Letters to a Young Protestor, 6: Evangelical Escapists

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Dear Niecie,

Thank you for your question the other day. I thought it was a good one and I’ve been spending some time trying to get my mind around an answer. “Why don’t some Christians seem concerned or interested or even oppositional to calls for social justice?” There are a great many answers that could be given to your question. But, personally, as an evangelical Christian, I find your question has more teeth if I ask it specifically of myself—of evangelical Christians like the pastor who told you all that the only thing that would help is the gospel. I know how hollow that felt to you, and I have at least one idea for why.

There are many Christians who are escapists but don’t know it. Learning to spot gospel escapism is vital as you try linking arms with Christians. They think escapism is a matter of believing falsehoods. But strictly speaking believing false things is not the strongest form of escapist. The strongest form relies on the comfort of the truth. It’s that escapism which embraces abstract truth without bothering with actual application.

The escapist is like the kid whose balloon slips from his hand and floats away. He can still see it and recognize its bright red orb against the cerulean sky. But the child’s actual enjoyment of the balloon is entirely a matter of memory or imagination. He no longer feels the actual tug of the string as the wind jostles the balloon or the ability to make it bounce at his whim to his delight with a curt tug of the arm. The real balloon floats away and so does his immediate enjoyment of it. Escapism is releasing the balloon of applied truth—whether intentionally or unintentionally—while pretending to have it in hand. It’s pointing to the sky while acting as if merely pointing controls the balloon. We can do that with the truth, and because it’s the truth we’re discussing we tell ourselves that we have it in hand.

It’s like the man who wrote to lecture me on the scripture, how it never commands God’s people to protest or organize or march. He tells me Christianity is completely unconcerned about such things. He claims to be “orthodox” and charges me with careening off some “liberal” cliff into the abyss of the “social gospel.”

This man is blind. He means well, no doubt. But he doesn’t see how he not only removes the Scripture from real life concern, but also abandons his own “orthodox” view of the Bible. In a more abstract context he would tell me the Bible is sufficient. He’s quote a text like 2 Tim. 3:16-17—” All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” But in the actual world in which we live, he thinks the Bible has nothing to say about dead unarmed men, about our duty to show mercy, and the blessing of rulers who rule righteously or the prophet’s constant challenge to power. While claiming to be orthodox he’s really managed to escape both the hard facts of real life and the guiding truth of applied theology—a Harry Houdini act that too many evangelical Christians perform with alarming regularity. What does such an “orthodoxy” mean when it matters?

And this is why Evangelicalism—safe far away from the cliff of “liberal” theology—has backed its heels onto the opposite cliff of complete irrelevance to the residents of Ferguson, who want to know if God remembers them, loves them, or cares about them at all. Does God the Judge answer the cries of the disenfranchised, the poor, the weak, the fatherless? Is there a hope of justice for mothers and fathers bereft of their children playing in the park, or husbands and fathers choked to death on city sidewalks? Have we no answer for them?

We do if we are not escapists. For the escapist cries out and recoils at the sight of words like “oppressed,” “poor” and so on. He’d rather not think about such things, which is an indication that we have unwittingly conceded such concerns to the dreaded “liberals” again. Those words are their—the liberals’—words, and the people they describe are their—the liberals’ people—and the issues that affect their people are not our—the evangelicals’—issues. So words like “poor,” “oppressed,” and “marginalized” become shibboleths for entry into “our” camp and once inside we mustn’t use them lest we fact McCarthyite suspicion and inquisition. But all of this is escapist drama because such people and such problems really do exist in the world we inhabit.

And it won’t do to take another escapist turn by arguing in so many words, “It’s all their fault.” Blaming others rather than offering solutions has been the way of sinners since Adam blamed Eve. The principal benefit of blaming others is we don’t have to examine ourselves or risk ourselves. We don’t have to face any complicity—whether our own or our forebears. We get to pretend “all things are equal,” the world is a blank slate, that we’re each self-made without any legacies, inheritances, or entitlements. This blaming others is, by definition, escapism—turning away from the unpleasant truth to dull the trauma with banal half-truths or full truths loosely grasped. We become unreal. And our religion in the hands of escapists becomes unreal too. I want my religion back! I want the balloon string in my hands, tied around my writs, that I might feel its pull again and feel the upward possibility of the Truth!

Reclaiming evangelical Christianity from escapist tendencies is vital because it’s the truth that actually helps you to help other people. Not until we face the truth about ourselves and our situation can offer biblical solutions to hurting people.

We know this well enough in evangelism. Think of that family that mourns the death of a loved one lost eternally in their sin. That loved one has gone on to a Christless eternity of agonizing judgment. Do you know what happens contrary to all gospel reason in far too many “Christian” funerals? The minister will preach that lost soul right into heaven though everyone there knew him to be without Christ and without hope in the world. And the family members tell themselves that their loved one is in “a better place” (as if Hell could ever be better than earth!). That’s the kind of thing they told themselves while he was alive. They kept saying the person was okay, that he was going to get it together, that he had made a profession once a long time ago at a camp long grown over by weeds. They took the escapist route of denying the truth of a fast-approaching Hell. They chose not to think long about Hell because they didn’t want to think of their loved one going there. More selfishly, they didn’t want to face their own lack of love, faith and hope as “evangelists” who didn’t evangelize their dearest family members. Rather than face the pan they fled to a dream world where everyone has time and everyone will be okay. They were not truthful and so they were not helpful.

The same is true of so many evangelicals who refuse to look into the unpleasant things of racism and the systemic injustices facing people today. They’d rather stick their ostrich heads into the hole of their “orthodoxy” than take a long look in the light at this country, our history, our present realities, and those “others” that cry out for help. The sad fact is that you can’t expect help from them–not even the “blows of a friend”–if they are unwilling to be honest and to bring their theology back down into this world. Dr. King once said the most disappointing thing he encountered during the Civil Rights Movement was the sometimes indifference and sometimes opposition of white evangelical Christians. He’d imagined that once the justness of the cause touched the hearts of his fellow Christians that they’d come out in support. It never happened on the scale he’d hoped, though some did join the movement. If Dr. King found disappointment, then perhaps we should expect the same. And like him, we should continue to press our cause until the real world dangers and difficulties are acknowledged and addressed by all people of like precious faith.

Keep praying. Keep pressing.

Your uncle,

Thabiti

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