In a country that has systematized the oppression of black lives from the institution of slavery to peonage, lynching, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality, #BLM provides the church an opportunity to proclaim the gospel that announces the end of oppression. BLM provides the church an opportunity to proclaim the gospel that announces the end of oppression. However, it seems Christians are searching for excuses not to support the movement, the hashtag, or the organization. Common Christian critiques such as, “We are opposed to racism and sexism, but we cannot support these movements because their agendas embrace other policies such as LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, an expansive welfare state and so on” are frail.
Furthermore, these expressions of ambivalence appear ideological, meaning that they are given not for the purpose of revealing something illuminating, but rather for the purpose of obscuring what matters, protecting the status quo, and impeding reform.
Equally trite is the claim that social justice should not be confused with the gospel. According to this view, social justice is separable from the gospel. One can understand the gospel without giving a thought to social justice, and one can appropriate the gospel without being engaged in the pursuit of social justice. The idea that the gospel might include or require the pursuit of social justice is supposed to be an instance of “works righteousness.
This is problematic in several ways. First, which gospel are we talking about? Apparently not the one that Jesus preached. In his inaugural hometown sermon, Jesus preached from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18; citing Isaiah 61:1 and 58:6). The gospel that Jesus came preaching was in fact inseparable from concerns about “social justice” ― which is to say, about care for the poor, for the prisoner, for the disabled, for all those who find themselves oppressed by society’s laws and institutions. Is there a different, better gospel than the one Jesus preached?
The claim that these movements are not worthy of Christian support since they often include policies that contradict Christian teaching is frail. Some iterations of #BLM reject the enemy-love tradition embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr. ― but again, why should this undercut Christian support for these movements? Is there a principle that one cannot support any movement that includes policies with which one disagrees? Most conservative Christians who object to #BLM on such grounds do not similarly object to supporting a national political party, even though there is no national political party whose policy commitments are consistent with Christian teaching.
So, what, then, should a Christian say about #BLM? The question is like one posed by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his sermon, “How Should a Christian View Communism?” While King states upfront that Christianity and communism are incompatible ― insofar as communism is based on a materialistic, humanistic, relativistic, nationalistic and atheistic view of life ― King’s treatment of communism offers a fitting analogy for how the church today may be a faithful ally of a secular movement for social change. The example of communism shows that justice movements such as #BLM present even fewer philosophical obstacles for the church’s engagement.
This has been the status quo for the American church for too long. Dr. King’s challenge to the church of his time rings true today when he said:
The judgment of God is upon the church. The church has a schism in its own soul that it must close. It will be one of the tragedies of Christian history if future historians record that at the height of the twentieth century the church was one of the greatest bulwarks of white supremacy.
Thus, while it may be true that Christians cannot accept the organization in its entirety, should they not acknowledge that, at this moment, #BLM offers a prophetic voice that calls the church to a renewed sense of vocation and mission. More important than the question of where, exactly, #BLM goes wrong from the Christian perspective are the following questions: How does #BLM expose the failure of the church to perform the gospel, and what kind of allies should the church as a whole be to #BLM?
Instead, the church in America has a history of silence, passive complicity, and active construction of oppressive systems targeting black lives in this country. King saw this with bracing clarity. This alone suggests that #BLM should be received as a gift to the church in that it is an unwitting prophet that calls the church to repent. Is it that difficult to admit that the church has not been true to its social mission on the question of social justice? In this area, it has failed Christ miserably. This failure is due not only to the fact that the church has been appallingly silent and disastrously indifferent to the realm of race relations but even more to the fact that it has often been an active participant in shaping and crystallizing the patterns of the race-caste system.
At this moment in America, it is not at all clear that the white evangelical church is concerned about black lives, much less willing to own its complicity in white supremacist thinking, policies, and systems, not only in our national and local governance but, most concerningly, in our local churches. If the church does in fact have a more distinctive and decisively Christian response to white supremacy, it is yet to boldly perform its faithful response. We must accordingly modify King’s haunting question about communism by posing instead, Is #BLM alive in the world today because we have not been Christian enough?
Black Lives Matter challenges the church to open its eyes to the reality that #BLM has “laid hold of certain truths that are essential parts of the Christian view of things” ― namely, that the gospel announces God’s eternal “no” to injustice and oppression. #BLM cries out from the wilderness exposing the church’s false gospel that has severed the proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God from its just politics.
When a church claims boldly “Black Lives Matter” at this moment, it chooses to show up intentionally against all given societal values of supremacy and superiority or common-sense complacency. By insisting on the intrinsic worth of all human beings, Jesus models for us how God loves justly, and how his disciples can love publicly in a world of inequality. We live out the love of God justly by publicly saying #BlackLivesMatter.
In a country that has systematized the oppression of black lives from the institution of slavery to peonage, lynching, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, and police brutality, #BLM provides the church an opportunity to proclaim the gospel that announces the end of oppression. Hence, the frailty of common Christian critiques of #BLM.
Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
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