One of the challenges in trying to bring sustained repentance and transformation among the more conservative evangelicals regarding racism has been the theologically division that has been placed between, in their minds, the Gospel and social justice. For them, the Gospel is about Jesus dying for your sins so that you can be forgiven. They may push this notion of the Gospel a bit further to talking about a changed heart, at the core of the Gospel for them is the coming to faith and being forgiven. so, where hearing about “social justice,” it can be like the scraping sound on a blackboard because, at the core, it brings them to feel a sense of guilt and/or shame for injustices and sins that they use the “Gospel” to hide and cloak themselves behind. For some, the have gone so far as to avoid feeling any shame or guilt by turning the attack against those people that “social justice warriors” advocate for, with African Americans being one of the prime examples. Just today, I saw a few tweets from a well-known, hardliner Calvinist (I do not intend this to represent the Reformed tradition) who basically blame African-Americans for all their social woes.
Here is the point: when one’s “gospel” is simply about relieving you from feelings of guilt and shame, one will do anything one can to protect that “gospel,” including throwing guilt and shame on those who may make you feel guilt and shame. This “gospel” is a gospel of religious narcissism, that makes the person impervious to recognizing their own sins and injustices.
However, even as many of the causes of those fighting for social justice has merited, the means by which the cause of social justice has been taken has often backfired against its effectiveness. Within Christian circles, those who fight for social justice commonly see themselves as engaging in a prophetic ministry, but in the midst of speaking like the angry prophets of the Old Testament, they fail to discriminate when and to whom to express this anger. They are lead to believe that if they just get angry enough they will create change. Far beyond using one’s anger to break the shroud of secrecy and silence, or using one’s anger to actively protect flesh-and-blood, or using one’s anger to gather together to peacefully protest, they have increasingly used their anger as a weapon in the world of symbolic communication, that is social media conversations, thinking that the angrier they get, the more likely they are to be heard, so they direct their opprobrium to people who express views that deem to be unjust, irregardless of whether their targets are actively doing any harm or not.
Here is the problem, anger is good at protecting and even forcing the issue, but it is not good as persuading and transforming that targets of one’s anger. To persuade people in order to bring about a change within then, there must be some internal motivating factor for them to create long-lasting change in a certain direction. If, however, people are responding solely because of some external factor, such as an expression anger, it will lead to either hostility that will deepen in their hearts or surface level conformity without a depth of substance. If one’s goal is long-term change and transformation, anger is a bad way to bring it about, as the success of one’s anger will be primarily determined by the persistence of power and control one has over the targets of one’s anger to keep them lock in perpetual guilt and shame should they even consider crossing the line.
What is the point here? The evangelistic “Gospel” has been a tool used to shield people from the guilt and shame that those fighting for social justice advocate for through their anger, leading to further division between the two. Consequently, forgiveness and justice have been increasingly split apart, with only theological traditions such as the Wesleyan tradition that brought together justification and sanctification together able to somewhat stem the tide. Yet, even within Wesleyan traditions, you see various people favoring “evangelism” or “social justice” in their theology that may give a passing nod to the other component, with nary a real, substantive theological union of the two.
In the end, this historically goes back to how the proponents of the Social Gospel, such as Walter Rauschenbaum, made itself distinct from the individualistic religion of conservative Protestantism. However, in trying to broaden the understanding of the Gospel to include institutional and systemic sins and injustice in addition to individual sins, the entrenched individualism of the Protestant understanding of justification by faith had no real space in their theological worldview to incorporate such an account of social justice. Combine this theological division with the ongoing political division about social matters and you have a fusion of conservative Protestantism with conservative nationalism and the fusion of the social Gospel with left-wing politics, which has contributed to the further division of evangelism and social justice.
Ultimately, though, the seeds of this problem were planted in the way Luther and the early Protestants understood faith and justification. This isn’t to blame them, as it was a necessary correction to a theological error and injustice of era, but when the corrections of today become the foundations for tomorrow, all the deeper, unforeseen implications, inconsistencies, errors, and flaws of our corrections, as good as the corrections originally were, are shown as the building begins to topple on an insufficient foundation.
Because, in the end, the foundation of the Gospel is not justification by faith. It is Christ crucified. It isn’t our theological understandings of the significance of the crucifixion that is the foundation, but it is Christ crucified. Theology is certainly important and necessary work to bring to conscious, cognitive reflection and expression our faith in the purposes of God’s reconciling and redeeming activity in Jesus Christ, but it is the actual person of Jesus and the actual event surrounding the cross that is the foundation of the Christian faith.
To that end, if someone were to ask me describe a new theological wineskin to bring evangelism and social justice into a better union, here are three overarching points I would put forward that I do not seek to exegetically prove here for the sake of (relative) brevity, but put forward for thoughful reflection:
- We are called by God to Christ through the Spirit, through which calling our faith in Christ puts us in union with Christ through the Spirit so that we ourselves will come to grow to have the faith of Jesus Christ. Justification is the event in which God’s speak over us this new life in Christ as our future reality, meaning that the sins of the past do not define our future, either in terms of our guilt or in remaining permanently entrenched in our lives.
- Our calling to Christ is not an individualistic relationship of Jesus and “me,” so much as it is a call to be in relationship to others, both believers and unbelievers, in the way that Christ relates to others, both those who follow Him and those who do not. As such, the calling to Christ is not just a call away from individual sins that set us up against God’s purposes, but away from relational sins into a relational righteousness and holiness where we live in right relationship with each other. Being in Christ, being part of the Body of Christ, etc., is about reconstituted communities and an international ‘nation’ of God’s people.
- Upon coming to a mature faith that comes into a love for God and loves for others, we are capable of coming to comprehend God’s wisdom that leads and directs us corporately into a whole new “philosophy” that sets itself apart from the intellectual systems of the world. However, this “philosophy” is social and redemptive before it is analytic and evaluative, recognizing in Christ the shape of a whole social structure. As such, the relational bonds lead to a social, structural righteousness that provides a testimony, resistance, and even hopefully a safe haven against the structural injustices of the world around them.
Faith, then, is the way way in which our lives respond to God’s calling to follow Christ, leading our faith to become increasingly a reflection of Christ’s own faith in the Father. This form of faith is more teleological rather that doctrinal (belief in doctrines) or affective (emotional trust), even as doctrine and affect are integral in our faith, in that it points towards the hope of God’s bountiful blessings and promises upon others through one’s life being joined to Christ through the Spirit, all of which is to ultimately point towards and culminate in the eschatological resurrection.