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From Jesus Walks to Jesus Is King: A Journey with Kanye

When Kanye West released his groundbreaking, debut album, College Dropout in 2004, I was a full-time campus missionary at Howard University. Kanye diverged sharply from the carefully cultivated, street-cred based identities that were the crucial currency for aspiring mainstream hip-hop artists at the time. I mean, you could take your pick between being “In the Club” like 50 Cent, or be a little more aggressive like Terra Squad, but in 2004 conventional wisdom said you had to “be about that life.” In the midst of that, Kanye embraced his unique path. He even titled his album based on the middle-class sensibility of his college educated mother’s disappointment with his choice to drop out of college. His hit song from that album … JESUS WALKS.

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With it’s haunting chorus, and staccato delivery, JESUS WALKS was undeniably catchy and brilliantly conceived. But in a genre that was decidedly hedonistic and (until that time) explicitly critical of much involving Christianity and the church, JESUS WALKS was also a shock to the hip-hop system. Could a song about Jesus really experience success in mainstream hip-hop?

JESUS WALKS also sparked a controversy among Christians, some of whom saw Jesus being talked about in a positive way in hip-hop as a major milestone. A pastor in Maryland even paid Kanye to perform it to his youth group. Many others, like myself, were not so celebratory. We saw the contradictions in the song, and in the artist as something not to be endorsed, but critiqued. In the video, Jesus was following Kanye, and was being invoked as a sort of good luck charm. Kanye’s Jesus seemed to be no more than an anthropomorphic “Jesus piece” that rappers wore as a show of their lavish lifestyle, and that were ubiquitous in hip-hop at the time; usually iced out and surrounded by strippers and carnal vices.

So as Kanye was pushing College Dropout and JESUS WALKS, I found both, undeniably excellent pieces of art, yet considered them the antithesis of my life’s mission at the time: helping college students graduate, lead their communities and walk with Jesus instead of thinking that it was sufficient for him to walk with them. Jesus wasn’t there to simply co-sign or “bless” their choices but to change them.

Singer Kanye West takes the microphone from singer Taylor Swift as she accepts the “Best Female Video” award during the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

In the years that followed, Kanye seemed to continue to be the embodiment of what I loved about hip-hop and also what I was working against. Whether it was the depiction of women as “Gold Diggers” that I bristled against, or his boorish behavior when he stole Taylor Swift’s VMA moment, or declaring himself YEEZUS or peddling false notions about why Black people didn’t support Donald Trump, philosophizing that slavery was a choice, or any number of other antics that were at cross-purposes with truth, righteousness or justice as I saw them. And yet, at the same time, who could deny the raw talent, the driving work ethic and the commitment to authenticity that has also marked his life? What do I do with this guy?

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By 2011, I had transitioned to being what I called a “musicianary” (music missionary) and specifically leading a band called Level 3:16 with the goal of cultivating a spiritual renaissance through building a community of artists of faith in the hip hop space to transform the culture from the inside out. With the support of Christian rap legends from a group known as the Cross Movement, we put out an album and were touring on street corners, youth detention centers and church youth groups. That’s also when Ye’ collaborated with Jay-Z to release the iconic No Church In the Wild. The hook said “what’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?”. At this point, my vision was to literally be the “church in the wild” so while I found this track incredibly creative, it was also maddeningly antagonistic. It was frustrating for me to know the work of Christians who, while living as the “church in the wild” were being ignored. Artists like Lecrae, who released a free mixed tape, Church Clothes, on a secular hip-hop site and set records when it was downloaded over 100,000 times in 48 hours. We were examples of what “No Church In the Wild” implied didn’t exist. I felt the faith my colleagues and I were living out as hip-hop heads was disregarded on Kanye’s altar of self-aggrandizement. Once again, Kanye’s brilliant, yet provocative music seemed to be at cross purposes with my calling.

Kanye West is incredibly prolific as one of the top selling hip-hop artists of all time, including an impressive eight #1 charting albums. So his influence can’t be ignored. Yet he is notoriously mercurial and impulsive. So when I heard about Sunday Services, and Holy Spirit shirts, I thought it was curious but I remained skeptical, dismissing it as most likely “Kanye being Kanye.” Then I began to hear rumblings of a radical conversion, but still … it’s KANYE … I thought. And finally after delay after delay after delay … I began to wonder would this alleged “Christian hip-hop” turn ever actually materialize. Then JESUS IS KING was released yesterday.

I have listened to the album five times both as a hip-hop fan and as a Christian interested in “testing the spirits” (1 John 4:1) and trying to make sense of this moment. While listening, I experienced bewilderment from the beginning with “Every Hour’s” sped up, ’90’s inspired gospel choir intro, and from “Closed on Sunday” that is centered on an extended metaphor of Chick-Fil-A’s practice of observing the Sabbath. “Interesting, but not particularly meaningful,” I thought. But there were also moments that were absolutely moving, especially “Water, “Selah” and “God Is.” In “God Is,” Kanye sings passionately about God in what can be described as a worshipful declaration. As a person who didn’t grow up in church and experienced a profoundly life-altering encounter with Jesus Christ, I could relate strongly with Kanye’s depiction of his newly found devotion to Jesus. This project features what I call, ‘micro-songs,’ some less than two minutes long. As usual, Kanye pushes conventional wisdom aside in his art. He doesn’t follow the typical structure of verses, and hooks, opting instead for a stream-of-conscience type experience that vacillates between gospel, “neo-neo-soul,” and hip-hop with a random Kenny G sax solo. It feels more like one of my journal entries, than my finished, edited blog posts (so in honor of that bold choice, I offer this entry).

The creative genius that we have come from to expect from Kanye is present in a raw form. It’s not an album to dance to, but one to think to. To experience a rare glimpse into a man’s step into a new spiritual phase. In that spirit, “God Is,” becomes particularly meaningful because it gives the most personal account of what has happened to him in his words:

“I know God is alive, yeah/He has opened up my vision/Giving Me a revelation/This ain’t ’bout a damn religion. Jesus brought a revolution.”

The track, “Hands On,” which surprisingly featured urban, contemporary gospel legend, Fred Hammond, is the one that I reflect on the most. In it, Ye answers the question “What have you been hearing from the Christians?” with “They’ll be the first ones to judge me, make it feel that nobody love me.”

I began to think about my responses to Kanye from Jesus Walks to Jesus is King and felt guilty. In this phase of my life, I now serve as a pastor in New York City in a church of hip-hop raised millennials. I am trying to live in a way that consistently reflects Jesus Is King and encourage others to do the same. I have become more aware over the years that people are on a journey that is often filled with highs and lows, moving closer and further and closer again to God.

