“Jesus settled that all lives matter at the cross.” “What we really need is revival.” “Jesus is the answer.” “It’s a sin problem, not a skin problem.” “They are thinking in terms of the flesh, but we think in terms of the Spirit.” “Abortion kills black lives too.” “Changing laws will not change people’s hearts.” “The Gospel is sufficient.” “This is a heart problem.” “The government cannot fix this.” “Politics cannot provide healing.” “You know, Charles Darwin was also a racist.”
All of these are statements I have heard or read from pastors or church leaders over the last week and a half. Some are just silly. Others are true and even appropriate in the right context. However, when used to turn a blind eye to injustice, they become half-truths and demonic ploys to solidify further the feigned supremacy of the god of this world, a hostile power who appears to blind the eyes of unbelievers and many evangelicals indiscriminately.
The ironic and hard truth is that when Christians use these clichés as an excuse not even to listen to their neighbors, the church not only does not provide a positive solution to progress, we stand in its way. Among the tools we need to curb this is a missional framework and an imagination expanded by better theology and a less superficial reading of the Scriptures. What I outline here is a short summary of one way to approach the issues of biblical justice and the church’s mission along with the doctrine of sin and its relation to human structures/systems. Hopefully, this will help some begin to think more deeply about the issues and lessen fears over the absurd claim that recognizing specific forms of injustice somehow equates to rejecting the gospel.
BIBLICAL JUSTICE AND THE MISSION OF GOD
First, let us consider biblical justice and mission in the context of this question. Does faithfulness to the Scriptures and the gospel of Jesus require us to shy away from issues of societal justice to focus only on individual conversions and “spiritual” revival? I think a survey of the biblical witness shows not only that it does not require that we shy away from matters of justice, but that it demands we approach them as ambassadors of the one whom John calls “the ruler of kings on earth.”
When making this case, one of the best places to start is a definition of justice. There are three definitions of biblical justice drawn from the word pairings of justice and righteousness in the Old Testament that I have found helpful as I read God’s word and think through what I believe is a biblical position. First, Peter Gentry, an OT scholar at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that when “justice” and “righteousness” are coordinated in the OT, they form a single idea: social justice. He rightly distinguishes this concept from many forms of modern social justice in this way. He writes: “This word pair becomes a way of summarizing the requirements and stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, which in turn are an expression of the character of Yahweh.” He goes on to say that “practicing social justice is the manner in which Abraham and his family [were] ‘to keep the way of Yahweh’” (Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understand of the Covenants, 282).
Another definition that I find helpful is that of NT scholar Michael J. Gorman. He says something similar, but fleshes it out a bit more. He writes that “justice” and “righteousness” are relational terms having to do with human community and wholeness, the setting right of wrongly configured relationships, the liberation of the oppressed, and attention to the poor and needy. He explains that it is related to the biblical, and I would add creational and eschatological, vision of shalom where all is well in a community regarding its relationship with Yahweh, interpersonal relationships, and creation (See Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, 215).
I also find the Bible Project’s video on Justice helpful in giving a succinct definition of biblical justice in light of the gospel and the mission of the church. In my Sermon “Let Justice Roll Down” from May 31, I also give my views on biblical justice, the gospel, and discipleship. However, a summarized version is this.
God intends that humans live together in his world and experience shalom as we walk with and worship God, love and care for one another, and steward his creation well. That, of course, was complicated in the Fall. The nations became places of idolatry and injustice in which the powerful often preyed upon the poor and everyone did what was just in their own eyes. God’s penultimate solution to this was the call of Abraham and the people of Israel. His intent was that they be a people who walked with him and practiced justice and righteousness toward one another. The Law was even structured to help them avoid taking advantage of one another. Sabbath years, Jubilee years, and laws governing one’s treatment of the most vulnerable (widows, orphans, and immigrants/refugees) were all designed so that, as Gentry puts it, the family of Abraham might “practice social justice.”
The problem is that Israel did indeed have a heart problem, but this was a heart problem dually affecting without separation their relationship with God AND their missional vocation to be a justice-hungry people. They worshiped idols, their cities became hotbeds of injustice and exploitation, and they mirrored the image of the nations back to the nations rather than the image of Yahweh. For this reason, the prophets, time and again, called for covenant renewal, what we might call revival. They preached that Israel was guilty of the correlated sins of idolatry AND injustice. They called upon the wealthy elites of Israel to turn from their sins through casting off their idols AND through practicing justice for the poor, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their God.
