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Christians, Racial Justice, and Political Engagement

November 7, 2020

On Nov 4, the day after the recent US Presidential election, in which we were all eagerly awaiting the outcome, my wife, Kerry, and I were invited to give a presentation through Seattle’s Urban Impact, to a very engaged and diverse group of Christian leaders who are wrestling together over issues of reconciliation.

We were asked to provide biblical guidance on Christian’s engagement in racial justice and politics.

Here are the remarks I offered. Even though the results of the Presidential election affirm today a decisive change, I believe these remarks are pertinent for the journey ahead of us:

In these days after the US Presidential election, I, like millions of others, am reeling. Regardless of who is chosen to be President, I am deeply disheartened that half the American people have voted in ways that either support or tolerate politicians whose actions and policies are deceptive, racist, misogynist, belittling of those who disagree with them, destructive of the environment, and hurtful to people who are poor and marginalized. Even more disheartening is the fact that the majority of those who call themselves Christians embrace or tolerate these values and behaviors that seem to me to be contradictory to the biblical faith. As a pastor, teacher, writer, I ask how have I, and the thousands of others who serve the most “churched” and nourished by Christian media and programs nation in the world’s history, failed so deeply? How can millions of Christians stand by while African Americans and other Persons of Color have to witness that little has changed in America’s racism and greed?

I wonder if one of the roots of our divisions over political engagement is found in our discipleship.

Is Mt 28 the “evangelistic mandate” or is it also the “discipleship mandate”?  After all, Jesus said, “make disciples and teach them to observe all that I’ve commanded” (Mt 28.18-20) I wonder if the church has focused more on making believers, or maybe just contributing attenders, or are we helping one another to live as obedient disciples? It seems clear to me that to understand God’s will for our engagement in racial justice and politics, we need to know and obey Jesus’ commands. 

In a Bible study this week, I heard several people repeat a very common perspective regarding Christian faith and politics.  It can be summarized in 7 statements. These aren’t found as often among marginalized communities, but are frequently heard in the dominant culture and among those Christians who’ve been assimilated into it.

1. I don’t want to get political. After all, Jesus said, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’” Mt 18.36

Yet, Jesus told us to pray, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6.10) How do we reconcile these statements? Our answer will shape our engagement in racial justice and politics. Politics is about how power and relationships are organized to achieve specific objectives. Jesus said, “all authority (power) in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” The Gospel is unavoidably and very fortunately, about power. But it begins (and ends) at a different place than the politics of political parties. 

I didn’t grow up as a Christian, and in my youth I was very engaged in political campaigns. Now to my embarrassment, I confess that I told Kerry when we first met as 18 year olds, that I hoped to become President one day. That shifted toward engagement in the church, but rather than simply loving the church as the bride of Christ, I approached it as an instrument for social change. I pastored with the passion of a community organizer and a prophet for justice, but my power was my own activism more than the Spirit of God. It wasn’t until my mid-30s, as a burned-out pastoral social activist, that I more deeply encountered the powerful love of the Triune God through studying with James Torrance in Scotland. God lives and reigns in a diverse communion of overflowing love, Father, Son, and Spirit. This love overflows into creation—making all people in the image of God. In this triune love, there are no outsiders, no strangers, no in-group. We are of diverse ethnicities but of one race—the race of humans bearing God’s image. In contrast, our ideas of races that undergird racism are sinister social construct created by people in power to exert domination over others through social hierarchies based on skin color. 

God’s triune love overflows in justice and social change. God loves justice (Is 61.8; Ps 37.28), and does justice (Ps 103.6; 140.12) And as God’s children, created in God’s image, we are called to do justice and to live in love (Amos 5.24; Deut 16.20). Our first questions aren’t what’s wrong and what do we need to do to fix it (the typical questions especially of white males); but who is God, what is God doing, and how is the Spirit leading us to participate in this?

Before going further, it’s helpful to clarify the meaning of justice. Biblically, it’s not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. It has very little do with punishment. Rather, justice is to make life right. When we justify the margin on a page, we make it straight. When we adjust a crooked picture, we straighten it out. Justice puts things to right. God’s justice is the expression of God’s love. 

