When James Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation in the late 1960s, he was attempting to provide a theological framework for understanding and guiding the feelings and actions of African-American protestors. He wrote in the wake of a deadly riot in Detroit. He felt a burden, a heavy weight to say something meaningful as a Christian. He felt, as many had before him, that if Christianity had no answer for Black people caught in the roiling cauldron of Jim Crow segregation and state-sponsored terrorism then Christianity had no credibility whatsoever.
I wish the evangelical church felt the same way that Cone felt. Though I find Cone’s answers unbiblical and untenable, he at least raised and grappled with legitimate questions of justice from the vantage point of the oppressed. And until evangelicalism finds the courage and the love to enter those questions with empathy for that vantage point on a quest for better answers than Cone’s, then evangelicalism as we know it is dead.
I’m not talking about the “evangelicalism” of progressive Christians who seem to rarely preach and emphasize the biblical gospel while championing every cause, the “evangelicalism” that has no evangel. I’m talking about the “evangelicalism” of “Bible-believing Christians,” of “gospel-centered people,” of “conservative” movements that pride themselves on not being “those liberals.” I’m not talking about your local church or my local church as much as I’m talking about the movement as a whole, at its highest levels. I’m talking about the “movement evangelicalism” that I run in. That evangelicalism is dead.
Or, to put it another way, you don’t answer oppression, violence, poverty, sexism, corporate theft and a host of other problems with theology alone. Theology alone is not an answer. Nor are vague appeals to the gospel, however true it is that the gospel is our first, only and greatest hope. Action and policy guided by sound theology are answers. When Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of the enslaved Onesimus, he reminded Philemon of the gospel and the duty of Christian love. Then in love he told Philemon to take an action consistent with that theology: release Onesimus and receive him as a brother. Evangelicalism is long on theology (gospel) and short on ethics (loving action).
As I’ve watched the situation in Ferguson unfold, I’ve waited to gather my own thoughts and to see what other theologically like-minded persons might say. I waited. And I waited. I thought I’d wait in vain. But several brothers have joined the discussion with perspectives and appeals. I respect Trevin Wax for being among the first to say that our racial wounds are not yet healed. I respect Russ Moore for joining with his always thoughtful reflections on these issues. I respect Matt Chandler for trying to help some understand the difference privilege makes in situations like Ferguson. I respect Ray Ortlund for his gracious, quiet way of reminding us that being nice isn’t always required. I respect Josh Waulk, the former police officer now pastor, who provided a different perspective than my own. And I’m grateful for the many encouraging tweets and retweets following my post yesterday. I know I’m not alone and others are prepared to make shows of support for marginalized people.
Nevertheless, most of what’s been said by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There were similar reactions to a similar post I wrote following the Zimmerman verdict. However, there’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. It’s possible that I’ve missed a call for action from my colleagues and peers in the evangelical world. But I don’t think I’ve missed our most influential leaders with the widest reach. They’ve been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.
Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.
To be clear, evangelicalism’s quietude is not a case of not knowing what to say, how to say it, or being too distant from the problem. It’s not merely a case of leaders and people staring into an isolated incident and needing to collect data before they act. It’s not a case of not having media outlets and channels of its own. No. In incident after incident—proving a pattern, a systemic problem that requires eyes-and-mouth-wide-open denouncement—the church has turned her head, closed her eyes, and pressed tight her lips. The problem dominates local and national news. But evangelicalism changes the channel and carries on with regularly scheduled programming. Even if the revolution is televised, evangelicalism ain’t even willing to watch much less join.
And this call isn’t an attempt to guilt people who have nothing to do with some far off situation. No. This post is a recognition that evangelicalism is useless in its own back yard, with its own neighbors, while it changes its twitter avatars to identify with persecuted Christians half a world away. Evangelicalism should show outward solidarity with persecuted Christians. But it should also be the good Samaritan religion, a religion of justified people who demonstrate their justification in practical acts of compassion for its beaten, robbed and left-for-dead ethnic-other neighbors. Do we see that from national evangelical ministries and leaders? No, we don’t. Ours appears to be the religion of the Pharisee who asks, “Who then is my neighbor?”
