where foreigners are mostly welcome, I hardly experienced any racism. But I can't pretend it doesn't exist because it does - all over the world.
I am also aware that though I may be a visible minority living in Canada now, I may be speaking from a place of social privilege, precisely because the kinds of oppression that other blacks continue to experience on a daily basis have not yet been my experience. But that does not mean I should be quiet about it. When I speak, I speak not only for myself as a black, but for countless others who feel unsafe, oppressed, marginalized, and downtrodden. Injustice is wrong and unbiblical, no matter where, who or when. Hence, advocacy should not only be on the radar of people being oppressed but should concern everyone made in the image of God-- especially Christians. Most especially Pastors. My heart goes out to George and Ahmed's families and many others who continually live in fear and uncertainty because of blatant racism. It shouldn't be so for anyone, and it must stop! It hurts God's heart to see this continue, and it must hurt ours too!
Far more than speaking from my social or ethnic location, I want to talk from my Christian perspective. For me, that matters even more. I am not ashamed to say that I happen to be a Christian that takes his bible seriously, and Injustice seems to be a sharp antithesis to the faith I read about and profess. When Christians fail to bring a healthy integration of the Proclamation of the Gospel with the demonstration of the Gospel (in acts of Justice and Compassion) or ignore the command to Love God and love our neighbour too- we create a deadly duo of Idolatry and oppression. The two sins of compromise that are littered in the history of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. Sometimes I think of it metaphorically this way: The Cross Christians are commanded to carry daily has two wooden planks--the vertical (God-ward) and horizontal (other-ward'). It's the "love God" and "love your neighbour" command, yet many Christians are happy to carry a half cross that engages very little with others. Is it a surprise the crosses we purport to carry somehow seem robbed of their full potential/intrinsic power?
Yet, engagement with the oppressed or the marginalized is firmly embedded into our historical tradition as a Jesus movement. We only stay true to our Christian identity when we care about Injustice today and speak up about it! Right from the civil laws of our Jewish heritage to the early years of the Jesus movement, caring for the oppressed has been our steady preoccupation. Jesus was murdered by the oppressive political and religious government of his day, so He fully understands the plight of the oppressed today and longs to bring healing and restoration to those who are oppressed-- and to their oppressors as well (whoever they are)! He loves them both and offers to heal both.
However, not all Christians think this way or see it this way. Honestly, that was my story, too, until fairly recently. So, if you are a non-Christian who thinks Christians are some of the most unjust people you know, or if you are a Christian who believes seeking Justice is not a Christian's 'cup of tea,' I hope this helps bring some clarity. It's a product of my learning over the past five or so years!
The problem of Christians' lack of concern for Justice or compassion-related issues is not just theological (which I think it is) but a multi-layered one: ranging from personal, theological, cultural, denominational and other historical factors. These areas impacted my own understanding of Justice, and I am sure it does for many of you too. So I chose a list of 7 common reasons people, particularly Christians, usually tend to shy away from speaking up about Justice, issues-particularly racism and the like. I've categorized these as issues of culture (ethnic or denominational/Church), Semantics, Theology, Politics, missional praxis, fear and ignorance. I hope this helps you with some honest/sober self-awareness and reflection!
7 Reasons Why Some Christians Don't Seek Justice for the Oppressed
"I Never Grew up caring about Issues of Justice and race."