To go further, the Hebrew words for justice and righteousness share a common root. Justice can be thought of as life being made right around me. Righteousness is life being made right within me. Without righteousness, I risk inflicting my brokenness, neediness and pain on those around me. I need God’s right-making love to reorder me so that I grow in the life and love of the Triune God. Without justice, the misuse of power through violence, oppression, and policies and practices that hold others in poverty risk damaging our characters and souls.

No wonder we are called in the Great Requirement of Micah 6:8 to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”, for this is the nature of the God in whom “Mercy and faithfulness meet, justice and peace embrace” (Ps 85.10.) The powerful love of God works to make life right where it is most wrong, where power has been abused in ways that harm others. Thus Israel was continually called to do justice for those who are marginalized, aliens, excluded, and abused for “Remember, you were once slaves in Egypt. Therefore, you must care for widows, orphans, and strangers.’”(Dt 24.18-22) Our love for God will be most clearly evident in how we enact personal and public policies (politics) to care for those who are marginalized

2. Our focus is on heaven. “This world is passing away.” (1 Cor 7.13) “We await a new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21.)

So why then does Jesus call us as we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, to “Seek first the kingdom of God and the justice of that kingdom”? (Mt 6.33) If our focus is to be only on heaven, how do we seek the Kingdom of God now, here, on earth? I propose that much of the Law in the Hebrew Bible, and much of Jesus’ teaching, especially as seen in the Sermon on the Mount, can be best understood as mandates for our public engagement, even as forms of public policies. They describe how the people of God are to live in public.

3. Jesus wasn’t involved in politics. He didn’t run for public office. He didn’t campaign or launch a movement to overthrow the empire (though he did have some zealots among his disciples). 

Jesus was born into an oppressive, tyrannical regime and his life shows us how to live in the power of God’s love in ways that challenge the ruling systems. Jesus set forth his political platform, his policies for public engagement in his first sermon given in Nazareth in Lk 4. 18-19. He read from Is 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news 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, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (the Jubilee).” 

As people took pride in and praised this hometown hero, Jesus turned the table and reminds them of God’s blessing on non-Jewish outsiders, the excluded, and the discriminated against (the widow of Sidon, and the Syrian leper Naaman). Immediately, this kind of application of a sermon to social justice and against racism enraged his congregation, and they literally tried to push him off a cliff.

Throughout his ministry he demonstrated and taught the reordering of power to make life right:

Religious change: Cleansing the Temple, “my house shall be a house of prayer for all people” (Mt 21.13; Mk 11.17); Sabbath made for us (Mk 2.27); the religious law said one thing, but “I say to you…” (Mt 5.22).

Economic change: give to whomever asks” (Mt 5.42), “leave everything and follow me” (Mt 16.24; 19.21; Mark 8.34; 10.21; Luke 9.23; 14.33; 18.22)

Social change: “the last will be first, the first last, the greatest least and the least the greatest” (Mt 19.30; 20.16; Lk 13.30). The gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus violating social norms as he touched, affirmed, and socialized with those whom society excluded—women, tax gatherers, people with leprosy.

Cultural change: affirm outsiders and even oppressors, Syro-phoenican woman (Mk 7.24-30), Canaanite woman (Mt 15.21-28), and Centurion as having commendable faith (Mt 8.5-13)

Political change: to allow people to call him Lord was a direct challenge to Caesar. We see it in his use of irony re taxes—give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, yet get money for taxes from a fish’s mouth (Mt 17.27); love enemies

4. All political systems are corrupt and compromised. It doesn’t matter what political system we’re under. They are all dominated by greed and self-interest—so there’s no point in getting engaged.

To this the gospel says, we live now under the Lordship of Christ, who in his death and resurrection has reconciled all things, including the principalities and powers (Col 1).  Oscar Romero, the famous archbishop of El Salvador, and now Saint, tried to stay out of politics in his parish ministry during El Salvador’s brutal civil war and dictatorship. However, once he drew close to those who suffered from oppression and injustice, he couldn’t stay silent and disengaged. He became a champion for those who are poor and exploited, speaking out against the brutalities of the government. It took assassination to quiet him—but even death didn’t silence him.

5. The gospel is about salvation from sin and going to heaven. We live to keep ourselves unstained by the world and prepare to go to heaven. 

Yes we live with abounding hope in heaven, and our call now is to so live that we prepare signs on earth of the coming kingdom of heaven.

6. We seek to love everyone. We practice love and forgiveness with all people, and seek to live above the political disputes of our age.