Who is evangelicalism’s neighbor? Is Michael Brown? How about Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Amadou Diallo, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Sean Bell, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Ronald Madison and James Brissette, or Oscar Grant? Or let’s just take the unarmed persons shot and killed in the month of August: Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford and Dante Parker. Has evangelicalism recognized these men as neighbors? Does it recognize that their being made in the image of God requires the protection of their lives and the expression of our neighborly love? An evangelicalism that does not know its neighbor is a dead evangelicalism, an unjustified evangelicalism.
We pretend the world is large when the suffering of “others” is in view, but it’s small when it comes to the promotion of our ministries, the establishment of multi-sites, or the size of our conferences. We board planes, as I’m about to do Saturday, and cross oceans to preach in distant lands. Proximity isn’t a problem when it’s time to preach; why is it a problem when it’s time to protest?
Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.
It can no longer be the case that to be “evangelical” means to care about either the gospel or justice. Evangelicalism must come to understand that justice and mercy flow inextricably from the gospel—both at the cross of Christ as well as in the daily carrying of our crosses. Micah 6:8 is still God’s requirement of us. And it will not do to position one injustice against another, as if to say we need only focus on one thing, or as if to say until this one “greater” injustice is dealt with then all “lesser” crimes need not be attended. Don’t place abortion in opposition to persecuted Christians in Syria or persecuted Christians in Syria in opposition to the Mike Browns. Can not the evangelical heart and mind expand to care about and act against all these things? Should not we risk a bursting heart in order to live a vibrant Christian life? If we can’t, then we should confess and repent of our hypocrisy and partiality, else be done with calling ourselves Christians. True religion cares for widows, orphans and the like.
So here’s my call: Let there be the founding of a new conservative evangelical body with the aim of (1) providing clear, understandable, biblical theological frameworks for the pressing problems of the marginalized coupled with (2) organized calls to action and campaigns consistent with that framework. Let there be a body tasked with answering, “What does the Bible say about justice and mercy for the vulnerable and weak (of which there are many such groups)?” and stating, “Here then is a biblically-informed campaign for a genuine evangelical church living out that faith.” Let the leaders of the movement stand as leaders in this moment.
Beloved this is critical for at least three reasons. First, it’s critical to the credibility of evangelicalism’s claim to be true biblical religion. Second, it’s critical for the many other church leaders and church people who look to such leaders for what to say, how to think, and how to act in these moments. And based on many of the twitter comments I received, people in evangelical churches need a lot of clear thinking and direction here. They show up saying the most uninformed things on the most sensitive issues. Third, not least in importance, it’s critical for the made-in-the-image-of-God suffering and marginalized people in communities throughout this country and the world who have no organized, biblically-consistent prophetic voice challenging the powers that be. Above all these things, it’s critical for the glory of Christ in and through these situations.
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the most eloquent expression of the weariness of marginalized people and rejoinder to white evangelicalism’s apathy in his poignant Why We Can’t Wait. The book itself is the outgrowth of his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But it’s perhaps a 1965 interview that best states King’s indictment against evangelicalism, an indictment that sounds prophetic today:
“Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned.” (HT: Austin Channing Brown)
I’m tired. That soul-deep tired that comes from asking, “How long?” In this case, “How long evangelicalism before you show deep Christian love for your neighbor?” “How long evangelicalism before you both preach the gospel and show compassion?” “How long evangelicalism before you stop putting people on trial before you grant them your mercy?” “How long before you turn off the television and turn on the porch light for a neighbor?” “How long before you weep openly for someone that doesn’t look like you, earn what you earn, live where you live?” “How long before you stop reflexively identifying with the perpetrators and system administrators and at least show equal empathy for the outcast?” How long? How long before you come on out and say with loud unequivocal voice, “This is wrong!”
I pray King’s mistake isn’t a mistake we continue to make. And the truth is, given the dire circumstances that continue to affect our communities we still can’t afford to wait for evangelicals to join us where we live. Some of us are tired of waiting. I’m one of them. In that fatigue I’m thinking, Goodbye evangelicalism. But I hope there’s finally an organized, thoughtful and zealous response from the leaders of the evangelical movement that says, “We join you.