My early Christian upbringing in Ghana was mostly within the Pentecostal and Charismatic kind of Christian expression. Even though I am super proud of the foundations this has given me in my understanding of God, the Holy Spirit and His mission, it had some evident blind spots. For most Pentecostal/Charismatic minds, Spirit-filled ministry is often expressed in certain 'spiritual' activities like prayer, reading the bible, praying for the sick, preaching the Gospel and the like. Which is all fine and accurate. However, the list rarely includes Justice or engaging with people experiencing poverty on a social level. Justice and Compassion are often conspicuous in these contexts not for their prominence, but for their absence. These activities (Justice or Compassion) are often construed as unspiritual or perhaps even sociological at best. With few exceptions, congregations with such a Pentecostal and charismatic inner dynamics could often develop an ecclesiology that engages very little with its surrounding culture —especially concerning Justice and compassion. Over time, Churches have their thinking crystallize into traditions and customs of established ways of being and doing, which are then passed on to the next generation within that community. This forms a particular kind of ministry culture. Every Church has its own unique operational culture, even though we may preach from the same bible. But a tradition could either ensure that crucial elements of the biblical tradition --like actively seeking Justice for the oppressed -- are kept and honoured for the long term, or it could institutionalize unhealthy and oppressive ways of being and doing things. Unfortunately, by Christians being silent or passive about issues relating to racism and justice, most tend to promote subtle and sometimes blatant systems of Injustice or racism in their own ministry environments.
"What's the meaning of Justice?"
Another reason people aren't sure what to do is that some don't understand the meaning of the word Just or Justice. Somehow the word Justice has lost its full theological and doctrinal breadth and is now associated with some 'cute' social concern that must be left to the social enthusiasts or activists. At the very least, what we see on the news today should force us to revisit this word to appreciate its true biblical scope and the role the Church should be playing. Even though this word is closely linked with the rich nuance of biblical salvation, denominations tend to camp around one to two images of salvation, subordinating others. The word salvation or "to be made whole" in the New Testament has a beautiful tapestry of meanings which is not only "escape from hell" as many think it is. The goal of salvation is a status reversal which includes freedom from oppression (spiritual and physical), the transformation of social roles, and empowering ethnic minorities like women, amongst others. Most of our Christian definitions of Salvation have often been very individualistic, and eschatological (related to Heaven or hell), which often lacks the social and relational dynamics and implications of the word. We also haven't often been taught that seeking Justice also includes advocacy. And biblical advocacy requires speaking up on behalf of another who seems to have no 'voice.' As Christians who are Gospel or 'good news' proclaimers, part of our role is to proclaim or fight for the liberty and freedom of the oppressed (see Luke 4:14-22). Christians need to learn more about Justice from the bible. A book to read in starting your journey could be, "Generous Justice" by Timothy Keller. Though written by a white male (which for some people of colour seeking to read more from people of other cultures-- may seem a bit problematic), it is a really, really good starting point on the topic. But beyond reading about Justice, we will also need to act; for Justice, (Hebrew word 'mishpat'), as Tim Keller also points out in his book, emphasizes action while love/mercy--its close counterpart-- (Hebrew word 'chesedh') puts it on the attitude or motivation behind the action.
3. Theology 101:
Is God Really About Seeking Justice?
Related to the semantics question is a question of theology (the study of God). Few Christians will disagree that our Christian lives and mission should take their source and inspiration from God Himself. However, many Christians don't realize, however, that the God we serve is actually a Just God. I'm not sure why we think this way, but that's a huge misconception — it's so clear in scripture that God is Just and is about advocacy for the oppressed! The ultimate answer to Injustice lies within the heart motions and life-giving presence of the God by whom Christians are named. In several Old Testament passages, God warns Isreal not to overlook or withhold justice from the widow, orphan or the immigrant/stranger. Why does He? Well, Justice is the sceptre of God's Kingdom, so as instruments and foretastes of God's Kingdom on earth, we absolutely should be about seeking Justice —not just on a theological level, but also in practice! Acquitting the guilty, bearing false witness, and condemning the innocent are all against God's very nature of love and Justice. If our Christian lives and mission should be modelled after God's, then is it really? (See Deuteronomy 32:4, Micah 6:8, Zachariah 1:11-10, Psalm 146:7-9, James 1:27, Psalm 68:4-5, Isaiah 1:17, Luke 6:30, Leviticus 19:15,33-34, Deut 10:17-18, Proverbs 14:31, Proverbs 22:22, Psalms 146:7-9, Prov 13:23 & Galatians 2:10)
1 Corinthians 13:6, NLT: "It [Love] does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out."
4. Missional Praxis:
"Does our Christian Mission Include Seeking Justice For The Oppressed?
