One of the most contentious debates in white evangelical churches regards the role of Christ’s people in advocacy for the poor and the marginalized, and witness-bearing against systematic injustice and oppression. Does the Church have a “spiritual mission,” prescribed narrowly as worship and evangelism? Or does her commission from Christ her King also encompass concerns of “social justice,” and racial justice in particular?
I will argue that the pursuit of racial justice, far from being a distraction to the Church’s mission, is actually mission-critical; and that it flows logically from what we believe about Jesus, what we believe about humanity, and what we believe about the Bible.
That the church can and must advocate for fair laws, equitable treatment of all divine image-bearers, and the dismantling of racist and abusive systems is not lost on the black church, which fueled the Civil Rights movement and continues to model faithful witness and activism. For many white evangelicals, concerns of racial justice and its intersection with Christian practice have taken on renewed urgency following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.
So, then: Christian, why must we pursue a broad ecclesial vision of racial justice in the name of Christ our King?
1) Because God loves justice
The laws of God are a gift to us because they tell us what God is like. He commands us not to lie because he is a God who delights in truth; he commands us not to steal because he relishes in giving us good gifts, supplying everything we need. So what are we to make of the laws of God as they pertain to treatment of the poor and the marginalized? How God exhorts his people (for example) to seek justice on behalf of immigrants and orphans (Deut. 24:17), or how he mandates that the needs of the poor be met from the resources of the community (Lev. 23:22)? God does not generate rules because he loves the paperwork, or because he wishes to make our lives as cumbersome as possible. Rather, his statutes reveal his heart, and thus provide us a way of being close to him: By caring about what he cares about and loving what he loves. Specifically, the laws of God show us that he delights in justice and is steadfast in his compassion for the disenfranchised. ¹
2) God commands us to love justice, too
Of course, we might also advocate for justice for the reason many of us learn in Sunday School: Because the Bible tells us so. Throughout the Bible, we see that advocacy for justice in a social context provides us the rules of the road, the code of behavior for our life as citizens in Christ’s Kingdom. “Learn to do good,” God instructs us through his prophet Isaiah. “Seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). In Proverbs, we are called upon to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). While white evangelicals may sometimes pick and choose pet sins and moral crusades based on political affiliation or cultural preference, substituting their priorities for God’s, the Old Testament prophets offer a clear and consistent witness that God’s wrath has been kindled by his people’s failure to act justly toward the oppressed. Amos 5:11-15 finds God rebuking his people in devastating terms, beginning with the phrase “because you trample on the poor” and ending with an admonishment to “establish justice.” Christ himself instructed those who’d follow him to foreground the interests of the marginalized (Matthew 25:31-46, among others). Given the acute perils faced by African-Americans, including violence-based policing, we can surely list them among those for whom Jesus advocates special concern.
3) Justice is essential for worship
We do not have to choose between a robust vision of corporate worship and a robust advocacy for justice; in fact, this false dichotomy is unmoored from the witness of the Bible, which teaches us that the work of justice is the only context in which godly worship can happen. In Amos 5:21-24, God’s people come to him in song, prayer, and sacrifice; but because they have neglected the poor in their midst, God rejects their worship completely! Our King offers no quarter for sanctuaries full of piety when we’re neglectful in cultivating the surrounding streets and neighborhoods. Such is not the pure, undefiled religion of James 1:27, but rather it is pointless vanity. Justice doesn’t take us away from worship; instead, it makes our worship pleasing and acceptable to God.
4) Justice flows from our anger, lament, and repentance
There is only one Christian response to the murder of George Floyd, the continuation of unchecked police brutality, and the other issues being litigated by the Black Lives Matter movement: A combination of holy indignation and lament as we see what’s become of our Father’s good and beautiful world, and as we consider the descrecration of those children he has made in his image. This might lead us to a posture of repentance ² for our own complicity in what’s happened to God’s very good world, and toward the ways in which we have allowed the idols of white supremacy to proliferate in our lives and our churches. The work of justice provides a channel for all of this, a place for us to direct our anger, our lament, and our repentance as we show that we are serious about mortifying sin. In recognition of the evil and inequity in our culture and in our own hearts, the pursuit of justice is how we “go and sin no more.”