It’s wise to be cautiously optimistic in this turn of events. Will this stick? Will it be a “phase” that morphs like Kanye has from Yandhi to Ye? People wondered the same thing when I began my faith journey. Only time will tell, but one thing that “Hands On” reminds me, is that I can pray for Kanye, and recognize that judging from his words, there’s been a real transformation. And even as my journey has taken me from trying to get Jesus to walk with me, to recognizing him as my King, I can give space for others to as well. Maybe, Kanye and I are finally in alignment in artistry and mission. And maybe the journey was necessary to get us both there. The mystical sovereignty of how God works all things together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28) is the ultimate demonstration that JESUS IS KING.

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In Response to the Dangers of “Social Justice”

King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail Still Resonates

A RESPONSE TO:

the “Dangers of Social Justice” Panel

by James Roberson and Rasool Berry

Over the last several centuries, evangelicalism has contributed in significant ways to the global church and in particular to American Christianity. We have personally been shaped and formed by its emphasis on the person and work of Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, and its robust outward orientation of evangelism. These distinctives of evangelicalism have shaped our ministry. And yet, like any movement, evangelicalism has its own blind spots. One in particular has been its response to issues of social injustice. Tragically, evangelicalism has tended to prioritize a paranoid preoccupation with the “dangers” of addressing social justice more than it has prioritized the importance of the church speaking out and acting to address social injustice. As Black men who have experienced the legacy of social injustice and who hold to the distinctives of evangelicalism, we believe the church must honor the whole counsel of God by recognizing the rightful calling of the church to advocate for social justice alongside its other divine callings of prophetically preaching against personal immorality, the need for salvation in Jesus Christ, and the authority of God in every area of life: both public and private. In these times, there is a growing reactionary movement meant to dissuade the church’s work against such injustice. In the face of such challenges, being faithful to evangelicalism also means pushing back against thinly veiled scare tactics meant to falsely align the biblical concern of social justice with unbiblical beliefs and movements meant to destabilize a Christian worldview.

My (James) great-grandfather started the NAACP in Moss Point, Mississippi in response to the lynchings and violence against Black people that became routine. He was a deacon in his church as well. He embraced the biblical truth that God, in his character, is immediately concerned with righteousness and justice:

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. Psalm 89:14

He, like many African American men of God, led the cause of Civil Rights to assert the biblical principle that they were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) even when most of their evangelical white brothers and sisters rejected that truth. In this sense, his efforts were as much about calling the American church to doctrinal purity as it was to social justice. The two are connected.

In the 1940’s, my grandfather, James Roberson Sr., made history by becoming the first African American to work as a manager at a paper mill (which was the town’s major employer). But, in one of the most “Christian” states in the nation, he still had to go to a separate bathroom because of segregation. He served in his local church and fought injustice because he, too, saw those things as inter-connected.

My father was the first African American allowed to walk publically across the stage to receive his Masters degree at Millsaps College. After his conversion, he went on to seminary and became a preacher. He taught me to be aware of the realities of racism in this nation and had the “talk” that every Black father has with his sons about how to interact with law enforcement in a way that will keep you alive. Having grown up in a comfortable middle-class suburb, I thought his warnings were overstated until I found myself at a college party with an officer’s gun about to be drawn because I tried to talk to the officer like I had seen my white peers do in similar situations.

I was the first man in my family to grow up with the opportunity to go to any school or college I wanted to. That was made possible because of this multi-generational fight for social justice – a fight tragically the evangelical church largely was absent from.

The point in bringing up my own story is that too often these discussions on the “dangers of social justice” exist in abstraction and removed from the historical realities of the past. The history, chronicled in The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby, reveals the sad fact that the evangelical church has too often been complicit in furthering social injustice rather than advocating for social justice, and that history has consequences we are still living out today.

Unfortunately, the evangelical church has tended to be more concerned about the alleged ‘dangers of social justice’ than it has been about the dangers of social injustice and its silence toward it. It is no overstatement to announce that the primary obstacle in our work of evangelism in our area of New York City is evangelicalism’s failure to address social justice issues and its historic complicity in social injustice. The apologetics we must engage to win the unchurched in our urban context focuses on refuting the popular notion that Christianity is simply the tool that white people used to enslave those of African descent and keep them docile. We have to clarify that the false, but pernicious arguments Christians made to justify slavery and segregation – like the mythological “Curse of Ham” – were not accurate biblical teaching. And in a time in which there is more awareness and concern for oppression, we must counter the claim that the Bible is indifferent to the plight of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.

Ours is also the context of many we serve with. Any poll of younger people will show that there is great concern about injustice in our world and great uncertainty about if the Bible has a word about it. The reality is that the dangers of evangelical silence and apathy about social injustice is much greater than any dangers of emphasizing social justice. And yet this argument persists because of some compelling reasons:

1. The primary historical reason for this concern is rooted in the “Fundamentalist – Modernist” Controversy of the early 20th century. This controversy came as a result of the erroneous “higher criticism” approach to Scripture that denied the accuracy and authority of the Bible, the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the necessity of salvation through Christ alone. In addition to these tensions, the Modernists embraced the “Social Gospel,” which posited that social justice was a sort of collective salvation that could be experienced. With the absence of the theological distinctives of historical orthodoxy, social concern was really all that was left. Fundamentalists rightfully contested these innovations, and yet in doing so, rejected the historical concern the church had toward social injustice and the accurate critiques the Modernists leveled. One of the accurate critiques was that evangelicals tended to support the status quo rather than address social injustice. Another was that the God of the Bible cared about social injustice and that the church, as the signpost and beachhead of the kingdom of God, ought to advocate for social justice. An accurate response would have held to the truth of Scripture while recognizing the Scripture’s advocacy of social justice. As Jesus told the Pharisees:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Matthew 23:23-24a (emphases added)

  1. Another major reason for the warnings about the “dangers of social justice”stem from the concern that the worldviews of many secular advocates of social justice will infect the church. They see concern about racism, sexism, and poverty in the church as a virus that will also infect the church with postmodernism, Marxism, “liberal doctrine,” and will eventually undermine a biblical vision of sexuality, gender, and humanity. Ultimately “social justice” becomes a Trojan Horse that, to them, sneaks in false ideologies that compromise the church from within. This concern is inconsistent because it doesn’t warn parishioners against voting or participating in our democracy, though many of those who designed our democratic republic (such as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin) were deists who denied the possibility of miracles. They don’t warn against embracing advances in medicine or pursuing science as a profession, though many biologists hold to Darwinian evolution. There are many dangers that exist because the church is in the world. Are we to reject ideas that affirm biblical truth because we don’t agree with the worldviews of those who hold them? If so we’d need to reject a lot more than social justice.
  2. The church can chew gum and walk at the same time. We can preach the urgency of embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ by faith alone while we also address the tragedy that life outcomes today in our nation are based more on the numbers of young people’s zip codes than the numbers of how they perform on tests. We can lift up the revelation of God’s Word even as we address the fact that we have a broken criminal justice system that tends to work for the wealthy and guilty more than the poor and innocent. We can promote the holiness of God even as we promote the mercy of God to those who suffer from a host of issues today – from human trafficking, to sexual assault and discrimination. We can expose and confront the dangers of social injustice without falling victim to the dangers of social justice. We can. And if we are to truly be evangelical and biblical about it, the Word tells us we must.