For the prophets, practicing justice and worshiping Yahweh went hand in hand and could not be separated. In fact, many times Israel’s elites attempted to have what we might call a spiritual religion that left their finances and social structures unaffected. They observed Sabbath days, feast days, and professed allegiance to the God of Israel. However, through the prophets, Yahweh declared that he hated their feasts and solemn assemblies. Their empty Sabbath days and their hollow sacrifices made him nauseous. He vowed to hide his eyes from them until they learned to seek justice, correct oppression, and bring relief to the most vulnerable around them.
In a similar way, why should God be pleased with or receive our half-hearted pleas for revival when they are often used as excuses not to acknowledge or engage in seeking justice or in the correction of oppression? Could God be saying to us through the prophets, “I hate your tent meetings and your revival services. Your National Days of Prayer make me sick to my stomach. I loathe your Christian Radio more concerned with partisan politics than the kingdom of God. Turn from evil. Learn to do good. Hear the cries of the broken. Correct oppression. Preach a full gospel that doesn’t allow you callously to ignore human suffering!”
Sadly, ancient Israel never did heed the prophetic warnings, but even though the majority proved faithless, Yahweh proved faithful in the Messiah. He would prove faithful not so that his people could ignore injustice, but so that they could be the kingdom of priests that he had always called them to be.
In the Messiah Jesus, the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He lived as the servant-king, full of the Spirit and determined to bring forth justice among the nations. He died for our sins, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. He will appear again to judge the living and the dead and to make this world the place of shalom that God always intended. However, RIGHT NOW he is working in the world toward shalom through the Spirit-filled community whom the Father has declared just and whom the Spirit is making just.
Jesus is making just a people who, like Israel was supposed to do under the Law, practice justice until he comes. Jesus makes us just/righteous people in the following way. We are declared just through faith in him. We are transformed into just people who look more and more like Jesus as the Spirit works in us to transform us after the image of God’s Son. And, we see what a life of justice looks like in the life and death of Jesus. However, again, Jesus’ goal was not just to make individuals just, but to make a community of believers just, so that they could live out the vocation of the family of Abraham as a kingdom of priests who practice justice in the world. This is our mission as those who have found themselves, through the Spirit, to be equal participants in family of Abraham.
Granted, our context is a bit different than Israel in the Land. We are more like Israel in Babylon. However, our calling to work toward the coming kingdom and to seek the good of our community stands. And, as the church, we work toward justice in the world in at least two ways. First and most importantly, through preaching the gospel, baptizing believers, and making justice-hungry disciples. We are to exist in community as a colony from heaven who centers the needs of the most vulnerable around us and who, as N. T. Wright often says, go in this world to where the pain is the deepest. Secondly, however, God also calls us to work toward justice in our communities through speaking prophetically to the powers that impede justice and shalom. We should call upon them to fix broken structures that perpetuate injustice, and inasmuch as we are in the capacity to do so, use the creative gifts that God has given us to help design more equitable structures. We must do all these things. Israel was called to do both, and as the people of the Age-to-come, we must both preach the gospel and speak prophetically, as an act of obedience to Christ and love for our neighbor.
THE POWER OF SIN AND VULNERABILITY OF SYSTEMS
Along with biblical justice, we as evangelicals must also think more deeply concerning sin and the way it corresponds to human structures/systems. As with the section prior, we may approach this through a couple of questions. Do the problems of our world boil down to the problem of individual sin so that our only response should be to preach a gospel of individual salvation? Or, do the problems of our world require a more robust understanding of sin and human structures, so that a faithful response entails a more variegated solution than a half-gospel of individual salvation? I think if we answer affirmatively to the latter question, we are closer to reality and will be more faithful to the Scriptures.
As people of the word, we should see sin as existing individually (i.e. there is something wrong with us) AND cosmically (i.e. Satan and rebellious powers). To add to this, both individual sin and cosmic Sin make human structures/systems especially vulnerable to abuse. Because of human sin, some structures/systems are designed to exploit other humans. A biblical example is slavery in Egypt. The Egyptians feared the family of Abraham and forced them into hard labor to oppress them. This was a structure purposefully designed to exploit with exceptional results. Billy Graham could have visited ancient Egypt and convinced the entire lot to give their heart to Christ, and it would not have achieved the biblical mandate to correct oppression unless its economic system was uprooted and reworked as well.
