Last modified: Aug 2, 2020

America has a deep-rooted racism problem. It permeates through every institution, every whitewashed page in history books, and every Confederate flag plastered across cars, trucks, and houses in the Deep South.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2015, I met up with local church leaders to learn about social problems unique to the area and how I could plug-in and help — alongside the churches already doing something. Virtually every pastor I met talked to me about the single pillar of their church that somehow differentiated it from other churches: We really care about social justice.

Shouldn’t every church care about social justice? Why is that a differentiator for churches, and not a standard?

Since then, I’ve been on a slow journey of learning about racism and the church (something I’ve written about) — and how Christians should pursue social justice. This piece is my exploration of the why.

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Gray

I grew up in that awkward part of the ’80s and ’90s…

saved by the bell girls dancing

… when that looked cool.

Right before Elmo became the Justin Timberlake of the Sesame Street crew — smack dab during biweekly replays of the Oinker Sisters’ classic tune about their new-found methods of transportation.

One of the songs that still occasionally pops up in my head from that era of children’s programming was from the ubiquitous One of These Things segment on the show. You’d see four items on the screen — three would be similar items like hats, and a fourth would be something out-of-place like a cow. They’d sing the little song and give you 30 seconds to solve… you guessed it… which “one of these things is not like the other.”

That’s it. There’s the rub.

When I was three or four, I lived for this kind of stuff — and this segment in particular. I could pick a cow out of a lineup of hats all day, bruh. I’m just waiting for news there’s a post-COVID career path for people who can pick cows out of a lineup of otherwise-unassuming hats. I’d update my resume super quickly.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed this childhood game gets more and more complex. Having to draw lines in the sand is difficult when what we think are black-or-white are just different shades of gray. There’s just more nuance involved in the fights we do and don’t wage every day.

Nothing represents this dilemma better than when we try tying together social justice and the gospel.

Obvious

Somebody texted me recently to ask why Christian progressives seemingly obsess over social justice. While I couldn’t see their microexpressions through the SMS bubbles on my phone, it felt like they were using the term “Christian progressives” while making the face you’d expect to make after biting down on a lemon for 15 seconds.

baby making sour face after eating lemon

That baby gets it.

I get asked this question a lot, and it’s often nothing more than a trap. They’re not looking for an answer most of the time; they’ve drawn their lines in the sand and have planted their feet accordingly. This recent text exchange wasn’t all too different.

My friend wondered aloud about their observation: any time there was a social cause to rally behind, enough Christian progressives would be interested, eventually overwhelming their social media feeds and forcing them to tune out entirely. (I wonder if the real root cause of their annoyance was the act of Christ-like kindness or just the redundancy and pretense of social media. To me, it feels like the latter — but I digress.)

I kept the conversation going for a bit — mostly because I was curious about why this “progressive” concern for social justice felt fundamentally at odds with their own sense of what Christians ought to do in response to different manifestations of inequality and injustice.

Is helping people a problem, or is helping people progressive? Or is it both?

For a large chunk of Christians in America, phyletism (or ethnophyletism) steers faith. In a more broad sense of the term, it’s when people conflate national pride with being Christian, which blurs the lines between the civic freedom and Christian freedom we expect each other to fight for. Galatians‬ ‭5:13–15 talks about what freedom looks like through a Christian lens — you just won’t hear many churches sharing this take from the pulpit when there’s real political influence at stake.

To be fair, not every American Christian thinks this way. No matter what the relationship between Trump and the Church looks like, not everybody here thinks Jesus came to earth just so we could fire up the grill, throw down some burgers, wear red-white-and-blue bandanas, have a Spotify loop playing on Bluetooth speakers with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” blaring over and over, and compare photo albums of our gun collections during the commercial breaks of our favorite sporting events.

And, to be even more fair, phyletism is not just a problem in multiethnic churches (or mostly-White churches); it’s also a major problem for ethnocentric churches both in the States and elsewhere. I’ve written about this as one of the major signs of a dying church. But this has been a problem throughout the Church’s history — an “ecclesiological heresy” that sweeps under the rug the seeds of racism and xenophobia that inevitably take root.

Not every American Christian thinks following God means America’s going to be great again or some garbage like that. But enough do. And that’s a problem.

We see this pop up a lot now during the current pandemic as pastors and Christians across the country get fired up about how local governments are infringing their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion by imposing limits on how their physical church can set up assembly during a pandemic.

Not only does this miss the point of the First Amendment (read: pandemic-related church closings and assembly limitations aren’t necessarily violating the constitutional right to religious expression), but it also misses the point that silly fights like this lead to real, irreversible deaths.

(There’s an additional layer of irony here that might be worth exploring in a later piece: if churches want the government to treat them as essential businesses, should they start paying taxes like businesses, too?)

I use the word silly to describe this misplaced fervor as if this type of behavior is something incredibly and painfully obvious. But, of course, it isn’t. Which is why I’m writing this piece to begin with.

