What is woke, and why is the Evangelical community at war with the concept? The phrase originated from African American Vernacular English, but has been gradually co-opted by right-wing players to be used as an insult. It was only in 2017 that the word “woke” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary and was defined as “being ‘aware’ or ‘well-informed’ in a political or cultural sense.” It evolved into an all-encompassing term to describe leftist political ideology, used as a “shorthand for people on the left” to signal progressiveness, but weaponized by those on the right as a “sneering, jeering dismissive term” to denigrate those who did not agree with their beliefs.
Woke is a fairly modern “recognized” term that means “conscious of injustice in society.” A “woke” person is especially attentive to racial discrimination and the issues surrounding it. Although the word woke has been closely linked to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the term goes back further than that. Woke can be found in the 2008 song “Master Teacher” by Erykah Badu and in a 1962 essay published in the “New York Times” called “If You’re Woke You Dig It” by William Melvin Kelley. Additionally, in 1971, the phrase was used in a play by American playwright Barry Beckham titled “Garvey Lives!” in which he wrote:
I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon’ stay woke. And I’m gon’ help him wake up other black folk.
It is fascinating to consider that woke originated in Harlem. For most of the 20th century, Harlem was the epicenter of black culture. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement, there’s a reason why Harlem was once referred to as America’s Black Capital. So, it is not far-fetched to believe woke was birthed here because countless black people discovered themselves and one another here. They were awakened here. But it is also beautiful to think that woke was its own community colloquialism. That it was not beatnik slang, jazz slang, or jive slang, but Harlem slang — a word said on certain blocks by certain people throughout the neighborhood, now said by people across the world. For better or worse.
On one hand, woke has been prescribed to anyone and anything that even shows a hint of awareness for inequality and injustice, diluting the word and transforming it into something that feels more like a performative trend — people want to be woke without really being woke. Then, we have Evangelicals (and Republicans) who believe woke is anti-Christ and/or anti-American. Truth is, this is just another form of gas lighting from people afraid of losing their “supreme” power. Why else would anyone be at war with the concept of woke? Recently, Ed Young, a prominent Evangelical pastor, described woke as follows:
A definition that I’ve come up with after reading a lot of brilliant Christian thinkers and also atheistic thinkers who are non-woke. Here is what I’ve come up with…
What is woke-ism? It’s an authoritarian worldview. Hmm! That seeks to deconstruct the foundation of our Christian faith by overwhelming, overpowering, and overthrowing those who do not adhere to its ideology.
By his own admission, it is a definition that he created after reading material from other people who have no idea of the concept. That is like asking a non-Black person what it feels like to be Black in America. Moreover, people do not get to make up definitions to words. With his influence, that type of arrogance is irresponsible. There are actual, legitimate definitions of words to prevent this kind of chaos and deception.
So, why would he need to come up with a definition when one already exists? Who made Evangelicals the authority? Why does “woke” need an outside interpretation. The concept for woke was born in the African American community. It did not need to be remixed by privileged mindsets or false authority. It is just another example of control, fear, and strong attempts to spin the narrative. It is obvious that Evangelicals are at war with the concept of woke.
Instead of remixing woke, preachers should stay in their lane and talk about being awakened. To say that someone is “awakened” in spiritual terms means they are aware of the moving of God’s Spirit, not just in the lives of people, specifically, but also in the world more generally. A “woke” person is aware of the racial, social, and political injustice prevalent in the world around them. It also asserts that they are actively involved in and committed to addressing those inequities.
This has massive implications for local church ministries in communities of color. Churches must understand the need to reconstitute the whole person with biblical teaching, responsive to the lived realities of those communities. In simpler words, the approach to discipleship must simultaneously repair the psychic and social destruction done to the identities/personhood of Black people, while recognizing and equipping them to counter the social and political realities that contribute to that destruction in the first place. All people should be free to be their ethnic selves in a way that’s consistent with the Bible – if they are Christians – and how to live fruitfully in contexts that do not affirm their ethnic selves. Hence, the need for a “woke church.”
However, it is not just African Americans who need a “woke church.” All people need it. There is a mutuality to the human existence. The only way to lessen the necessity for a “woke church” is for people and forces making “wokeness” necessary to wake up to their part in the dynamic. As long as there are racist forces at work in the world, the sufferers of that racism are right to find ways to express and affirm their identity, and will need tools (spiritual, cultural, economic, etc.) to fight back against those forces.
When it comes to the concept of being “woke,” Christians must acknowledge that racism in America has resulted in shame, injustice, and, at some points in history, terrible violence. Moreover, no clear-thinking person would believe that all remnants of racism were erased by the American civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. For as far as these “United States” have come since the Civil War, there is still work to be done. While laws and legislation guard the principle of equal rights for all Americans legally, no law can change the heart. Someone filled with prejudice and racial hatred will not suddenly be filled with love simply because a new law is passed.
Too many lives have been condemned and nearly destroyed because of a lack of grace. True justice must include a combination of God’s unconditional favor and accountability. It can help start a revival of “wokeness” as it awakens from its own slumber and begins to demonstrate what it truly looks like for Christ to “shine on you.” Rather than outright rejecting “wokeness” and social justice efforts, Christians should be part of the conversation while bringing their own solutions to the table.
Calls to “Make America Great Again,” for example, while certainly placating the fond memories of a better time for major segments of the population, forget that for others, such as minorities, those were times of extreme injustice. It is time for all Christians to wake up and get down to the real business of salvaging God’s creation. Learn the history of racism and unpack the effects it still has on people of color. Wake up, Evangelicals, and move beyond criticism and safe conversations about reconciliation. Let’s begin the process of setting things right for the soon-coming King, who will be looking for a woke church. Come, let us reason together.
Opinion by Blacklisted Saint
RNS: Woke war: How social justice and CRT became heresy for evangelicals
Gospel Coalition: Woke is…
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