A more surprising biblical example of a structure that was used to exclude people is the Law of Moses. This is important, because the Law of Moses is, as Paul says, holy and righteous and good. It did not come from humans so as to be purposefully exploitative. However, it was still vulnerable, because the power of Sin/Satan was working through the Law to draw out evil from fallen humans. In Romans 7, the Law became an occasion for the hypothetical Israelite to covet as Sin worked down through the commandment to draw out greed from the heart. In a similar manner, I think it could be argued that Satan and the rebellious powers also worked through the Law to draw out other ugly sins from the heart of Israel. From the Laws dealing with ceremonial uncleanliness, it led them to push to the margins the sick among Israel. (This is where Mark puts Jesus throughout his ministry, in the desolate places among the lepers, outcasts, and demon-possessed. Even in his death, the Just One was executed outside the camp with the accursed.) Kosher laws became an occasion for Satan to draw out from the people a hatred for the Gentiles and for other Jews who interpreted and applied the Law differently than they did. Paul thought himself as, in many ways, blameless as far as the letter of the Law goes (Phil. 3); however, it still drew out from him a desire to murder Christians. In sum, human structures, even the very best, are highly vulnerable and should be open to criticism and correction, because they have two different intelligent creatures seeking to exploit them from two different directions and for sinful purposes: the human and the non-human/Satan.
The vulnerability of human structures cannot be addressed through easy, one-sided solutions. They must be approached through a message that pierces the heart AND as corporate bodies come together to fix or dismantle and rework structures that have become occasions for oppression. Likewise, a rigid conservatism of any kind is dangerous, because the evil one will search out any hole in a system through which he may draw out our sin. We should always be sensitive to how the Spirit is working toward the good, even through Sin’s ploys, to open our eyes to ways we need to correct and progress in our theology to make it more biblical and honoring to God and in our structures as members of a common society to make them more equitable for all.
One more thing to consider is that Satan and rebellious powers not only work through systems to draw out individual sins from certain persons. Rather, as sin is drawn out by rebellious powers through broken systems, the evil one, empowered by Sin, begins to exercise a dominion upon entire groups of people. Scripture tells us that he is the god of this world, who blinds the minds of unbelievers. He acts as the prince of the power of the air, carrying the masses along to do his bidding. He is the evil one, holding entire peoples within his sway. The power of Sin drawn from individual sins through systems by the evil one is able to get people to do things as a group that they would never do on their own. Sin is able to blind people from their own intentions and the ways in which they participate in the present evil age. Sin is able to get a people to sacrifice their own children to the gods. It is able to get a people who have longed for their king to yell, “Crucify him!” once he has come. Sin is more than the sum of our individual choices; it is a power. This is why Paul says that, as Christians, we must make an active decision not to follow the course of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The reality is that the sins of our fathers and the systems they constructed produce a power over us that is exploited by the prince of darkness. This power is like a flowing body of water that, if its current is unrecognized, will carry us along with it unbeknownst to ourselves. We see this biblical framework at work in our own history as Americans. Something more than individual sins was happening when entire denominations split so that one half of its members could continue to own and treat people like cattle. Something more than individual sin was happening when Southern Christians, so scrupulous to obey the rules that they would shun beer and dancing, went in mass to view a lynching and, like Saul, held the proverbial coats of the executioners. In a similar way, I think more than individual sin is happening when people, whom I know love Jesus and want to do good, use empty religious slogans to perpetuate injustice. Systems are powerful and dangerous, especially those designed with sinful intentions, because they serve as an occasion for the evil one to do more than draw out individual sin. They serve also as an occasion for him to draw out a power to blind and push along entire peoples toward the precipice of destruction. But what happens when systems are corrected by justice-hungry followers of Jesus working alongside like-minded people, who, through a shared conviction or common grace, also long for justice to come? Satan begins to lose some, not all but some, ground because he loses an occasion to draw out sin. In this way, it is actually quite true that laws have the ability, if not to change hearts, then at least to change minds. No one today, for instance, would question women’s suffrage, not because we have all had a come-to-Jesus moment with regard to equity for women, especially since inequality against women still emerges in other ways. Rather, since laws were changed by courageous people unwilling to turn a blind eye to inequality, Satan lost his occasion to subjugate women in that specific area.