Yes we practice love and forgiveness, and we also live a prophetic lifestyle: we challenge and provide a living contrast to the systems of greed, self-interest, exploitation of power for personal gain that dominate our society. We demonstrate kinship and belonging with all people. 

7. Our faith is personal and private. We don’t want to mix our faith and politics.

The reality is that if we remain disengaged in political life, we are tacitly supporting the status quo. Disengagement is a form of political engagement. And if our faith doesn’t shape our politics, our social location rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ will do the shaping.

Our faith is both personal and corporate, and our piety has deep public engagement and policy implications. As we participate in the overflowing love of the Triune God, doing justice and loving mercy, seeking the kingdom of God here, on earth, as it is in heaven, we will pursue public engagement to promote the flourishing of all people and creation.  We rely on the Spirit of Truth—to lead us into all truth, the concerns on the heart of God. 

Unavoidably, our social location shapes our approach to politics: whether we are comfortable or oppressed, powerful or powerless, benefiting from the system or suffering under it. Because of this, we tend to focus on those issues that are particularly relevant to our social location, personal interests, and the ways we’ve been taught to prioritize biblical convictions. 

The good news is that we are given in Christ a new social location—the heart of God and citizenship in the Kingdom of God. We don’t presume to understand fully all the will and way of God, so we walk humbly—but we walk with bold, courageous humility for our hearts and our interests are being increasingly captivated by the heart of the triune God 

Zacchaeus got this. The tax gatherer who was a collaborator with the oppressive empire didn’t simply thank Jesus for the forgiveness he received. Recognizing that his wealth and lifestyle were built by oppressing and exploiting others, he gave away half of his possessions and paid back anyone he’d defrauded 4 fold. (Lk 19.1-10) In the tradition of Zacchaeus, churches around the US are setting up Zacchaeus funds to pay reparations over the prosperity dominant culture Americans have gained over the centuries through the exploitation of enslaved people, and poor workers here and around the world.

The early church also understood that our faith is public and even political, though they had to do this through clandestine, and subversive strategies. They were a tiny minority in a brutal tyranny. I’ve written about this elsewhere so here simply want to note that I find it stunning the church chose highly political words for our life together. The words for community (Koinonia), Lord (Kyrios—the title of the Emperor), Sacrament, (the oath of loyalty taken by soldiers when enlisting in the military) and even the word for worship were appropriated by the church, uprooting them from their common political and social use. 

We see it also in the church’s response to poverty. The new norm was for each to give so that no one was in need (Acts 4.32-44) so that there was no longer a “needy person among them”; and each give so that there might be equity, a fair balance (2 Cor 8).

Another illustration is found in the church’s response to slavery. At first read, the New Testament seems to endorse slavery (“slaves, serve your masters as you would the Lord”—Eph 6.5). Slave-owners have certainly appropriated this verse throughout American history.  Yet enslaved people were eagerly welcomed into the church, and worshipped alongside others with equality and honor. Somewhere between 15 and 20% of the Roman Empire were enslaved. To call for their release would have provoked a violent crackdown. Instead, Paul was much more clandestine. We see this in the tiny, one chapter book of Philemon. It’s easy to wonder why it made it into the Canon of Scripture. There doesn’t seem to be any great doctrinal teaching here. However, it’s a precious gem, portraying the radical biblical approach to social engagement. To remind you of the story, Onesimus was a runaway slave who Paul led him to the Lord. He then sends Onesimus back to his former owner, Philemon. At first glance, that seems like a horrible endorsement of slavery. However, Onesimus carries this one page letter from Paul, in which Paul says, in v. 17, receive Onesimus as your brother in Christ. He has become so dear to me, treat him like you were treating me. 

Philemon got the message. It turns out the Onesimus went on to become a bishop in the church, something he couldn’t have done if he was still enslaved. The overflowing love of the Triune God led to public engagement that made life right.

In the book, Divided by Faith, which I imagine many of you have read, the authors expose the tendency of Christians in the dominant culture to view reconciliation primarily about establishing good interpersonal relationships.  The authors documented how most African American Christians and persons of color value good relationships, but also stress the need for changing unjust social systems through public engagement. Kerry and I recognize we live and talk from our context in the dominant culture. We have so much to learn from our brothers and sisters of color.

One Comment
  1. The older you get, the better. Thanks

    Sent from my iPad


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