“Everyone wants to go back to church, including me, but not at the risk of increased infection and death, especially among the most vulnerable… All these preventive actions are ways of caring of the other person — that is, ways of loving.”
Father James Martin, SJ

It should be obvious that there’s nothing inherently essential about a church building.

It should be obvious that caring about other people may include taking preventative measures.

What happens when these things aren’t as obvious as we think?

dinner table closeup

Oblivious

Once, when I was younger, my parents had some cousins over for dinner. We hung out, had some food, and then moved to the living room to chat.

My parents were Pentecostals, and they raised their kids under ultra-Pentecostal dogmas. On the other hand, my cousins were not Pentecostals, so what my parents held to be incontrovertibly true didn’t necessarily jive with them the same way. The chat quickly devolved into a full-fledged argument about my cousins’ recent decision to baptize their baby. To my folks, God instituted baptism for adults; my cousins’ decision offended them. They asked, How could a baby make that sort of public declaration of the direction of their heart? Nothing could be more obvious! (Once I got older, I realized Acts 16:13–15 and centuries upon centuries of Church tradition in the affirmative was plenty of evidence that paedobaptism had legitimate legs to stand on.)

Growing up in my Indian church, the single most important thing was the act of speaking in tongues. (Ok… maybe it was tied for first with rejecting jewelry outright.) There were tarry meetings virtually every week to make sure every single church member could speak in tongues — whether authentically or otherwise. It was understood we couldn’t really call ourselves Christians unless we did so. Nothing could be more obvious! (There’s plenty of evidence scripturally that not everybody has the gift of tongues, but also that it’s neither a one-way ticket to or a pre-requisite for heaven.)

In America today, nothing could be more obvious than a Christ who died for First Amendment rights. Or a Christ who died so we can all own tons and tons of guns. Or a Christ who died so we can invade other countries whenever we want to.

The problem?

All of that is patently ridiculous.

Christ didn’t come for any of those things. He came for that star athlete on TV who quotes scripture and revels in the momentary athletic achievement as proof God desperately wanted prosperity for him and not destruction… Duh.

star athlete celebrating victory by giving toast to god

Sitting in my church when I was a teenager, I remember all of these nascent how-dare-we-quote-scripture-out-of-context thoughts slamming into a wall all at once on a Sunday morning.

I had gotten bored during Sermon #3 on a Sunday (a frighteningly normal occurrence). I started flipping through my teen study Bible because I liked reading all those contextually-relevant, angsty teenager vignettes they managed to pack into the margins. And I started reading a passage in Luke where Jesus was telling his followers about their mission to go and prepare the way. My eyes scanned through the chapter and saw some familiar themes pop up: the parable of The Good Samaritan, hospitality, rejection.

Then I saw the word Sodom pop up, and I stopped. I thought, This is about to get juicy. Jesus is gonna rip into their immorality.

In a section of the Bible that was right in the thick of things where Jesus was discussing what being a neighbor looked like, he wasn’t saying what my church had programmed me into believing what Sodom’s sin was.

In the margins of my study Bible, there was a reference to Ezekiel 16. I flipped over there, started reading, and my jaw dropped as if I was staring through the looking glass for the first time:

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

My mind was blown. That was the guilt of Sodom? Of Gomorrah? Their big mistake was that they didn’t help the poor and needy?

Everything I had been taught about this story — about how Sodom and Gomorrah were obviously destroyed for all their gay people — was starting to crumble. This was the starting point for a lot of my Christological theology journeys that followed.

I’ll admit that over the years, I’ve dug deeper into the gray here. While the Western Church often teaches about this story from a sexual immorality-forward lens (i.e. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their homosexual tendencies, and that’s the end of the story), what scholars have grappled with over the centuries is how Jesus’ hospitality angle (echoed in Ezekiel and elsewhere in scripture) broadens the story past the narrow-minded crosshairs of the Church.

That was the guilt of Sodom? Of Gomorrah? Their big mistake was that they didn't help the poor and needy?Click To Tweet

Granted, there’s more nuance to the exegesis of the text than I can faithfully expound on here in this piece, and it’s worth eventually writing about in the future. It would be presumptuous for me to say God didn’t punish Sodom and Gomorrah for at least some immorality. However, it would also be presumptuous to ignore what Jesus himself zeroed in on when considering their misdeeds.

I’d like to focus on one thing in particular here.

I don’t care about social justice because I’m a progressive Christian; I care about social justice because Jesus obviously did, too.

The Sodom snapshot is just one of many moments of proof. Jesus’ ministry revolved around bringing hope to the hopeless, giving meaning to the marginalized, and befriending The Other.

He said it so himself in Mark 2:17:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

He hung out with the dregs of society — tax collectors, adulterers, and traitorous sycophants — because that’s whom he came for.