5) Christians are pro-life
Tim Keller has noted that the early church was perceived as radically counter-cultural for five different reasons: It was radically multi-ethnic; it was radically anti-abortion and anti-infanticide; it was radical in its commitment to monogamous, consensual sexual ethics; it was radical in its advocacy for the poor among us; and it was radical in its commitment to non-retaliation. These are not five unrelated values, but rather reflect a consistent worldview that seeks at every turn to honor divine image bearers, make human flourishing the guiding principle, and reflect the love of our Father at every stage of life, including our treatment of the unborn, our treatment of those who sin against us, and our treatment of those of a different gender or a different race. You cannot say that your anti-abortion position alone qualifies you as pro-life, any more than your stance against racism qualifies you as an advocate for justice; Christians must consistently esteem human life from the womb to the tomb, and advocate for the dignity of image-bearers through protections of the unborn, through access to equitable healthcare, through a rebuke of punitive or retaliatory criminal justice systems, and through clear witness against state-sanctioned violence and abuse.
6) We believe in the Imago Dei
Can we make a distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy; between having a correct theology and behaving righteously in our worldly interactions? No, we cannot, for a right theology about humans being made in God’s image (the Imago Dei ³) and being precious in his sight is precisely what compels us into advocacy on behalf of the oppressed. Our pursuit of racial justice is what tells the unbelieving world where Christians stand with regard to the inherent beauty and dignity of our neighbors, and about the loveliness bestowed on us by our Creator. It is an expression of our most central doctrinal beliefs. Those who would take a stance against ‘social justice’ are not acting from a place of heightened theological awareness or purity, but rather they are operating from a theological deficiency: They either do not believe rightly about the Imago Dei, or they do not believe it at all.
7) We believe in corporate sin
American culture’s elevation of individualism has discipled many of us into thinking that sin is strictly a personal matter; that we are responsible for our own breaches of God’s holiness, but not the breaches of our neighbors. The Bible paints a very different picture, reminding us throughout its pages that we can be complicit and culpable in national, generational, or corporate sins, and that we can incur God’s judgment for the wrongdoing of those who have gone before us. (Consider such passages as Leviticus 26:39, Psalm 106:6, Jeremiah 14:20, and the entireties of both Ezekiel and Nehemiah, prophetic narratives that center on ancestral sin.) Likewise, Christians affirm that sin has impacted all aspects of our life and our world, not just our personal actions but also our civic institutions, our bodies, and the environment itself; there is nothing that is untainted by death and decay. Thus, white evangelicals who deny their personal culpability in racial injustice are making an argument that the Bible doesn’t allow for, and those who deny the reality of systematic or institutionalized sin betray a very soft view of sin in general. The Bible holds us responsible for repenting of the sins of our fathers, our churches, and our nation (surely an abusive criminal justice system qualifies), and true repentance means much more than saying sorry: It means fleeing from sin, seeking restitution, and killing whatever lingering traces of evil we find in our shared life together. Perhaps this is a helpful way to think about racial justice: Fundamentally, it is an act of repentance. A serious view of sin requires it.
8) Our witness depends on justice
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, our world has become engulfed in protests, riots, anger, fear, and division; as if the rocks and trees cry out for justice, and the world itself groans for some sense of hope. The story of Christianity provides these things! As deputized emissaries of King Jesus, and as faithful ambassadors of his Kingdom’s values, we are duty bound to bear witness: Jesus has won the victory over sin and death (including white supremacy); he sits on the throne even now, where he sees and cares about all the atrocities currently unfolding; he was the first to weep for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; he will return in glory to set all things right, and to restore perfect justice and peace to the beautiful ruin of his creation. How can we bear witness to any of this if we are aloof or uncaring about racial inequity, an abusive police system, or institutionalized oppression? We risk our unbelieving neighbors assuming that we are “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good,” but our Father rejects such false religion outright. Credible Christian witness requires that we hold ourselves to a higher standard of just living, gospel neighboring, and holy rebuke of institutional or systemic sins.