There is a tragic irony that a panel on the “Dangers of Social Justice” takes place in Birmingham, Alabama. In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested while advocating for social justice. He took time to respond to white clergy who had been critical of his efforts from a jail cell in Birmingham. He wrote:

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists….

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Those same sentiments could be written in 2019. We also see the church as the body of Christ, and also meet young people whose disappointment has turned to disgust. That “sacrificial spirit” must be recaptured for us to demonstrate the full power of the gospel to change individuals and communities or there will just be more disgust.

Just a few months after Dr. King wrote his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Christians in the city became the center of international attention once more. On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The blast killed Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11). It was plotted by four white Ku Klux Klansmen who were also churchgoers. Birmingham became the turning point of the Civil Rights Movement and these precious girls became martyrs. But something else happened when people saw the horror of that injustice and the silence or capitulation of the white evangelical church. They ceased believing the church had a word about such injustice.

Imagine the impact of the witness if the white church in Birmingham had – without reservation – stood with the Black church as it fought for its rights? Imagine the outcome if, instead of only being concerned about the unbiblical beliefs of people who were committed to the biblical cause of social justice, there was more concern about the dangers of social injustice toward the oppressed, and those in power who carry out oppression. To avoid repeating the sins of the past we must acknowledge them, collectively turn away from them, and turn toward a more excellent way. A way that seeks to chew gum and walk at the same time. As Micah 6:8 writes:

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?

AFFIRMED BY:

James Roberson | Bridge Church
Dean Fulks | Lifepoint Church
John Onwuchekwa | Cornerstone Church Bruce Moore | Christ Fellowship Church Martin Vargas | Iglesia Real

Dhati Lewis | Blueprint Church Ed Kang | Gracepoint Church Vance Pitman | Hope Church Sean Sears | Grace Church Rob Wilton | Vintage Church

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Letter to Christians in America Part 2

Letter to Christians in America, Part 2

In Part 1, we focused on the priority of being loving in our engagement with the culture. We must begin with love to influence those around us because love is foundational to our faith and most tragically lacking in our public witness. And yet, more needs to be said for us to grow into our roles as ambassadors. Similarly to the human body, if there is no skeletal structure to attach the organs and muscles to, it can’t function. Truth is the structure we need to impact our witness. We want to shed the critical nature of the “culture warrior” that sacrifices compassion as a means of defending personal conviction. We also need to move toward one another with the same mercy that Jesus showed us when our beliefs were in opposition to His. But in addition those, We must embrace the lifestyle of speaking “truth to power” that Jesus embodied—the truth-telling that empowered the marginalized, held up a standard of righteousness, and subverted the system of oppression. Jesus was full of both grace and truth; so ought we. Our response in times of trouble ought not compromise the message, but to deepen in our conviction and comprehension of it.

To stand firm we must be willing to endure ridicule, mockery and slander. We should not shrink back from the fact we worship Jesus, a first century rabbi we believe resurrected and revealed himself as the always existent second Person of the Trinity. Neither should we shrink back because the Bible contains difficulties some would exploit as reasons for doubting all of the truth of Scripture. Stand firm in the face of veiled and explicit demonizing of the faith and doctrine, knowing this is the opportunity we get to carry our cross. Stand firm knowing your pain and hardship is being felt all over the world, and in fact in far more devastating and damaging ways. Our faith results in a disapproved shunning while in other parts of the world like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and other hotbeds of Christian persecution, it is resulting in loss of life and livelihoods. To stand firm, we must deepen our convictions and grow in wisdom.

III. DEEPEN OUR CONVICTIONS.

Throughout history, when the theocentric worldview was challenged or threatened, the most dynamic and important works of Christian thought and action were produced. In America, we do not experience violence or the type of persecution found in biblical history, or in other parts of the world. But we do face philosophical, ethical and cultural challenges that reject the plausibility or goodness of our faith. In the face of such pressures, we can draw hope from our own faith tradition and history. When Pharaoh sought to kill the male Hebrew babies in Exodus, God raised up Moses, and when Herod did the same in the New Testament God intervened to preserve the life of Jesus. The first century church faced intense persecution. We read in the New Testament book, Acts, that Stephen, a follower of Jesus was stoned to death for his faith. While he was dying, it’s recorded that he wasn’t tempted to recant, but actually asked God to forgive those who were murdering him. One person was there approving of the stoning was named Saul of Tarsus. God used the depth of Stephen’s conviction to inspire the church, and to ultimately prepare Saul who would come to be known as the Apostle Paul, to expand the work of the Church. The church’s fiercest persecutor became it’s most energetic apostle after encountering the risen Lord who simply asked him: “Why are you persecuting me?” Paul was raised up, and the gospel expanded in spite of persecution through a depth of conviction.

When philosophers sought to discredit the faith, Augustine emerged—as did many other faithful women and men who did not shrink back. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King and from Elizabeth Elliott to Jackie Hill Perry, God has raised up people in the midst of oppositional culture who show us how the best response to challenges isn’t watering faith down, but deepening our convictions. Like those before us and among us, we need to drill down deeper, learn from our challenges, and embrace the truth even when it’s inconvenient. We need to seek wisdom in the process of responding to those who oppose us.

IV. GROW IN WISDOM

The Hebrew tradition is built on the wisdom of the Scriptures, which has much to say about what it means to be wise. Wisdom literally means “skill for living.” It invokes the idea of the experienced hands of a surgeon, instead of simple knowledge of biology. The difference between knowledge and wisdom is like the difference between getting an instruction manual to put furniture together (knowledge) in contrast to being the carpenter who knows from experience how to put the furniture together intuitively (wisdom). Proverbs 18:13 reads “to answer before listening- that is folly and shame.” In the West, Christians have often answered before listening, which brings us shame. Instead of asking our neighbors what their felt needs are, we typically give them answers to the wrong questions. This is in part due to our intellectual history. Western civilization prioritized the Greco-Roman tradition of philosophy and knowledge over wisdom. We have deemphasized the tangible, real world application of truths as seminal to how to know God and proof that we do know God. The Church spends a disproportionate amount of time on statements of faith, and a lack of time actually practicing how to live out those statements. This has been especially to the Christian’s peril and a vestige of gnosticism.

