The ideas that shape our culture eventually find their way into the church.
Francis Schaeffer traced this pattern over many centuries, observing that what begins in the philosophy departments of Western universities spreads first to art, then music, then the general culture. Finally, these fashions appear in Christian theology.
Schaeffer made his analysis decades ago but he wrote with piercing insight, and the pattern he saw holds true today.
In a window of time that can be measured in just years, a new set of “woke” doctrines has come to occupy mainstream culture. Dividing us all into categories according to who is most disadvantaged, it pits oppressed against oppressor and rewards those who complain the loudest. (Cultural Marxism is the name often given to this worldview).
Because its underlying narrative is one of victimhood, this new secular religion is quick to censor alternate viewpoints by calling them “hurtful” and “intolerant”. And ironically, those who make such claims often express the same ugly intolerance they supposedly stand against.
God has called His church to be a prophetic voice to society. This has been a challenge for believers throughout history, since “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense” rise up in every age. But it’s made more difficult when, as Schaeffer saw, secular ideas are uncritically adopted by followers of Jesus.
There is a reason Christians are drawn to political causes that stand for the oppressed. Jesus took a special interest in those who were marginalised, setting an example for the church to follow. As a result, Christians have often led the way in caring for “the least of these” throughout history — a rich tradition that continues to this day.
But not all that glitters is gold. This new “religion of woke” may seem to align with our Christian impulse for compassion, but it is riddled with many of the sins it claims to solve. This has been on particular display in the recent conversation about racial violence in America and other western nations.
Christians, therefore, do well to consider these sins before signing up for it.
Beware the division. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when his children wouldn’t be judged “by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” As a preacher, he knew and sought to live out Galatians 3:28 — “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Only a few decades on and those who claim to advance MLK’s vision have decided that this—his most recognisable and inspiring declaration — was false. Instead, they have decided that immutable traits like ethnicity are in fact the most important thing about us, since these are the measure of our relative privilege or oppression. The result of this thinking is only a world more divided and resentful, with new prejudices to replace the old.
If an organisation spoke proudly of ‘white power’ and claimed, “We are unapologetically white in our positioning,” good Christians everywhere would denounce it in a heartbeat as white supremacy. Yet for some reason many believers are uncritical when Black Lives Matter does this, but with a different skin colour.
Beware the exclusion. There are many minority voices, Christian and otherwise, that reject the tenets of wokeism. In a recent poll, for example, President Trump had a 41% approval rating among likely black voters. This is a revealing statistic, given that Republican Presidents normally poll just single digits at election time among African Americans.
‘Blexiteers’ — black Americans leaving the Democratic party — sadly report alarming levels of racism and exclusion when they “come out” as conservatives or Trump voters. Ironically, behind these insults is a woke prejudice that assumes all African Americans think and act the same way, and don’t have the autonomy to think for themselves.
Beware the half-truths. George Floyd’s death was a tragedy that highlighted the injustice of police brutality and the unfair treatment of black Americans before the law. These concerns must be heard and addressed — American policing is clearly in need of reform.
But the idea, widely promoted in recent weeks, that African Americans are victims of rampant state-sanctioned murder at the hands of white police simply isn’t born up by the facts. Last year, only 9 unarmed black men were killed by police in the United States — and that in a country of 330 million people. Some 93% of black homicide victims are actually killed by other African Americans.
Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, but there seems to be a lot of silence on statistics that don’t fit the white-against-black narrative. The legacy media is yet to tell us about the 15 people — mostly minorities — who were killed during the George Floyd riots, or the hundreds of people murdered in Chicago so far this year. A truthful conversation about racial violence is hard to have if only half-truths are told.
Beware the victimisation. The African American social theorist Thomas Sowell has said,
“Racism is not dead. But it is on life-support, kept alive mainly by the people who use it for an excuse or to keep minority communities fearful or resentful enough to turn out as a voting bloc on election day.”
Real disadvantage does exist in many minority neighbourhoods, and this must be acknowledged for progress to be made. But there is a toxic version of this, now widely accepted, that ignores systemic crises like fatherlessness, and instead lays the blame for all black disadvantage on the rest of the nation.
Besides being untrue, this is a recipe for resentment. It assigns perpetual victimhood status to people from black neighbourhoods, and leads others to view minorities with what has been called the “soft bigotry of low expectation.” Such victimisation is itself racist, and it ignores the countless successful African Americans who defy — and deny — these fatalistic categories.
Beware the condemnation. White guilt — the collective shame that white people are expected to feel and apologise for — is another doctrine that must be challenged. Slavery, genocide and invasion are tragic and unalterable chapters of Western history. (In fact, they are part of almost every culture’s history). But even if some of their effects are still marginally felt, those horrors ended long ago.
As such, white people who have never owned slaves will achieve little by apologising to black people who never were enslaved. This is obvious when you think it through. Even if every white person were to apologise in such a way today, in a thousand years’ time the same routine could be performed, and yet the “white guilt” would still remain. This is a narrative with no hope of redemption — only condemnation.
And that’s because “white guilt” is a false construct. It is not true guilt, since it has nothing to do with what the white individual has done. It is entirely about what ethnicity they are. In other words, it is white shame, and it can never be erased. Unlike this caricature Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus offers true freedom to everyone, because our own personal guilt (and the guilt of our ancestors) was dealt with once and for all at Calvary.
Beware the self-righteousness. When people continue to carry the guilt of their ancestors, by nature they feel the need to make amends for it or perform some kind of penance. Commonly this involves a social media post with a hashtag or a photo filter. Deeds like these have since come to be known as “slacktivism” or “virtue signalling” — though to be fair, they are often done with genuine sincerity.
What’s troubling about them for the Christian, however, is that they are precisely the kind of self-righteousness that Jesus denounced. Moreover, they cultivate a culture of judgment, since a quick scroll on social media is all it takes to sum up the virtue of others. When Jesus commanded us to do good works, he explicitly not to advertise our works before others.
So how should a Christian respond to all of this?
In this present climate, it’s not easy for followers of Jesus to walk the narrow road. Society is quick to label anyone not “woke” enough as a heretic or an outcast. There is a real pressure to conform to the patterns of this world — or to remain silent altogether.
One thing is certain. Jesus has called us to use our privilege for the benefit of others. It is possible to do this without parroting our culture’s talking points. In fact, if we adopt the religion of woke, we’ll not only perpetuate its divisiveness and cynicism — we’ll also be late to the game, as Schaeffer observed.
God has given us a much better solution. All of us have been made in God’s image. And Jesus surrendered His life for every last precious one of us. That is where we derive our worth and our sacred respect for others. When every person recaptures this truth, we cease being a rabble of tribes fighting for our own interests, and instead become a community of empowered individuals who lift each other up.
The Gospel of Jesus is far greater news than even the freshest and most fashionable alternatives. The Gospel alone changes hearts and renews culture. And it is the greatest force for unity and justice that the world has ever seen.
It’s time we told that unapologetically to our culture again.