Systems are indeed dangerous, but they are not all bad. Like skeletons, they are necessary to order and hold the complex parts of human society. In the Law of Moses, we also see the positive importance of structures/systems. Ancient Israel fell horribly short of their vocation, but they were not as bad as they could have been. The Law of Moses was not an indifferent system that just emerged naturally, as if Israel’s God was only concerned with individual hearts. Rather, the Law that was given through angels was quite advanced in comparison to other Ancient Near Eastern peoples. It had Sabbath years, Jubilee years, Levirate marriage, and many other laws all intended to curb the perpetuation of generational poverty. It had laws that centered the needs of the most vulnerable in that society: widows, orphans, and immigrants/refugees. Often these laws worked. Overall, the power of Sin proved too much and Israel’s leaders sinfully ignored them until Exile resulted. However, I think the point is that, not only is there a biblical precedent for suspicion toward human structures, there is also a biblical precedent for creative, thoughtful structures that work toward the wellbeing of a community. What all this means for us is that we should not just accept the human structures around us as sacred or permanent, nor should we think that our vocation as Christians precludes us from them. Any human constitution, law, or structure should be open to correction, because every human system is vulnerable to corruption. Moreover, we need thoughtful, creative people who love justice and practice mercy to think together about how to craft new structures that allow for human flourishing and point us toward the day of redemption. This does not mean that we do not need the good news. We need the news that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself not counting our trespasses against us. We need, first and foremost, the good news that if anyone is in Christ, then the new creation that is coming is a reality right now in the middle of this present age. As evangelicals, we need to take part in all these things. And, we need to stop thinking in terms of either/or and start thinking in terms of both/and. In other words, vocation is not a choice between an individual gospel or correcting oppression. Rather, our vocation comes from the full gospel of the kingdom that says that Christ liberated a people from the power of Sin so that they may work toward justice and peace until he comes.
Applying these principles to our present context, I think that there is a good case to be made that some structures in our society were purposefully designed with ill-intent and others were designed with good intentions. However, all structures no matter the intent from the human side are vulnerable to exploitation from the cosmic power of Sin. Moreover, some structures in our country were put in place out of a hatred and fear of the other as well as out of a corresponding greed. During Reconstruction, voting laws that required literacy tests and the allowance of white men to stand at polling places and intimidate voters are examples of laws and a voting structure that preyed upon people because of the color of their skin. Black Codes and Convict Leasing formed another structure designed with the sinister intent of the re-enslavement of freed men. Jim Crow laws are a more recent example of laws constructed within a system of oppression. However, the example that gets at some of the issues we see today is the War on Drugs. There is a good case to be made that the War on Drugs was purposefully designed to target minority communities in urban areas to appease and attract political support from Southern whites who were terrified by the turmoil of the Civil Rights Era. Whereas many countries attacked the growing drug epidemic by allocating funds for research and treating root causes of addiction, the powers that be in our country poured resources into policing and incarcerating drug offenders. However, whether intentional or not, the results have been devasting to minority communities. From this movement would come an escalation in the militarization of the police force, stop-and-frisk laws, no-knock warrants, and other overaggressive, dehumanizing policies. This would lead to mass incarceration and would further escalate tensions in urban areas. Most of these policies are still in place. The state-sanctioned murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville was a result of a no-knock warrant. I think you can see from this too, that it really doesn’t matter if an individual is “personally” racist or not. I think most cops are well-intentioned fallen humans, many believers and many not, just like in every other profession. However, most don’t know that the training that they receive, the laws that they are asked to enforce, or the tactics that they use are rooted in a sinister attempt to target certain communities. They do not realize that they can easily get swept up into a spirit of aggression and brutality as they follow along the course of this age. I don’t know if the men who killed George Floyd or Breonna Taylor were personally racist. My hunch is that not all were. However, without knowing it, they took part in a system that was rooted in racist policies. In the same way, many of us who turn a blind eye to these things, may not be personally racist. However, without knowing it, we too share in a system of oppression and can easily follow the course of this world. That this should make us uneasy is an understatement. For, if the prophets tell us anything, it is that willful ignorance will not be an excuse on the Day of Judgment, especially when the cries of those suffering are thundering all around us. Now, of course, it is not just people of color who are affected by the brokenness of our criminal justice system. Poor whites have suffered immensely as well. However, African Americans are especially vulnerable and have historically been the primary targets of such injustices. For that reason, I don’t think it is a rejection of the gospel to point such things out as examples of racial injustice. Furthermore, I don’t think it is overreach to label the simplistic responses that I began this article with as examples of collusion with white supremacy.