Gnosticism taught that the spiritual, non-material world was “real” and good and the physical world was an evil illusion. It taught that we should therefore, focus on the non-material world and diminish the value of concerns in this life. The gnostic influence in Western thought laid the groundwork for a type of disembodied Christian tradition unthinkable to the first followers of Jesus who heard that “true religion” cares for the orphan and widows and is bound up in godliness with virtue (James 1:27). This unholy dis-integration of faith and work, knowledge and application, love and truth, epistemology and ethics set the groundwork for the justification of chattel slavery, imperialism and every unethical, unwise capitulation ever since. The common critique of the Scripture’s supposed ethical ambivalence to issues such as polygamy does not square with what we know of church history. The Jewish and early Christian consensus was that the object lesson of the failures of Abraham (and Sarah), Isaac and Jacob was that their departure from the original monogamous vision in Genesis (Genesis 2:24) was the source of the problems they faced in their families. Similarly, the prophetic treatment of slavery, war and justice complements what the Law set in motion to those who accept that God’s word was not simply detached edicts, but actual wisdom—that the human condition was so resistant, God’s word had to be progressive. Humanity’s brokenness needed God’s truth revealed over time for it to persuade the human being of its goodness. This is not so different from the ways parents embrace a pedagogy which picks their battles, knowing that insisting on all of the expectations of maturity when a child is immature will bear little fruit. The wise parent realizes that to win the war, some battles (like brushing teeth each night) might need to be lost.
Wisdom flows from humility. I appeal to wisdom because these are complex times and often we do not know what to do. I need you, Christians in America. I need you to embrace love, and learn new language and posture. I need you to stand firm and deepen in your convictions. I need you to grow in wisdom to teach me how to live more holistically integrated as a Christian in America. For us to grow to maturity, we need to attain unity in the faith so that we will no longer be tossed to and fro by the politics and ideologies of the Left or the Right, the past or the present … nor every wind of doctrine that blows through the academy or the entertainment industry. Whether it be secular humanism, Eastern mysticism, Western individualism, secret occultism or from those aiming to destroy our democracy through misinformation and acrimony, we will not be deceived. We will speak the truth in love, grow in maturity together, pray together, work together, and challenge each other until Christ comes at last and comforts every soul, wipes every tear and says to us collectively: “Well done faithful servant … faithful Christian in America … you’ve been faithful over few things, now I’ll make you ruler over many. (Matthew 25:21)” This is my hope, my prayer and my plea for you and me.

Written by: Rasool Berry

Edited by: Christina Utley

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A Letter to Christians in America, Pt. 1

A Letter to Christians in America

Part 1.

These are complex and confusing times for many of us who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ. How do you live out your faith publicly in a post-Christian pluralistic society? How do we deepen convictions when we are bombarded by messaging that argues our convictions are the problem? How do demonstrate love to God and our neighbor when expressing our love for God is increasingly socially costly and love for neighbor can be interpreted as compromise?   

We must contend to be loving in our engagements and our disposition with all, especially those who we may describe as our adversaries. We need to stand firm in our convictions, and deepen them in the face of ever increasing pressure to diminish or compromise them.We must also grow in the wisdom of how to best live out faith in light of this current age. I’ll briefly explain the context of my appeal in light of the present cultural moment.

BE LOVING IN OUR ENGAGEMENT

We are told by the Lord Jesus in the Scripture that loving God and loving others (as we do ourselves) summarizes what He calls The Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). We also declare that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that therefore, when we do speak truth we are to “speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).” We believe that we are in a spiritual conflict on Earth: light vs. darkness, good vs. evil. Yet, we also hold that our battle is not against people but the “principalities”—the unseen, but real spiritual forces that coordinate and contribute to idolatry (not loving God) and injustice (not loving people). Like our Savior who gave his life to give us life, we believe (or at least we ought to believe), that our most potent and promising power is love: not hate, nor retaliation. However, those of us who identify as Christians are increasingly known not for love, but for those two things: hate and retaliation. If we want to change this, we need to take several significant steps:

  1. We Need to Abandon The Culture War Mentality.

It is impossible to love with the radical love Jesus modeled when we include among our enemies those who contribute to every major institution in our society (government, academia, entertainment, industry, etc.), yet disagree with us in faith and practice—when we name ourselves the crusading voices in the wilderness resisting “the infidel” through public shaming and public policy. This “culture war” mentality has battle lines drawn across more political lines than spiritual ones from the beginning, which is why civil rights legislation, ameliorating the suffering of the poor and many of the most vulnerable were omitted from that platform. By seeking to preach at, and not winsomely speak to, and by choosing political sides over a truly political voice, a distinctly Christ-centered influence in the culture has waned significantly. Meanwhile the casualties of war were misdiagnosed as the combatants of war, from the AIDS epidemic (dubbed the “gay plague” by many Christians starting in the ‘80’s) to poverty (blamed on the character of “welfare moms” and “gangsters”). More recently, undocumented immigrants have been the scapegoats, disproportionately blamed for crime and job losses in the American economy. The command to “love your neighbor” has been replaced with “blame your neighbor” for their suffering and that needs to change. Of course, it’s easier and less complicated to ‘blame’ since it allows us the illusion that we have avoided the challenges that others suffer through because we are better people who made better choices, and not because often uncontrollable circumstances – such as institutional inequalities that cause zip codes to be the primary indicator of a baby’s income– have been baked into our American pie. Sadly, the unhealthy (and unholy) idea that America is a sanctified “city on a hill” is a main driver of the culture war tendency. The contrast we see between Jesus who in John 4, approaches and meets the needs of Samaritans (in spite of history of animosity and tension) to many in the American church (though not all) who have turned away the Middle Eastern refugee while they face unprecedented violence and devastation is about

        2. We Need To Learn a New Language.

Our culture is changing at a disorienting speed. As new voices and stories—which were previously pushed to the margins—are now centered, many old ways of thinking and talking must change if we’re going to be loving. Now, just because a way is old, doesn’t mean it’s wrong …  but just because a way is old doesn’t mean it’s right either. I’m old enough to remember when “retarded” was considered an appropriate way to refer to someone whose intellectual capacity or way of learning was different than the mainstream. Those words reflected and reinforced unnecessary and unfortunate stigmas, limiting our imaginations about what a person with conditions like autism could contribute to our world—to everyone’s loss. We all advance when we put away vocabulary that damages the Imago Dei (image of God) in all of us.