For most Christians, Compassion and Justice are not a part of our mandate/mission as a Church. Hence, speaking up about issues of racism or poverty means you are just a super lovely/nice/friendly Christian, and that's all. It's basically a nice add-on to have, but the main thing we are called to do is something entirely different— perhaps it's preaching, attending Church or listening to a great sermon. But sadly, that's not true! As Christopher Wright puts it, "If faith without works is dead, then "[Christian] mission without social compassion and Justice is biblically deficient."1The proclamation of the Gospel must be coupled with the demonstration of the Gospel. Jesus heals, and He does so towards bringing total human liberation in every area of our lives. Therefore, an integral or holistic mission describes an understanding of the Christian mission that embraces evangelism and social responsibility as both ends of the coin of salvation/mission.
5. Being Politically Correct:
"It's Safer to be Quiet on issues of racism and Justice."
It seems better for some Christians to protect themselves by being silent on this issue than to make others feel safe by speaking, even if it's as simple as a text to a friend they know has been hurt by race-related matters. So, for them to remain politically correct, it's better to be quiet or do nothing. For others, being silent about Justice-related issues is even a show of humility to be silent about Justice related issues. Unfortunately, silence is often here equated with meekness and humility. But concerning issues that touch on the values of the Kingdom and its message of reconciliation, silence will not cut it. Our assignment as Christians is to be about bearing the good news of peace, reconciliation and Justice. If silence were an option or a show of humility, then Paul and Jesus were very proud in many aspects of their ministry. For they spoke up about all kinds of controversial issues all the time— read Paul's epistles and see Jesus in the Gospels in his relationship with ethnic minorities like the Samaritan woman.
If Jesus thought it safer to be quiet about who God was and what He calls us to, He probably wouldn't have been crucified— and that would have had even more damning consequences (for who are we today without His selfless sacrifice)?
Ephesians 6 speaks of the Gospel of peace as the Christian's missionary shoes. The image of the movement conveyed by the shoes is significant. It means the Gospel of Peace we wear as shoes are active, not passive. Are we walking with our feet fitted with the Gospel of peace if we remain silent about issues that impact the full expression of Christ's Kingdom on earth?
Ephesians 2:14 says, "For he [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."
To establish peace, Paul says Jesus destroyed the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus broke down the walls that divided us, reconciling us to God…. None of these actions required for peace were passive— destroying and breaking barriers—they are active verbs. These were not acts of violence, but as we see by the action that effected these changes—Jesus on the cross—they were sacrificial acts of divine love. God's plan to integrate the whole creation in Christ is modelled in the ethnic reconciliation (of Jews and Gentiles) of God's new humanity. Reconciliation to God, then, is inseparable from reconciliation with one another. In issues relating to Justice, peace and reconciliation, then, silence or inaction is unbiblical because they allow trends to continue that work against the expression of God's Kingdom here and now as we wait for the fuller appearance when Christ returns. But for Christians, we can't forget that our ultimate trust and peace lie in a person, and His name is Jesus Christ!
"I Honestly Don't know what to say about such issues!'
This is closely related to the points about 'political correctness' but slightly different. Some honestly/genuinely don't know what to say regarding such sensitive issues as race. Many of us fear saying something that may upset others or be taken wrongly. I understand. I am an introvert (and Enneagram 5) who keeps lots of my thoughts to myself. The problem is, in seeking Justice, we cannot be silently pondering the theology of the issue in our rooms. I wish it could be so, but it's not that simple. Theological reflection alone won't cut it. We need to seek God to give us practical ways to enable our reflection to make a real difference in other people's lives. At least, I pray mine does too.