9) Justice is necessary for unity
One of the most pernicious excuses made to avoid the pursuit of racial justice is that doing so can be divisive. Actually, what’s divisive is racism! The Bible likens Christ’s people to a body. Of course, if your right arm was sore or bleeding, you wouldn’t simply ignore it. The injured appendage demands attention, and the health of the entire body depends on it. In the same way, when our black brothers and sisters come to us in fear, trauma, and heartbreak, we must not ignore their witness; doing so imperils the whole of Christ’s body. True Christian unity depends on us refusing the false peace that we achieve when we accommodate, minimize, or excuse white supremacy; real peace means showing our co-laborers in the kingdom of God that we take their plight seriously, share in their grief, and work with them toward justice and restoration. (The And Campaign’s Justin Giboney is helpful here. Addressing the protests that arose following George Floyd’s death, Giboney tweeted: “The problem isn’t that the protesters disrupted the peace. The ‘peace’ was fraudulent, it never really existed. The problem is that too many Americans are at peace with racialized violence. They’re comfortable with injustice, especially when it helps maintain their advantages.”)
10) We have the story of Jesus
Christians are uniquely well-positioned to offer hope to the oppressed, precisely because we serve a God who has entered into the world of human suffering. God became man so that he might endure oppression, torture, affliction, and brutality on our behalf. White evangelicals can never truly understand the trauma or fear faced by our black brothers and sisters, but our God can; for indeed, our Lord was lynched, he was oppressed, and he was killed in an act of state-sanctioned violence. There is no other God who has entered into human suffering in this way. We worship a deity in whose life we can find uncanny parallels to the black American experience, and who stands ever with the disinherited and the oppressed. As Christians seek faithful engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement and the issues it calls to light, we can look to the story of Jesus for all the resources we need for offering meaningful lamentation and hope. We can say in confidence: “Jesus understands. And Jesus stands with you.” (Indeed, equipped as we are with the light of Christ’s story, we should be leading the movement, not bringing up the rear.)
11) Justice is a picture of the Gospel
The Bible is full of pictures and stories. For example, the Bible is full of liberation stories; the Exodus of the Hebrew people is a picture of the true and final freedom that Christ has won for us in delivering us from sin and the Devil. In a similar way, Christian marriage is a picture of the Gospel; as two completely different/alien people enter into union with one another, we are reminded of how Jesus entered into union with sinners. So, too, is the work of justice a picture of the Gospel, illustrating how Jesus came ultimately as a reconciler. As the liturgy reminds us: “Because we have peace with God, we can and we must have peace with one another.” The reconciling work of Christ makes the pursuit of justice and peacemaking possible, and also calls us into action mirroring the work of our Savior, providing the world with another picture of gospel love.
12) Justice is coming!
It is sometimes suggested that the pursuit of racial peace is a fool’s errand, for true peace won’t come until the return of Christ. The fact that Christ will bring perfect peace is actually a compelling reason for us to seek justice now, and to do so in confidence. As Christians, we know that Jesus is making all things right, restoring order and holiness to our world, reversing the curse of sin. In the language of the Jesus Storybook Bible, he is “making all the bad things come untrue.” God in his kindness has invited us to participate in this work: We know that perfect justice and peace have been won by the Cross of Christ, and though it may be difficult to see it, we know that he’s making all things well even now. As his faithful disciples, we can stand on the sidelines and watch his redemptive purposes unfold… or we can join him in inaugurating the values of his kingdom, as codified in Revelation 7:9.
1 A critical implication of the Cross of Christ is that God does not believe in sweeping sin under the rug, or in agreeing to simply forgive, forget, and move on. A Christian view of justice involves more than just the forgiveness of sins; it also encompasses reparation, making things right. So, we see that simply saying we’re very sorry about past injustice is not enough; it does not rise to God’s standard of holiness. Restitution is imperative. A sound doctrine of the atonement teaches us as much. (See: Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion.)
2 It is often said that, if we don’t kill the sin in our lives, our sin will surely kill us. How strange it is to consider the excuses and deflections that white evangelicals (including me) make when confronted with the sins of internalized white supremacy: A spirit of pride causes us to temporarily forget that we believe in original sin and total depravity, and to come up with a million reasons why racism either doesn’t exist or isn’t our fault. The spirit of repentance does not make excuses, or seek to minimize the weight of sin; may we know this repentance in our own hearts. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.
3 The Imago Dei is what allows us to recognize that the phrase “Black lives matter” is a biblical truth, and that Christians needn’t be afraid in adopting it as a mantra. In doing so, we are not taking cues from secularism or progressivism, but merely advocating for a view of mankind that is biblical through-and-through. If anything, we could critique BLM for not going far enough; black life doesn’t just “matter,” but is beautiful, sacred, and inherently worthy.