The same is true with gender and sexuality: two fronts on which the “culture wars” have raged most intently. A range of non-binary labels and descriptions have emerged leaving many of us confused about how to respond with love and truth when we also believe that the Divine revelation for gender is authoritative and aspirational. We ask questions that can sound silly to others in our culture like: “Do I call sexuality an ‘orientation’ or ‘preference’?” and, “Does changing my vocabulary suggest compromise with my convictions?” A culture war response to these questions is radically different than a loving response. Culture war respondents dig in and refuse to change, fearing change means compromised ethics and faith itself.  The motto embraced is: “No Retreat! No Surrender! No Mercy!” Oddly, this mentality conflates treating people with respect as a sign of weakness. Love responds to such requests with “as you wish” and seeks to allow for as much space as possible for those wrestling with their gender or sexuality to find community in what our culture would consider the least likely place: the church. The same is true with race and justice discussions. Many Christians in America borrow heavily from politically conservative critics of social justice movements which tend to be politically left-leaning. Labels such as “cultural Marxists” and “humanistic” and “distracting from the gospel” are widely applied to any who critique the status quo, and who bring attention to the systemic injustices highlighted in Scripture with passionate rebukes. Instead of considering the merits of their arguments, fear-mongering language is used to dismiss such activism. Christians in America need new language to talk about those we disagree with and to recognize how our own Savior used inclusive, loving language to build bridges, not divisions.

            3. We Need a New Posture.

We need a vision and posture that sounds more like Jesus than culture warriors. We need a shift in our posture that can only occur with a relinquishing of power. The culture war approach that dominated from 1980-2014 was ultimately about power: the power to enforce terms and policies, not about shifting our posture to reach those who were distant from us and from God. A new posture, focused on living as authentic Christians in this world is needed. This isn’t so that we can be liked. But isn’t it ironic that being viewed as a caring person is frequently condemned as compromise rather than commended as commandment keeping? A shift in posture means a shift in priorities. Caring for others where we might not have expressed compassion previously is not an abdication of our responsibilities to uphold tradition, but a reallocation of our energy toward a new strategy for transforming the world. Let me propose a simple posture shift starting point. This is for anyone seeking to fulfill the Biblical mandate to live out their faith in public whether that starts with private conversations with co-workers or presentations before class members. Living out our faith in public can be as big as creating programs to meet the needs of those who are on the margins, or as small as the prayer: “Lord help me know where to start!” Whatever the case, our posture must start with awareness of failures before we can get to success: Start out by repenting of all the church’s shortcomings first. For prosperity preaching, sexual assault in the church, political hypocrisy, conversion therapy, racism, sexism, political pandering, and so much more. Start the conversation by asking what the person’s experience has been with the church or with Christians. The list of grievances is often long but it is never the wrong time to do the right thing. Let’s adopt a different posture—one that listens before speaking and seeks to envision a common grace as both divinely revealed and mandated.

Edited by: Christina Utley

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Why I’m a Missionary #GivingTuesday

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Less than 1% of the world’s missionaries are African American. In fact, for many, the very notion of a black missionary is an oxymoron. Because of the tragic history of missionaries from Europe spreading heretical ideas of eurocentrism intermingled with the gospel of Christ, the entire enterprise is looked upon with understandable criticism and suspicion. I know I’ve had my own reservations and personal battles to fight with the term “missionary.”

And yet, the reality is that prior to the brutal colonization of the Western hemisphere, before the transatlantic slave trade, and even in advance of the Christianity’s spread to Europe, the missionary enterprise was experienced and seen for the positive work it could be. The Ethiopian official described in Acts 8 is likewise celebrated in Ethiopia for his service in Africa in the first century. And that’s why I choose to participate in missionary work. I find a heritage that is deeper and more meaningful than the seemingly diabolical connotation that missionary work, and Christianity in general has with my own heritage as an African American. To many, the association of Christianity with slavery, racism and the stripping of the indigenous cultures of my forebears is reason to reject it. But I don’t for a number of very important reasons.

1) Christ belongs to the World, not just to Europe. Ironically, Europe was on “the other side of the tracks” of what was considered the “civilized” world when the Bible was written. The first humans were not created in Europe, nor were the first advanced civilizations centered there. The center of the biblical world was the Fertile Crescent: Mesopotamia, Africa, and Asia. The primary ethnic group that God chose to interact with, the nation of Israel, was not located near Europe, but at the crossroads of Africa and Asia. African and Asian dynasties in Egypt, Nubia, and Persia are described admirably in the Bible. And the person at the center of the Christian Bible, Jesus Christ, finds himself in defiant opposition to the oppressive Roman Empire (the only European civilization featured at length in the Bible). Christianity makes its way East and South (to Asia and Africa) before it heads North and West (to Europe) in the New Testament. Today, Europeans and European Americans are are rejecting Christianity and embracing neo-pagan movements to reconnect with the traditions of their ancestors. They clearly don’t think that the Christian faith is European in origin. To identify Christianity, a faith over 2000 years old, with the last 500 years of European political dominance is categorically inaccurate. The reaction of the Ethiopian Coptic, Egyptians Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, or Arab Palestinians when I ask them about the supposed European origins of Christianity is bewilderment and confusion. Each of these churches trace their inception back to the first centuries of the church in some cases over a thousand years before some European church traditions (closer to 400 AD not 1500 AD). The misguided misadventures of many of the colonial-era, Eurocentric, missionary endeavors don’t get to define what a “missionary” is in perpetuity! Not when other groups have made their mark before there was ever an established church in Europe.

2) True Christianity is pro-justice and anti-oppression. The belief that authentic Christianity is a white man’s religion only makes sense if one does not separate the Eurocentric syncretization of Christianity from the Christianity of the Bible. Frederick Douglass observed this distinction in his autobiography which led him to reject “slaveholding religion” in favor of the “peaceable Christianity of Christ.” He wrote:

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”

The Great Emancipator, realized that a different story found itself in the pages of the Bible than the one he was forcibly exposed to as a slave. In The Civil War As A  Theological Crisis, Mark Noll makes the compelling case that slaveholders manipulated the Bible for their own exploitation of others:

“Americans claimed to be following a higher law, even when this higher law only turned out to be a personal preference.”

Slave holding “Christians”, needed to construct a theology that would allow them to brutalize and subjugate people in the most inhumane ways while holding on to a sense of being good Christians. They created fallacious and novel theological inventions like the “Curse of Ham” to justify their brutality and explain away clear violations of Christian ethics. Meanwhile, Christian abolitionists made the case that the Bible vehemently rejected the false notions that Africans weren’t human, who didn’t have souls. In fact, they risked their lives and jeopardized their livelihoods out of a sense of Christian conviction. Ironically, to reject Christianity because of slavery and oppression is to categorically reject Frederick Douglass’s argument for the slaveholders’ arguments who distorted sacred texts to support abhorrent behaviors that Christianity, rightly interpreted, clearly prohibits.