As Christians—those who have been declared just, are being made just, and are following the righteous King—we have the responsibility to work toward the correction of systems that are being abused, whether they were created with ill intent or not. Our first responsibility is to preach the good news that Jesus is Lord and invite all to be a part of his kingdom through repentance and faith. However, as those who are in Christ, it is also our duty to warn the powers that be that they will one day stand before King Jesus to give an account for the ways they have executed their power and, most importantly, for what they did with the news that the crucified One is Lord and Judge. When leaders continue to ignore even the reality of racial injustice, then it is our prophetic responsibility to call them out, especially when they continue to fan the flames of division through the thinly coded language of white supremacy. This is our duty and a part of our Christian vocation because the Bible does not allow us to bifurcate between loyalty to Jesus and a hunger for justice.
As far as CRT and Intersectionality go, I honestly don’t know a lot about them. I do know that there are dear brothers and sisters who know a lot more about them than me, who do choose to use them as tools as they take every thought captive to make them obedient to King Jesus. Such folks would also concur with most if not all that I have written above. Others who come at history from a more Marxist worldview have their own thought patterns and language to explain what I would call sin and broken structures. Even if their starting point is off, methods are off, and goals are off, they can point out true things about history and society. It is not a distinctively Christian virtue to be able to see people continually choked out in the streets and recognize it as oppression any more than it is distinctively Christian to be able to look up and see that the sky is blue. It is just a part of being an image-bearer and a part of common grace. The sad truth is that their language dominates the discussion and imagination because, as people suffer underneath the powers of Sin working through structures, Christians are often not a part of the discussion. Rather, many would rather quip that Jesus is the answer while ignoring the many ways in which the people with whom Jesus most identified with are suffering. It is hard to get your vocabulary and worldview out there if you never take your seat at the table. I think this is what Mark Noll gets at when he says that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is no evangelical mind. That is, evangelicals have focused so heavily the last one hundred years on individual sin and individual salvation that we have not even thought carefully, or if at all, about the social issues that affect every one of us in the Western world. As Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith point out in their important work, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, evangelicals who only recognize individual sin are not only left without the tools to combat the deeply-rooted problems in America, they often end up as a part of the problem. Put another way, the problem with many evangelicals is, ironically, not that we take sin too seriously, but that we do not take sin seriously enough. This, again, is evidenced in the opening paragraph of this article in which I share deeply offensive and shallow responses from pastors and church leaders who feel like they must speak into the pain and unrest of our black and brown neighbors rather than listen to them.
For what it’s worth, I do believe Jesus is the answer and the gospel is enough. The good news that God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, peace and rest has broken into this world through the life, death, crucifixion, and resurrection-enthronement of the man from Galilee and through his life-giving Spirit is the message we need. That every politician, including Republican presidents, and every crooked cop will kneel before the Crucified One for how they use their power should thunder from our lips. We should remind them, in the words of spoken-word artist Jason “Propaganda” Petty, that “it was a crooked system just like this that left the King of Kings bloodless” (See “Gangland” by Lecrae ft. Propaganda). Yes, we need Jesus, because we desperately need the servant-king who has liberated his people in a New Exodus from the powers of Sin and Death, so that we may be a kingdom and priests to our God. Jesus died to fix our heart problem, but he did so to reconcile us to the God of heaven and for a mission in the world. He died and rose again so that in him we may be declared just and transformed into justice-hungry humans who do not except easy solutions. He died and rose again so that we may follow his Spirit and the way of his kingdom rather than the prince of the power of the air. He died and rose so that we may belong to the incarnation of wisdom, who grants us the ability to work alongside others from different walks of life who also long for systems of oppression to be corrected as we await and work toward the kingdom that is coming on earth as it is from heaven. May we, as evangelicals, pray and work toward that end rather than impede it!
If you’re in the Paducah area and want to talk more about King Jesus and what it means to live in his new world, I would love to sit down with you over a cup of coffee (my treat!). Contact me, and let’s meet! I also invite you to come and worship the King with me at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. We meet for worship weekly at 10:00 on Sunday mornings.