Suppose we genuinely want to "do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" as Micah 6:8 says. Then, we must take specific actions like Jesus did in Ephesians 2 to establish peace and reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. As I mentioned earlier, he actively destroyed the walls that existed. He didn't sit back, stunned by the Gentile/Jewish divide. Instead, he laid the foundation, the lifestyle and the example for us. The truth is that reconciliation, especially along racial or ethnic lines, is often a lot of hard work, and Christians like Desmond Tutu (during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid in South Africa) and the likes have shown us how costly and yet worthwhile this could be! But, if we step forward, God will give us wisdom and courage.
Is Injustice really that BAD?"
Some others genuinely don't understand the impact of Injustice in our world. It's everywhere, but somehow, they can't seem to see it. The dominant cultures often don't see it as much as the sub-cultures do. We must remember that. Many Christians are also somehow blind to injustices either because of theological tensions, or because they are beneficiaries of the unjust systems themselves —perhaps are accomplices in creating them (intentionally or unintentionally). Others simply don't care because it doesn't affect them directly, and to be honest; they are significantly benefiting from the Injustice, so why bother ruffling any feathers? I am sorry to say, but that's all selfish and unbiblical. Consistently, God's anger was kindled against the people of Israel precisely because they condoned unjust practices. Would He smile at us today if we did the same simply because of 'Grace'?
In one of my seminary leadership classes, I was surprised that, paradoxically, for some Christians, the source of their indifference towards issues of Justice and race is actually the biblical idea that "We are one in Christ." The assumption here is that since that's a biblical statement, it automatically translates into the actual everyday experience of all present in their community or congregation —without intentional teaching or modelling. Meaning, the biblical fact that "we are one" implies that nothing could disturb that unity's expression, practically speaking. It's similar to a married couple saying that because the bible says they are "one flesh," nothing could potentially disturb their harmony without deliberate actions on their part in protecting and maintaining their 'biblical' oneness. Like all our marriages, our oneness as a church, however, must be guarded and protected.
In his book, The Multicultural Leader, Dan Sheffield, suggests that creating a genuinely healthy multicultural church environment is a leadership task that requires lots of intentionality. The fact is that many congregations in urban areas could "look" very diverse, ethnically speaking, but not address the issues that are needed to develop a truly multicultural community — where everyone feels safe and accepted. This is because a multi-ethnic church could still be very overtly mono-cultural (in theology and practice) and unconsciously subjugate other cultures' voices. In this case, a multi-ethnic church is not equal to a healthy and flourishing multicultural Church- just as a nuclear family of 5 (or so) separate individuals (bonded by blood) could still be dysfunctional in relational dynamics and require healing and reconciliation.
This is likely why Paul admonishes us to "Make every effort to keep ourselves united in the Spirit, binding ourselves together with peace." (Ephesians 4:3, NLT). To Paul, then, the fact that Christ has 'made us one was not an excuse for inaction, but rather the exact opposite, the motivation for doing everything possible to maintain that oneness. To "make every effort" here means that the actual experience of unity in a community may require a purposeful journey towards that reality - a foretaste of Revelation 7:9-10. Each Local Church may have to prayerfully discern what that 'effort' may look like in their own local situation.
Whether it's a matter of culture, semantics, theology, missional praxis, politics, ignorance, indifference or fear, as Christians, we have to think carefully about how we can become Godly advocates for the many lives that are being treated as less human. Whether it's the poor, immigrants, the sick, blacks or racial minorities, everyone needs to have a voice. Sometimes, God influences others to speak up for those who don't and doing or saying nothing could be just as wrong, perpetuating the evil itself.
So, start where you are. Let us all make it a point to embody Justice as Christians everywhere we go—looking out for the racial minorities, being sensitive with our use of words about other cultures, embracing the immigrant and looking out for and helping those that are being oppressed.
In the end, it's Christ Jesus we look to, and it's in Him we put our trust. All we are as a church and ever will be flows from his redemptive bleeding side. So, whether we feel equipped or not, we trust in His spirit's enablement in empowering and enabling us to be the salt and light we are called to be now as we await the full appearance of His Kingdom. Until then, it's Occupy till He comes! And our song is Maranatha!