3) The Creatively Redemptive Power of God Gives Meaning to Our Suffering. For many, it’s not the belief that Christianity is innately Eurocentric that causes them to reject it, it’s the problem of how a good God could allow such suffering in the first place. This is a deeply emotional and therefore complex issue. It is quite painful to discover and sit with the atrocities that humanity has executed and suffered over time. The problem of evil in the world is a big one, and yet the response God offers is similar to that of a parent whose child can’t understand why mom or dad is allowing a stranger to stab him repeatedly (with a life saving chemotherapy injection). “You don’t understand it right now, but this will work out for good.” We can even grasp such a tragedy on an individual basis, but when it involves millions of people experiencing undeserved suffering, it’s even more difficult. We get glimpses of hope in the Scriptures. The answer given to one of Israel’s sons, Joseph is helpful for us as well. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, sent to prison for crime he didn’t commit, and languished there for years. When asked why he trusted God in the midst of it, he said “what was meant for evil is being used for the good, for the saving of many lives.” He believed in God’s creatively redemptive power. It’s a power at the center of Christianity. Jesus, falsely arrested, and unjustly executed by the State, was resurrected offering reconciliation with God in a glorified state. The cross, the sign of his torment and death, is transformed as a symbol of hope. Jesus then is creative redemptive power incarnate. And for those that believe, we look to that same God and believe, he could even use the atrocities committed against us for our good… even when we can’t possibly see how. We don’t need to see how. That’s the role of faith.

4) My own experience has taught me the power of God. I remain a missionary because of my own experience. God has changed my life and I experience the presence of Jesus in. I’ve seen the power of God change my life and those I’ve had the privilege of serving with over the course of more than 20 years. I don’t just believe prayer works; I’ve experienced it working. I don’t just theorize that mission work can be good, I’ve often been thanked, tearfully, over the course of time by those God has given me the grace to serve. I still believe this is noble work that changes lives because it’s a work that – through the generosity and faithfulness of ministry partners who give and pray for me- has been used to build movements of justice and righteousness. These ministry partners are black, white, American, African, middle aged, millennial, democrats and republicans, wealthy and working class. They are family, friends, and co-laborers who also have had the experience of being transformed by Jesus, our first-century, middle eastern teacher and Redeemer. Together we believe that he is still the answer to transform our world. Would you like to join us? This #GivingTuesday, we’d love for you to help shine light in darkness, and be transformed by the work of giving of yourself sacrificially to touch others. That is the heart of the Gospel, and my heart for you. We will proclaim and demonstrate together the whole gospel is still the power of God to rescue and heal a broken world.

Will you join us?

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“Stop the words of hate.” Reflections on the Synagogue Massacre

Stop the words of hate.
– Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Tree of Life Synagogue
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Thursday night, I spoke on the topic “In an age of fake news, does truth still matter?” I shared an image of Nazi propaganda used to blame the Jews for the misfortunes of the Germans from World War I.
It read “They are the cause of the war.”
Less than 2 days later, the worst anti-Semitic attack on US soil was carried out just a few hours away, in my home state. Rabbi Myers’ admonition is wise and rooted in spiritual and historical reality. The rich tradition of Hebrew wisdom literature is replete with such insights.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. 
   – Proverbs 18:21.
History also shows the power of words of hate. According to Ibram X Kendi in his book Stamped From the Beginning, details how the modern concept of ‘race’, with it’s anti-Black sentiments, was created by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, in his 1453 book, The Chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. Centuries later, we are still grappling with those “words of hate” which became the justification for slavery, colonization, segregation, and exploitation for centuries.
Anti-Catholic sentiment and the words of hate against papism took center stage in the 1928 presidential election when New York Governor Al Smith, the first Catholic to win the nomination of a major party was accused of being a puppet for the pope. Decades later, John F. Kennedy had to grapple with the same fear-mongering.
Each wave of immigration American immigration, most notably from the 1800s with the Irish, to the early 1900s Italian, Eastern European, as well as every Asian wave of immigration brought new words of hate and accusations that they are the problem.
Recently, the they responsible for the destruction of our civilization has shifted to the illegals and the ‘dangerous’ immigrants and refugees from the Middle East. Now, “they” are the ones we are told to fear. (Note: this is an evaluation of rhetoric).
 
When the “words of hate” point to ethnicity and religion, is it then surprising that the the the old, diabolical “they” of anti-Semitism rises toward a community that has threads of ethnic, cultural and religious identity interwoven within it? Tragically, the rise of Nazism demonstrates that often finger pointing toward they often has political motivations and incentives.
I lament the reality that while I was celebrating the 99th birthday of my grandmom, a Jewish family was mourning the lost of their 97 year old beloved matriarch who was gunned down hearing “All Jews must die!” Thoughts and prayers are a start, but are far from enough. We must stop the words of hate, and as Rabbi Myers says it starts with our leaders but it ends with us.
It is true that the rhetoric has to become less hostile across the board, but, lest we be guilty of false equivalency, we must stay vigilant to call out all attempts to subtly or overtly blame ethnic groups or religious groups for the misfortunes of our society. History shows us hat only leads to one place: the justification of violence and hatred.
Words matter. Rhetoric matters. Because words become actions. And actions have consequences. Death and life are in the power of the tongue. For the sake of each precious soul we loss during this horrific attack, for David Rosenthal, Cecil Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Irving Younger, Daniel Stein, Joyce Fienberg, Melvin Wax, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon and Rose Mallinger, Lets choose life and insist that those in positions of power do likewise.
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An Open Letter To John MacArthur About Social Justice

An Open Letter to Pastor John MacArthur.

Dear John,

You don’t know me, but I have been aware of you for years as a well-known Evangelical pastor, radio personality, and an author. I’ve listened to “Grace to You” and read your fierce defenses against anything you’ve deemed a distraction to the Gospel with appreciation for your convictions, even if not complete agreement with your conclusions. Recently you took aim at what you believe is the most dangerous heresy you’ve ever faced: the growing Christian advocacy for “social justice”. I read your string of posts making the case that the Church is being lured away from the Gospel message and down a road that leads to destruction with great interest and greater disappointment. As an African American pastor who has studied and experienced this issue personally, I believe your post, and the Statement on Social Justice launched in tandem with it, are the actual dangers to the Church in this moment. I have taken the time to respond with as much detail as I can because I, too, love the universal Church, and I also believe in this particular moment she is in danger of falling away from a clear understanding of the Gospel in the United States. We need to talk more and do more about social justice–not less. I’ll explain with specifics.

You wrote:

I am convinced the only long-term solution to every brand of ethnic animus is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Christ alone are the barriers and dividing walls between people groups broken down, the enmity abolished, and differing cultures and ethnic groups bound together in one new people.The black leaders with whom I ministered during the civil rights movement shared that conviction.

