I would like to start with a story. Now, before I begin, I just want to say that I’m very aware I’m not telling the story the way I heard it. But that’s OK. I think my point will become clear. The story goes like this:
There was a man who lived in the ancient Roman Empire. On a certain day, there was a religious festival. So, this man dutifully went to the temple of the appropriate god and made the necessary sacrifice. While there, he noticed something odd. His neighbor, who he knew to be an intensely religious individual, was missing. So, a few days later, he saw that neighbor and asked him about his absence. The neighbor said he didn’t go to the temple anymore because he became a Christian.
“O, I didn’t know that” the man said. “Where is your temple?”
The neighbor said, “We don’t have a temple that’s a building. Jesus is our temple.”
“Interesting,” the man said. “If you don’t have a temple that’s a building, where do you make your sacrifices?”
The neighbor said, “We don’t make sacrifices. Jesus is our sacrifice.”
“Wow. If you don’t make sacrifices, then what do your priests do?”
The neighbor said, “Jesus is our priest.”
The man, who was very confused by this time, finally said, “I you don’t have priests making sacrifices for you in a temple, how do you appease the gods? Aren’t you afraid they’re going to punish you?”
“No,” the neighbor said. “Jesus is our God and Jesus took our punishment for us.”
The point of this story is simple. For the Christians, Jesus is the first, last, and the everything. He is the object of our faith. He is the one who empowers us to faith. He is the one who preserves us in our faith. He is the God who we must appease with sacrifice and he is the one who makes the sacrifice and he even IS the sacrifice.
So why do I bring this up?
I bring this up because knowing these things, which many of you hopefully already do, is a far different thing than making it a reality in our lives. I bring this up because Christianity gets itself into the most trouble when it loses sight of Christ. I bring this up, because the church in America today is in serious trouble of doing just that.
There are many ways in which Christianity can lose sight of Christ but the most insidious ones give the appearance of being good things. These things are often activities you would fully expect a follower of Christ to engage in, but for whatever reason, focus has been lost. Focus has been shifted to the activity itself instead of the one for whom the activity is performed. For many, the idea of doing good works has replaced Christ. For others, gaining knowledge of the Bible and theology can replace Christ. Still others maintaining a separation and distinction from secular culture has replaced Christ. Over the last few months, and the thing that raises my hackles today, is the idea of social justice replacing Christ.
Recently, an article in The Atlantic caught my eye. This article, entitled White Christian America Needs a Moral Awakening, was written by Robert P. Jones and is dated from July 28. It can be found here. In this article, the author does exactly what the title suggests. He argues for the need of white Christian churches to have a moral awakening. Specifically, he argues that this needs to take place in regard to the racist past of many Church denominations and how these groups have used the gospel as a crutch for white supremacy. He sums up these premises succinctly, “White Christian Churches have not just been complacent and complicit in failing to address racism; rather, as the dominant cultural power in the U.S., they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy.”
Actually, I don’t have an issue with his assertions here. Throughout its 2000-year history Christianity has gone off the rails many times because they lost sight of Christ. It is not a huge revelation to say that early Churches in America, particularly those in the south, abused Christianity so as to defend their culture and subjugate those of a different skin color. This, unfortunately, had damaging racist overtones.
Mr. Jones then goes on to argue that, according to the research he conducted, the attitudes and practices of white Christians in America is far more racist than that of white non-Christians. The two examples he primarily cited were views on systemic police racism and the Confederate flag as a symbol. According to him, more white Christians see prominent cases of police killing blacks as being isolated incidents and not examples of systemic racism. More white Christians see the Confederate flag as a symbol of southern pride and not as a symbol of support for slavery. According to this research, white non-Christians have the opposite views and are, in fact, more in line with black Christians.
What bothered me here is that Mr. Jones never attempted to provide any objective standard to measure these views by. For instance, do we have statistics about police brutality to demonstrate how systemic (or un-systemic) racism is? Do we have surveys of people who display the confederate flag to gauge what their motivation is? Mr. Jones seems to default to the politically correct answers for both of these and therefore is safe in labelling anyone with a different view as racist.
