Though the idea of staying woke has been a part of the Black community for some time, the term “wokeness” and the movement surrounding it is relatively new to the consciousness of the wider popular culture.
Wokeness has been championed and vilified both in public discourse and in the Church. At this point, the term is even approaching the territory of cliche.
But the idea of wokeness has become inexorably connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2014 when the nation began to grapple with high profile cases of white police officers gunning down and killing young black men, many of us were awakened to the ongoing brutality of racism.
The plea from many of our Black brothers and sisters in this pivotal moment was this: stay woke. That is, now that you have been awakened to the problem of racial injustice, don’t go back to sleep. Stay vigilant and alert.
In the intervening years, the meaning and use of the term wokeness has expanded to refer to any action that seeks to engage with, learn about, and advocate for equal justice with regard to any number of social problems.
How Church Leaders Feel About Wokeness
The overall movement of wokeness isn’t monolithic. It actually contains quite a diversity of views and beliefs.
Nevertheless, many church leaders are entirely opposed to being woke in any form. They denounce wokeness for number of reasons, including the links between Marxist ideas and the Black Lives Matter movement, a disavowal critical race theory, and the political left’s inclusion of feminist and LGBTQ+ issues into the overall definition of social justice.
Now there’s a lot to unpack in all of that.
And, of course, there are many church leaders on the other side of the argument who affirm wokeness in varying versions and to varying degrees.
But to its most ardent opponents, wokeness is actually a danger to the American Church and to biblical Christianity in general. So in this blog, I want to help discern what, if any, good points they make.
Here are 4 important truths as you seek to sift and weigh how you should feel about wokeness.
1. Labeling something as a boogeyman keeps us from listening.
As I said above, the movement of wokeness contains a diversity of views. But at a basic level, the heart of staying woke is increasing your sensitivity toward the struggles of historically marginalized groups. On the face of it, that seems like a good thing.
Nevertheless, some Christian leaders have turned wokeness into a slur.
By calling out the unbiblical beliefs held by some who claim wokeness, some seek to discredit the entire movement. They build up a strawman they can easily knock down. For example, they might quote someone who calls white people “devils” as though that represents the whole of the racial justice movement.
Another tactic is to present a slippery slope argument, saying that any form of wokeness necessarily leads to leftist ideologies. But recognizing systemic racism does not require an affirmation of communism, gender fluidity, or a hatred of any and every white person.
While these arguments elicit tons of social media shares, they’re completely devoid of nuance. It’s far easier to decry something as a threat to biblical Christianity, rather than to acknowledge that it merely challenges the status quo.
Sometimes, the status quo is a good thing. But wherever tradition treads over justice and the humanity of fellow divine image-bearers, it must be challenged.
So rather than labeling and name calling, we need to be willing to engage in these social issues at a deep level. The apostle Paul encourages us to that end.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)
These words were first written to a group of Christians steeped in conflict and debate on the basis of their cultural differences. Not much has changed. But there’s hope for those who follow Paul’s advice.
2. Excusing injustice is inexcusable.
Critical Race Theory and intersectionality have become something of a dividing line in this conversation. And the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest denomination in America, has been at the center of that conversation.
In 2019, the SBC released a statement affirming the categories like Critical Race Theory and intersectionality as helpful in seeking biblical justice. However, a number of SBC seminary presidents, led by Dr. Al Mohler, have come out in staunch opposition, saying that CRT “is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”
In fact, many opponents of CRT not only deny the problem of systemic racism, but also accuse those who acknowledge its existence of being divisive. In other words, racism is not a systemic problem. People who keep talking about systemic racism are the problem.
The vocal opponents to wokeness aren’t the only ones who hinder the cause of justice, though. There are also those church leaders who ignore the conversation entirely. They don’t want to risk saying too much, because they’re afraid of coming off as too political. Or they know that they will possibly (likely) offend large swaths of Christians who are deeply entrenched in problematic ways of thinking and living.
But leadership in the church isn’t a popularity contest. While Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, he also came to afflict the comfortable.
Excusing injustice is inexcusable. And sometimes silence is almost as problematic as being a vocal opponent.
3. Virtue signaling is just another word for self-righteousness.
Despite what I’ve already said, wokeness does present a certain danger to the Church. Not in the form of its purest intent, but in the way it can be weaponized for personal gain.
This is a particular danger for white folks who are vocal on social media. Instead of true advocacy, a virtue-signaling brand of “wokeness” actually exploits the struggles of black and brown people, using them to increase your own social currency. Thus you engage in exploitation by “fighting” exploitation.
Jesus has a word for that: hypocrisy. Here’s what he has to say about it.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)
Apart from purity of heart and a willingness to take decisive and sacrificial action, wokeness does become a cliche. It also becomes a caricature of biblical social justice.
Equally dangerous are extreme versions of wokeness that see all white people as racist devils. This form of self-righteousness sees blackness and brownness in themselves as completely virtuous, while whiteness is in itself purely evil. But both are created in the image of God.
The problem is the systems of injustice, not the mere existence of whiteness.
4. Sometimes, calling yourself “prophetic” really just means you’re a jerk.
Throughout the Old Testament, prophets called the nations surrounding Israel to account. But some of their best and most difficult work was when they preached against the injustices of the chosen people themselves. As the apostle Peter would later say, “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17).
One example is Amos. He preached to a people who were fairly pious in their religiosity, but their nation was rampant with injustice. So he had some strong words for them, delivered from God.
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
(Amos 5:21, 24)
There are times when the church needs to hear strong words. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was greatly influenced by the book of Amos, and quoted the prophet on a number of occasions.
A prophet is rarely popular. And he’s never popular outside a certain subset of people within the broader group. So we tend to think that if people dislike us for the things that come out of our mouths, it’s because we’re just doing good prophetic work.
But there’s a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) difference between being genuinely prophetic and just being a jerk.
While the prophets of old were absolutely sure that their words came directly from God, they didn’t take joy in publicly bashing their own people. Neither should we.
What’s often missing in various brands of wokeness in our culture is a distinct sense of humility and compassion even for those we are criticizing.
Wisdom requires a measured approach.
All this to be said, solutions to systemic injustice are as complex as the problem itself. There are no easy answers. I wish there were.
Understanding the problem requires study in history, sociology, race theory, biblical exegesis, and change management at a societal scale. It’s pretty difficult to cram all that into soundbites fit for social media.
This is a messy process. But it’s one that we need to be willing to engage with on a continual basis.
We live in a culture drowning in knowledge but thirsty for wisdom. And wisdom requires that we don’t look for easy answers, reduce complex ideas down to black-and-white ways of thinking, or decry any idea that makes us feel uncomfortable. Instead, we must look to discover and live by truth, wherever we find it.