To demonstrate your historic concern and the shared convictions between you and “black leaders,” you invoked your ministry partnership with a leader I respect deeply, Dr. John Perkins. You described experiencing discrimination firsthand, and your awareness of the injustices in our nation. You also acknowledged that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the solution to resolve “ethnic animus.” What is unclear is how you think we are to apply the Gospel to the social injustices you personally witness. We know your friend’s view through his own writing on the subject.

Justice is any act of reconciliation that restores any part of God’s creation back to its original intent, purpose or image. When I think about justice that way, it doesn’t surprise me at all that God loves it. It includes both the acts of social justice and the restorative justice found on the cross.

― John M. Perkins, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win

For Perkins, “social justice” and “the cross” go hand in hand. Indeed, he has fought for social justice based on Gospel-based convictions as an outspoken activist, a minister, and an organizer. He founded the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) to facilitate a holistic Gospel proclamation and demonstration. Would you agree with Dr. Perkins’ assessment and approach to ministry? If not, how are your readers to understand your reference to him in your post? Perkins appears to put forward a drastically different understanding of social justice and the Christian’s responsibility to promote it than you do.

You also inserted your appreciation of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but King was a pastor who famously rebuked White Evangelicals for criticizing his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. While he languished in jail, he wrote one of the most compelling letters known in modern times to Christian leaders who castigated him for proclaiming social justice. It is strange to me to value the gains of Dr. King’s activism, and the tragedy of his assassination, yet still criticize those who walk in his legacy to continue exposing injustice today such as the broken criminal justice system, discrimination in hiring policies and cultural bias within the Evangelical Church. Do you think King was wrong for using his pulpit and ministry to protest social injustice? If he asked you for advice about how to write his “I Have a Dream Speech,” would you have told him he should just preach a gospel devoid of social justice? Where would our country be now if he had?

I resonated with the tragic observation you made regarding the painful history of this nation’s systemic injustices that King’s sacrifice confronted:

A hundred years passed before the federal government banned segregation in public places and began in earnest to pass legislation safeguarding the civil rights of all people equally. Until then, freed slaves and their descendants in Southern states were literally relegated by law to the back of the bus and frequently treated with scorn or incivility because of the color of their skin.

Clearly you see that the Civil Rights legislation King fought and died for was a good thing, but why don’t you seem to support the activity of those responsible for it, especially when they were operating from Christian convictions? You were active in ministry in the 1960’s. What did your understanding of the Gospel lead you to say to the White churches that largely supported the unjust status quo? What did it lead you to do? What did you say to politicians, pastors and entrepreneurs in the Church who opposed King’s message of integration while most “Gospel-centered” preachers remained silent? The troubling truth is that the Fundamentalists who opposed King’s integration followed the lead of their founders a generation before. You harshly criticized what you see as the Evangelical Church’s current emphasis on social justice, but what do you think about the Fundamentalist emphasis on social injustice which catechized racism in churches and shaped the worldviews that antagonized efforts of social equality? You seem more concerned with speaking out against advocates for social justice than you are about social injustice they are responding to. The history of your own movement has much to rebuke.

In Doctrine and Race, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews chronicles the racism that characterized the Fundamentalist Movement from the beginning with striking detail. In one account close to home for me as a pastor in Brooklyn, New York, she recounts a Fundamentalist pastor who announced his plan to segregate his church:

The Reverend William Blackshear, a white Texas native who was the pastor of St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, announced his plan to exclude African Americans from his congregation. The black denominational press (and secular press) immediately seized upon his words as an example of how far astray Christianity was heading in the segregated United States. [Mr.] Kelly Miller [African American journalist] argued that Blackshear was not an outlier but representative of white ministerial racism, stating that “what he did in the open, nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand white ministers believe and practice by overt or covert contrivance.”

One of the striking things about this account is the statement of how widely spread ministers perpetuated injustice. Similar to today, the Black Church (and even the secular press) see the “social injustice plank”  in the White Evangelical eye. As Jesus stated in his often quoted (and misinterpreted) teaching on hypocrisy, clear insight to correct another is only possible when you “first take the plank out of your own eye,” (Matthew 7:5). According to Jesus’ principle, until the racist and socially unjust foundations (the “planks”) of the White Evangelical church are acknowledged, it will not be able to see its own hypocrisy. Pastor A.C. Dixon wrote the title and much of the content in The Fundamentals, the published series of essays that gave the Fundamentalist Movement its name. As Evangelicalism is a present-day re-branded version of Fundamentalism, it contains remnants from its founders. Dixon was the proud son of a member of the Ku Klux Klan. His brother, Thomas Dixon, whose book, The Clansman, became the inspiration for the violently racist and revisionist film, Birth of A Nation, and caused the KKK’s resurgence. Dixon stayed true to his racist roots within his ministry. His resistance to the Social Gospel was not solely theological. In Doctrine and Race, Mathews recounts his sermons, and other notable Fundamentalists to demonstrate their approach to race:

In making his case for racial separation, Dixon drew on a classic dichotomy of southern whites: the distinction between political rights and “social privileges.” For such proponents, the ballot was a political right, but equal and integrated accommodations were a “social” concern, one that the US Constitution had no control over. In language that would be echoed by Texas fundamentalist J. Frank Norris and Arkansas Baptist Ben Bogard in 1928, Dixon told his congregation that “a man may demand his political rights, but, if he comes demanding social rights, he will find that what he claims as a right, others regards as a privilege, and if he persists in his demand even privileges are apt to be withdrawn.”

How have you reckoned with the racism in Evangelicalism’s past and present? Racist attitudes openly expressed in the past are gaining traction in the present and the threat of normalized discrimination is on the horizon. The last twelve months alone have exposed that seminaries have discriminated in their placement practices, ignored Black scholarship, alienated Black artists, and caused a quiet exodus of Blacks leaving Evangelical institutions. Are you concerned about the discrimination within Evangelical institutions that harkens back to the origin of Fundamentalism, Dr. MacArthur? It doesn’t seem like it. In fact, you seem to blame people of color for division over race in the Body of Christ when you write:

It is a startling irony that believers from different ethnic groups, now one in Christ, have chosen to divide over ethnicity. They have a true spiritual unity in Christ, which they seem to disdain in favor of fleshly factions.

In light of the examples of discrimination within Evangelical institutions I just gave, I must ask how a commitment to unity can be expected when racism grows dangerously close to policy. As a former student at Bob Jones University (which banned interracial relationships until 2000, only lifting the ban after public pressure), did you ever publicly criticize the sinful policy the way you are pushing back against the idea of social justice initiatives within the Church now? You wrote:

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.