To be fair, though, Mr. Jones adapted this article from a book of his called White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. So, it’s entirely possible that in the larger work he does a better job to support these assertions.
All of that is a side note to my larger point though. My point is that Mr. Jones, and those like him, are losing sight of Christ in their quest to achieve social justice. In doing so, they are committing the same mistakes as the 18th and 19th century Christians who lost sight of Christ for different reasons. Like other times throughout history, this is being done for reasons that appear good on the surface, but will in the long term be damaging.
It will be damaging in three ways. First, the social justice standard is one that’s impossible to satisfy. It’s no secret that those screaming “social justice” from the roof tops in our society usually fail to provide a concrete definition of what that is. They usually fail to paint a picture of what that will look like once its achieved. These failures make social justice into a carrot being dangled before a donkey to keep it moving forward but ultimately leaving it unfulfilled.
Second, social justice can (and has) become an excuse for tyranny. We’ve already seen, to a certain extent, that those who fail to support social justice to an acceptable degree are silenced, ridiculed, and harassed into submission. The athletes who stand for the flag are the ones made to apologize and explain their actions. All of this in the name of the vaguely defined goal of social justice. How much further will this go? How long before this societal tyranny becomes governmental tyranny? If you look at the streets of Portland and Seattle, it may not be long.
Third, social justice is damaging because it addresses the symptom, not the disease. All religions in the world try to answer two basic questions: what is wrong with us and how do we fix it. According to Christianity, our problem is sin that has separated us from God and the solution is the application of Christ to our lives. According to social justice advocates, though, the problem is racism and the solution is . . . undefined. But usually has something to do with renouncing white privilege. Many Christians have tried to find a compromise between these positions, or tried to practice both of them at once. In the most extreme cases, certain Churches have abandoned the idea of Christ as the solution altogether and wholeheartedly embraced social justice, labelling it as Christian.
The problem is, Christ does not leave us these options. Jesus said of himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6) This is just one quote from Jesus that he, personally, is the solution to the sin plague that has been destroying the world from the beginning. Any views otherwise may be good and have good goals, but they don’t get at the root of the problem.
For most Christians today, this application of Jesus to one’s life is known as salvation. It is an event in which one accepts Christ and dedicates his life to Him. But it is not an event only, it is also a process in which the Christian, after the salvation event, continually tries to apply Christ to his life through prayer, Bible study, and mimicking the behavior Christ taught and modelled in the Gospels. And this is where the true solution of racism comes into play for the church. When Christ is applied and Christians truly keep their eyes on him, then Christ himself will be the one to exorcise racism from our Churches. Additionally, the application of Christ will exorcise the tendency of “social justice” minded people to ostracize and harass and belittle those who aren’t “woke” enough.
In the first century Roman world, there was a religious view that the best way to change your behavior was to change your thinking (and they probably had a good point). The Apostle Paul adopts this view and applies it to the Church in his letter to the Philippians. If the Church were to follow his advice here, then racism would disappear without that being the actual goal. This advice from the Apostle Paul is found in Philippians 2:5-11: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
While Mr. Jones has many facts straight about how Christianity has been abused for racist reasons in the past, he is wrong is his assertion that White Christian America needs a moral awakening. What white Christian America needs is to return its eyes to Jesus and practicing the type of radical humility modelled by Christ and written of by the Apostle Paul. In the same way, Black Christian America needs to return its eyes to Jesus as do the Churches of Europe and Africa and Asia and anywhere else. When Christians keep their eyes on Christ, moral behavior will follow. When Christians keep their eyes on Christ, racial harmony will follow. Where Christians behave immorally and have racist tendencies, you can be certain that they have taken their eyes off Christ. Like the ancient Roman in the story at the beginning of this article, Christ needs to be our first, our last, our everything.