Almost anytime we get into a discussion about matters of injustice that calls for political reforms, there is a response from primarily evangelical Christians that say that racism can only be eradicate from the heart. While this is a true sentiment on the surface, there is often an underlying sentiment this idea is used to justify: “therefore, we shouldn’t try to change the problems in society.” It is often used as a repudiation of social justice. Modern advocates for justice, on the other hand, imagine trying to eradicate racism, or any other various forms of socials ills, frequently by reimagining society. In this worldview, if you construct society well, you can eradicate social evils.
These two worldviews have different implicit “logics” that undergird what they say. For the evangelical, their logic works under the assumption that society is determining by the aggregate of individual people and their contributions to that society. By contrast, the social justice advocate works by the reverse logic, where the way society is ordered and structured determines the nature of individual people.
What I want to suggest is that there is a validity to both forms of “logic” about injustices, such as racism, but they fail to really understand the degree to which their perspectives are reliable to eradicating social problems.
On the one hand, personal transformation is necessary to eradicating racism within a society, as prejudice ultimately stems from the behaviors of people. Even as not all injustice can be explained to the aggregate of individual intentions, preferences, and behaviors, the existence of prejudice must be eradicated by transform people’s hearts. However, the existence of societal ideologies can create a stranglehold that make personal transformation nigh impossible across the whole of society, as ideologies have a way of forcing how people perceive themselves and others, including both the ideological centers of power and those who are resisting those centers of power. When such ideologies have power, such as the ideology of white supremacy in the 20th century, personal transformation is actively hindered. It requires wide-spread demonstrations of a different way of life to break open the worldviews and begin to cast down the ideology. When people try to minimize and silence such demonstrations through appeals to the “heart,” they are buttressing the very ways of life that keep personal transformations from happening on a wide scale.
Consequently, societal transformation can be instrumental in personal transformation when the source of power for controlling ideologies of the past have been torn down, taking away the source of control of thinking that will open people up to a new way of thinking and living with a great concerns for justice. Furthermore, the changes that societal transformations make can lead to the minimization of harm from personal prejudices through various mechanisms.
However, there is also the risk of social transformations when the historically oppressed and those who identify with the oppressed become societal victors, the moral zeal and passion for one’s cause may then lead to temptations to the wide scale punishment and shaming of the perceived oppressors in an attempt to eradicate the source of injustice. There shall be no quarter for the “enemy.” This form form of no tolerance for anything that smells of deviance leads to resistance, thereby increasing rather than decreasing instability and conflict.
This is why the bifurcation of the Gospel of Jesus into individualistic evangelism and social justice has severe societal consequences. A wide-scale transformation towards justice needs both personal and societal transformations to lead to a long-lasting peace and shalom. Societal transformations can break down the strongholds that actively keeps people’s eyes from seeing and ears from hearing and it is there that awakenings on a personal level can begin to really take root.
As I wrote in a previous post “A hypothesis about spiritual awakenings,” I put forward that “Christian spiritual awakenings (1) occur during periods of a wide-spread social disequilibrium that (2) erode people’s confidence in prevailing cultural and social beliefs, (3) resulting in people’s greater openness to spiritual awareness.” Social transformations create a wide-spread disequilibrium, particularly when they disarm the previous centers of ideological power and influence, that can then make people open to personal awakening and transformation.
To that end, I would put forward that any Christian who wants to see an awakening and revival where Jesus is followed in our relationships with each other and is glorified in our worship will be actively supporting African-Americans in their pursuit of societal transformation for justice. If you want personal transformation, use your voice to support a societal transformation for racial justice. Be a witness that embraces both, letting the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ form the way we advocate for a better society.