Incidents in the country have been rearranging the evangelical landscape for the last couple of years now. Not any of the incidents involving typical “culture war” issues, like homosexuality, gay marriage, and abortion. Apart from some fraying between older and younger evangelicals, the evangelical phalanx stands tall and strong on those fronts.
But mention “justice” and that wall of evangelical troops splits like the Red Sea and turns against itself. Men who worked as fellow combatants in the traditional “culture war” begin to suspect and even attack one another when “justice” becomes the topic.
Case in point: My brother in Christ, Phil Johnson, had this to say of me recently on his Facebook feed:
So, according to Phil, I’m now “an agitator for the radical left #BlackLivesMatter movement.” And, apparently, I’m no longing “arguing for a more biblical, gospel-centered approach to ministry.” If I understand this correctly, I’m the one now suffering “mission drift,” one swept so powerfully to the left that the Bible and gospel have lost its center in my ministry.
So much could be said here. But I don’t want to risk saying more than I ought to say. I want to say only what needs to be said. The lines that follow are meant to be crisp so that I don’t sin in saying too much. They’re not meant to be curt or clipped as if to communicate anger or personal animus. Until this, I’ve never had anything but pleasant interactions with Phil. I hope such pleasantry continues, but his Facebook post needs reply. Here goes:
1. “Justice” and justice in its “social” implications are biblical terms and ideas. To the extent that Phil (or anyone) rejects “social justice,” then they’re rejecting the Bible. Not me. From the OT prophets, to provisions in the Law, to the ethical teaching of our Lord, the Bible is replete with calls to justice socially concerned and God regularly chastises His people for failing to establish it. Some of my evangelical friends have a curious way of ignoring those texts and any application of them to things other than homosexuality, gay “marriage,” religious freedom, or abortion. All of those are justice issues with social implications requiring a biblical address. But they simply are not all the issues the Bible would have us address in the pursuit of justice. So, I’m eager that we not give “justice” or “social justice” over to the “left.” Those are Bible words and ideas that Bible believers ought and need to consider deeply.
2. Everyone should know that the “agitator” language Phil uses here has an ugly history that Phil probably does not mean. Dr. King was called an “agitator.” Frederick Douglass was called an “agitator.” In fact, nearly every African American that’s ever stood up for African Americans has been called, usually by white racists–and sometimes scared African Americans, an “agitator.” It’s not a good look on professing Christians who should disavow the racist past and work harder to use terms free from that taint. To be clear: I am most decidedly NOT suggesting that Phil Johnson is a racist. I am saying he’s using a term here that in the historical context of struggle between Blacks and Whites was used regularly by White racists. In doing so, Phil, you’re provoking some things you may not be aware of and conjuring a history many people find problematic. Now, when we’re talking about justice, “agitator” should never be a dirty word. It’s what people of conscience should do–whether the issue is abortion and gay marriage (see all those agitators using their constitutional rights to carry signs and protest) or the issue is police mistreatment of unarmed civilians. If you want to talk, let’s talk about the issue and drop the coded and freighted language associated by many with a racist past and not used today of others similarly using their right to speak out and protest about justice issues they care about. We can talk without the name calling, especially the names that some of us hear in association with racists. We’re better than that.
3. I support #BlackLivesMatter as a matter of principle and I support people’s rights to say so. For nearly two years now, some evangelical friends have acted as if to say my life, my son’s life, the lives of all Black people matter is tantamount to saying that the lives of others don’t matter and is racist towards whites. Interestingly, many of those people can’t seem to bring themselves to even utter the phrase. They can’t bring themselves to say publicly, in principle, “Black lives matter.” And, beloved, there is a world of difference between affirming that principle and offering anything that looks like institutional support for some website or some particular organization. I support the principle. I think it’s incontrovertible. I don’t think it should be difficult for any reasonable person to utter or hashtag. If Genesis 1 is true (and it is), then “Black lives matter” is also true because God made us in His image and likeness. People who cannot or, better, refuse to distinguish between fellow Christians who hold the principle and people who are not yet Christians who may tout a variety of things Christians never would fail to extend Christian charity or the benefit of the doubt. They carry on a political and polemical conversation when many of their Christian brothers are having a principled one. I should point out, a biblical and gospel-centered principled conversation. Which is what makes Johnson’s assertion to the contrary so problematic for Johnson and many white evangelicals who perhaps assume his view. They don’t hear the Bible or a foundational doctrinal aspect of the gospel when they hear their fellow Christians say, “Black lives matter.” Brothers, the imago Dei is bound up with that statement for your brothers and sisters of darker hue.
4. Finally, the Thabiti of 2010 is the same Thabiti in 2016. Johnson links to my T4G sermon wherein I was asked to give a biblical theology of “race.” I stand behind that talk and wouldn’t change much of anything in it–except to add more strongly some words that prevent people from doing precisely what Phil seems to do with it here. If you watch the panel discussion in follow up to this talk, I think I state again and more clearly that nothing in the talk should be understood as denying the reality of racism. So while “race” is a pseudo-scientific, theological, historical and social fiction, racism is very real. Some conservatives want to make the former a denial of the latter. I never did that, said that, or believed that. Then or now. Really what should happen is Phil should take a listen to the sermon and the panel and read a host of things I’ve blogged since and understand there’s no contradiction. In fact, I think it’s imperative that everyone understand what’s argued so powerfully in Racecraft: It is racism that gave us the false doctrine of “race.” We only talk about “race” because of the racist past that erected it as a theory for the supremacy or inferiority of “races.” But evangelicals have done so little theology and reflection on race and racism that they’re unable and at points unwilling to work through this truth. There’s so much “white guilt” and “white denial” that some seize upon “race doesn’t exist” as an assertion that racism and it’s concomitant problems doesn’t exist either. That’s a dangerous mistake that imperils good will between whites and blacks and even threatens unity among white and black Christians.
So, Phil, I got nothing but love for you, your ministry, and your consistent fight for theological truths that I share and cherish. Keep fighting the good fight, brother. But I’m not your enemy. Even if we disagree about some of the current cultural skirmishes and problems, I’m not your enemy. If you ever want to talk/write (privately or publicly) like brothers through our differences, I think over the years I’ve proven I’m open to that. You even have close friends who have done that with me from time to time on these very topics. We’re capable of better representing each other–even in disagreement–than you did with your Facebook post. In fact, I think your Facebook post demonstrates that you need to talk to someone about some things you’re clearly not understanding–both about others and perhaps about your own rhetoric and position. Not to get too far ahead in the calendar, but next year, Lord willing, The Front Porch hopes to host a conference themed “Just Gospel” on these very issues. More to come later. You’d be welcome and I think you’d be helped.
The Lord bless you and keep you, brother.