© Robert Osburn
My friend Scott Allen, President of Disciple Nations Alliance, recently blew the fog horn for evangelical ships tempted to sail into the inviting waters of social justice ideology: “Stay clear, lest you undermine your faith by crashing upon unseen obstacles!” His article is a must-read, and will shock you at the extent to which social justice ideology, which defines justice strictly in terms of desirable outcomes for the poor and minorities, has penetrated the evangelical orbit.
What Allen has in mind is the growing popularity among evangelicals for conferences, books, and social media that, in essence, declare white people inherently and irredeemably racist and guilty of white privilege. This ideology is anti-biblical, borrows heavily from the postmodern worldview which aims to redistribute power (Marx aimed to do the same with wealth), and, as Allen declares, is becoming a kind of false religion.
On the very day that we celebrate the courageous legacy of Martin Luther King Jr who successfully led the fight for equal rights for Black Americans, I can understand the appeal of this ideology that seems to embolden the fight against the Great American Sin (17th-19th century slavery, followed by Jim Crow racism from 1870 to 1965). Secondly, it also seems to make sense, to the casual observer, of the fact that most White (and growing numbers of Asian) people cluster in affluent suburbs, while blacks seem largely abandoned in proverbial American inner-city ghettoes. This is the core of the white privilege narrative. Thirdly, I can understand that their calls for Whites to repent of racism actually give Whites a way of talking about race without simultaneously being reviled as racist (maybe people will stop calling us racists if we admit that we are). Finally, this especially appeals to evangelicals because we are coming to grips with the fact that American racial divisions have historical links to evangelicalism, whether we like it or not.
Here is a very simple way to recognize social justice ideology and its appeal: A Black speaker (perhaps representing Black Lives Matter, or an independent Black scholar who writes and speaks about race) stands before an almost completely White crowd. In measured and clear terms, he/she explains that Whites are promoters and beneficiaries of a racially biased system. The White audience responds with a standing ovation, goes back home, satisfied that they have done their part to end racism. Apart from diversity mandates that require hiring of minorities, these same Whites blithely move on with the same set of White friends, consciences absolved by the tongue-lashing that they applauded.
But little change comes to broken, battered Black communities where 90% of Blacks who are murdered are the victims of other Blacks. Reminding Whites about about how racist they are without offering real solutions for the intense brokenness in the larger Black community is akin to going to a doctor who constantly repeats the diagnosis “You have flu!” without offering any medication to alleviate it.
Several of my Black Christian friends have reminded me that racism is alive and well in 21st century America. I do not doubt it, nor do I imagine that it is easy being a minority in this culture (or in any culture, for that matter). I also believe that the message “Whites are irredeemably racist!” (trumpeted to evangelicals also through the effective, but terribly misguided pen of Ta-Nehisi Coates) has actually encouraged a kind of latent racism to rear its ugly head (such as we saw in Charlottesville, VA over a year ago).
As I wrote my White evangelical friend recently, I am tired of these endless harangues about White racism, privilege, unconscious racism, and structural racism. Apart from the grains of truth within them, these diagnoses have almost zero effect on the brokenness of the Black community. They are our neighbors, and they deserve better.
If all lives matter, then my well-being as a White American is directly tied to the well-being of Black Americans. We are in this together, and no longer can any of us imagine that Black children will not suffer when the majority are raised in single-parent homes (part of a larger phenomenon called family fragmentation and about which my Jewish friend Dr. Mitch Pearlstein has written extensively). The research is unequivocal: Family fragmentation is a disaster resulting in higher rates of violence, worse mental health, reduced educational outcomes, and continued massive economic inequality. Unless we evangelicals honestly deal with this reality, and, in turn, pressure American policymakers and academics to be honest about this, we have nothing to offer but hot air and empty words. We are going to have to change our language, our incentives and penalties, and our symbols in order to recover the well-known American success pathway: graduate from high school, get a job, marry, and then have children (in that order).
I want to be clear: I am critiquing the naïve, unwise, and dangerous embrace of social justice ideology by the broader evangelical community, not those who are working in poor neighborhoods to somehow make a redemptive difference. They are heroes, usually unsung. My beef is with evangelical leaders who should know better, and whose efforts are doing nothing to try to bring healing into fractured Black communities but who settle for a social justice ideology that is anti-biblical, postmodern to the core, and, ultimately, completely ineffective in solving our deep racial divide that mirrors and fosters economic and educational inequalities.
Well said, Bob. The gospel of social justice is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is “another gospel.” However, when embraced fully, the gospel of Christ makes one hunger for true justice on behalf of all people.
Thanks for speaking out about this Bob! I particularly appreciated this:
"As I wrote my White evangelical friend recently, I am tired of these endless harangues about White racism, privilege, unconscious racism, and structural racism. Apart from the grains of truth within them, these diagnoses have almost zero effect on the brokenness of the Black community. They are our neighbors, and they deserve better."
Very well said.
I am not sure which part of the evangelical community you are talking about. What about that broad section of evangelicalism that has become intensely nationalistic and who have swallowed the current vitriol directed
, for example, towards our neighbors to the south? Yes we are guilty of racism at numerous levels. Prophetic uterances are often difficult to respond to. In this case true repentance is needed. Repentance, above all, means abandoning our sinful ways and joining with the suffering and together,with the leading of the Holy Spirit, fiinding a way of moving forward.
I am clearly no theologian and I suppose I would be clearly identified as both an evangelical and practitioner of social justice…….I am deeply troubled that more churches and Christians have not cried out for the needed compassion and embracing of the "foreigner among us". I am broken hearted over policies that punish people struggling to survive. And even as a mom in a multi-cultural family I find myself guilty if you will of racist attitudes and assumptions. It is perhaps part of the human condition and indeed some research points to the challenging fact that in spite of our willingness to be otherwise, we conform to the patterns of the groups with which we identify. And we do it subconsciously! It takes real work to build community among people who are not "like us". Building bridges through social justice may give us opportunities to discuss divine justice and mercy. I can’t be quick to criticize evangelicals promoting social justice. It seems to me the gospel is full of good news of forgiveness and healing and the real possibility of social justice. And a way to deal with white [and other] guilt as well as generational trauma experienced by our Native American and other neighbors who bear such pain. Social justice and its relationship to the gospel isn’t just a black and white issue.
It all depends on what is your definition of "social justice." For me it is summed up in James 1:27 "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
Bob, you sound like you’ve had it up to here [holds right hand six feet above ground] with blame for being white. This constant blame is not constructive, you say, and does not help me help my black neighbor. But before you jump in Scott Allen’s boat, which seems propelled more by name-calling, fear-mongering, and Marxist bogeymen (versus actual instances of syncretism), please listen to a voice that locates privilege in a historical setting seething with hatred and Christian hypocrisy: James H. Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” (NY: Orbis, 2011). It’s no wonder this is a conversation that will not go away—it’s still at the heart of today’s evangelicalism. Can anyone really help someone else up without deeply acknowledging their own role in keeping them down?
Plus: when I hear someone say “biblical,” I assume they mean an interpretation that subscribes to their group’s reading of a text. That reading may or may not be accurate, but is certainly informed by their history and place in society—including Allen’s notion of what accounts for “biblical.”