Politics, power, and privilege over the course of millennia — from Constantine’s blurring of Church and state, to the Church waging wars in the name of Christ, to the Puritans’ European exodus and propandization of the new North American promised land of milk and honey, to the politicization of American evangelicalism since the dramatic execution of the Southern Strategy — have warped Christ into a figure that the Bible keeps reminding us he’s not.

Caricature Jesus isn’t Actual Jesus.

I don't care about social justice because I'm a progressive Christian; I care about social justice because Jesus obviously did, too.Click To Tweet

The gospel of Actual Jesus actually drives home the idea of social justice as more than simply a societal need but a moral imperative. Tim Keller explains justice in the Bible by unpacking two Hebrew words that occur a bunch of times in the Old Testament:

  • Mishpat — While its most basic dictionary definition means to treat people equitably, context and the word’s use in literature points to a deeper meaning: to give people their rights. Throughout the Old Testament, the writers use mishpat to describe advocating for “widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor” (a group Nicholas Wolterstorff famously called “the quartet of the vulnerable” in his book, Justice).
  • Tzedakah — While often considered a private or personal sense of morality, its use in scripture refers to living every day by conducting “all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity.”

To take it one step further, mishpat is roughly similar to what we’d define as rectifying justice (i.e. punishing those who do wrong and taking care of the victims of injustice). Tzedakah is roughly similar to what we’d define as primary justice (i.e. if everybody carried themselves this way, rectifying justice wouldn’t even be necessary.) The former is exemplified in part by the recent work of Shaun King and others to pressure law enforcement and local government to finally bring justice to the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery. The latter is exemplified in part by the work churches, parachurch organizations, and nonprofits do in communities to create sustainable solutions for real societal problems.

Social justice isn’t a progressive thing. It’s a Biblical thing. It’s an Actual Jesus thing.

But Caricature Jesus gets way more press.

And it shows.

Seeing the lens through which Christ viewed Sodom’s errors revealed to me how oblivious I was to what God’s heart deemed obvious.

It should bother us more — this reality we’re faced with where we’ve imputed to Christ our value systems, our ambitions, and our cultural touchstones.

We’ve turned Christ-the-servant into Christ-the-dude-who-serves-our-agenda.

If that doesn’t make you cringe, understand why people like me write at all; there’s much work left to do.

People have come up with creative ways to show off just how badly American Christians have misconstrued the underpinnings of Christ’s entire philosophical workstream. The Supply Side Jesus bit and the GOP Jesus sketch are masterpieces in cloying satire, but that only reminds me just how much work we have to do to re-imagine Christ as less patriot and more progressive.

I’m not saying Jesus would have voted Democrat or leaned left in recent American elections, but he sure did piss off enough hard-headed religious leaders in his day with actions and words that broke through to the fringes of his society. Christ’s heart for social justice resounded in his concern for the adulteress as much as it permeated through the chiastic delivery of the Beatitudes.

Actual Jesus was really a thing. Caricature Jesus wasn’t.

christian rock band leading worship on stage

WWJD

In the ’90s — that awkward era I grew up in — a Christian movement sprung up in America and exploded in popularity. Symbolized by the letters WWJD stitched into clothing and wristbands, it was part of an effort to reorient American Christianity around a Christ-like purpose — all of which was blanketed by commercialism disguised as Christianity.

(To be fair, it rolled off the tongue easier than mishpat or tzedakah.)

As cutting edge as the slogan felt at the time, it didn’t actually originate in the 1990s. It originated a century earlier when a minister from Kansas, Charles Sheldon, used the phrase in his book and used it as the engine that drove his Social Gospel movement in the 20th century. The phrase served as the crux of his credo: translating belief in Christ into practical social action. In fact, Sheldon taught “selfless discipleship… [was] the only true way to follow Christ’s practical gospel.”

Not getting on TV to protest pandemic-related church assembly restrictions to show the world how pious you are.

Not wearing a hat sold by a politician who tries to tell you churches must be reopened even though he’s gonna hit the links.

Selfless discipleship. That’s it.

That might sound simplistic and reductive coming from most people. But the dude who coined the term WWJD ought to make us stop and think for a second.

How much more should Christ’s intent around social justice move us?

How much more should we consider the gravity and pull of mishpat and tzedakah in the way we carry out our everyday relationships and prioritize what we should be fighting for?

I often get asked why I care so much about the LGBTQ+ community, or immigrants, or poor, or marginalized, the hated, the minority, the abandoned, the lonely, the abused, the mentally unwell.

The insinuation is that my progressive concern should be a larger problem than it is. It wasn’t a problem at all for Christ.

I’m reminded of the lyrics of one of my favorite songs of yesteryear, back when I was rocking out on stages with a guitar and a microphone and dreamed of being a rockstar.

Hey, hey, hey, I was always one of the losers
Hey, hey, hey, don’t you think that Jesus loves us too?
This gospel sounds like good news
To all of us losers

Why am I so moved by social justice?

Because Jesus had a thing for losers.

And that should really be enough. ■