I’m confused by the assertion that social justice is a “newfound obsession.” You previously referenced Dr. John Perkins, who has been incorporating social justice in his Gospel-based ministry for decades. Perkins reflects the tradition of a major contingent of Evangelicals who have fought for social justice–the Black Church. The historic Black Church has been a consistent defender of Evangelical faith and social justice for centuries. Mathews, observing the Black church in the 1920’s and 30’s, writes:

For black evangelicals, using the message of Christ to achieve equality was to do justice, and love mercy, so that they could walk humbly with God. The command was thousands of years old, not new, and its interpretation was not an innovative understanding of the gospel for them. It was, for them, the plain truth.

Do you consider your friend Dr. John Perkins and the millions representing the largest Black denominations in the world as “Evangelical”? If so, then how could you ignore our contribution to Evangelicalism and our engagement in social justice issues? If not, why not?

Who have you asked to define what they mean by “social justice”? I ask because your definition is so foreign to me. In one of your posts, you wrote:

“Social justice” (in the world’s usage of that term) entails political ideas that are deemed sophisticated—namely, identity politics, critical race theory, the redistribution of wealth, and other radical or socialist policies. Those ideas were first popularized and propagated in the secular academy, where they are now regarded as received wisdom and have become a dominating part of popular culture. Evangelicals who are chasing the culture are latecomers to the party of those who advocate “social justice.”

Your definition claims our concept of social justice derives from what many of our detractors refer to as cultural Marxism. Terms like “redistribution of wealth” and “radical, socialist policies” are words meant to invoke the red herring of Communist influence. You claim that Evangelicals are “chasing the culture” either knowingly or unknowingly. But is this true?

A basic study of the Scripture reveals the fundamental flaw of attributing Christian concern to social justice. Joe Carter’s recent post on The Gospel Coalition site posted explains the origins of the term and its present use by Evangelicals. Carter writes:

Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio coined the term in the 1840’s and based the concept on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas.

D’Azeglio used the term years before the Communist Manifesto was published, widely read, and over fifty years before the Frankfurt School (usually credited with the development of “cultural Marxism”) had developed. In fact, according to Carter, there’s over 125 years between the time Christians first used the term social justice and the way you framed it in your post. Carter adds:

It wasn’t until the 1970s and the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice that the term became widely associated with liberal secular political philosophy, particularly with changing social institutions.

Most words have a semantic range, being understood differently at various points in history. Are there those who would include the concepts you listed (i.e., “radical socialist policies” and “redistribution of wealth”) in their meaning of “social justice”? Yes, but it is false to lump all of these concepts under use the word. For example, the word “hot” has a wide semantic range. It could mean having a high temperature, involving intense emotions, a description of someone who is attractive or some new trend that is popular, etc. Context determines how to understand the word, and the phrase “social justice” needs context, as well.

In the same post, Carter summarizes Evangelical pastor Tim Keller’s writing on the topic:

As Keller says, when the two Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat are tied together—as they are more than three dozen times—the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.” Social justice, then, would be not only a biblical concept, but also a subset of biblical justice.

For the follower of Jesus, social justice is simply applying the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) and the Great Requirement (Micah 6:8) to people as well as institutions. You identified social injustice by referencing the history of slavery, segregation and exploitation of African Americans in this country. But what do you suggest as the remedy to present discrimination? You defined social justice in a way most Evangelicals do not, then you rebuke Christians committed to social justice based on your mischaracterization.

Social justice is the legacy of the Church–and more specifically–the Gospel itself. While D’Azeglio is credited with using the term in the 1840’s, Jesus gave him the impetus when Jesus charged his followers to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in Heaven,” (Luke 9:2). It should come as no surprise then that the earliest testimony of the church is one in which their witness challenged and changed unjust systems and social structures of the time.

Hardly “latecomers,” Black Evangelicals have been the pillars of the social out-workings of the Gospel. Frankly, social justice made up an intrinsic part of the historic Black Church while White Evangelicals primarily supported the racial status quo through either vocal support or silent consent. W.H. Jernagin, President of the National Baptist Convention, emphasized the Gospel-centric nature of social justice in 1935 (35 years before the “secular academy” would take up the phrase)when he wrote:

Jesus enunciated the doctrine of human brotherhood, social justice, spiritual    regeneration, and human transformation.

Lastly, Dr. MacArthur, your misrepresentation of Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile’s Gospel Coalition post reveals an important need to listen and learn from who have been directly impacted by social injustice. You summarized his post by stating “a person’s skin color might automatically require a public expression of repentance.” Anyabwile’s writing reflected on his personal ambivalence over the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination because many Evangelicals fail to acknowledge and wrestle with the past. He also explicitly contradicted your conclusion when he wrote:

I don’t need all white people to feel guilty about the 1950s and 60s—especially those who weren’t even alive. But I do need all of us to suspect that sin isn’t done working its way through society. I do need all my neighbors—especially my brothers and sisters in Christ—to recognize that no sin has ever been eliminated from the world and certainly not eliminated simply with the passage of time and a willingness of some people to act as if it was never there.

Anyabwile goes on to say that repentance is marked by an acknowledgement of what has happened. Days after publishing this post, he wrote another post expounding on what he meant by repentance. How could you misread his words so drastically? Perhaps it was the assumption that Pastor Anyabwile’s idea of social justice is the same as the secular academy you deride?

Unfortunately, the failure to identify the sins of the Evangelical Church’s past of social injustice has obscured your vision from seeing the need for present correction. Do you see that racial minorities such as Perkins, Anyabwile and many more (including me), experience social injustice in predominantly White, Evangelical churches as frequently as we do in “the world”? Do you see that failure to recognize the Black Church’s historic commitment to orthodoxy and orthopraxy is part of the problem?

A holistic approach to history that takes all factions of the Church into account will support insight into the social justice implications of the Gospel today. Our country is currently fraught by a broken criminal justice system acknowledged by both parties, driving while Black, swimming while Black, going to Starbucks while Black and, yes, even going to seminary while Black–traumatizing and mobilizing the present surge of social justice advocacy in evangelistic spaces. In the meantime, your opposition to such advocacy does little to help the Evangelical Church to live out the Gospel and instead reinforces injustice within Evangelistic spaces as the coordinated “Statement on Social Justice” gathers widespread support.

Fortunately, you are not alone in your passion for protecting the power and truth of the Gospel. There are many of us who share a drive to contend for the faith. That’s why we challenge the Gospel reductionism presented in your posts. Rejecting that Jesus would have something to say about civil rights, or social injustice, dims the glory of God from shining in every facet of the Gospel’s implications; that’s why we challenge this reductionism. We hope, for the sake of the Gospel, that the social justice impetus laid out by our Lord Jesus Christ will mobilize the whole Church to proclaim the whole Gospel in times like these when they are desperately needed. And we hope you join us.

Sincerely,

Rasool Berry

Teaching Pastor

The Bridge Church

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