One of the remarkable aspects of our current cultural moment is the consensus that has developed regarding the need for reform in our criminal justice system and in better police training. From the First Step Act that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support last year to the protests in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, we can see signs that Americans may not be as divided as the cable news channels make us out to be.
Something else has changed from a few years ago. Many Christians who once dismissed particular cases or sought alternate explanations when confronted with examples of police brutality have now admitted we do have a problem that needs to be addressed. Recent viral videos haven’t made things worse; they’ve served to more clearly reveal the rot that our black and brown brothers and sisters have been telling us about for a really long time. I’m encouraged to see a growing number of church leaders across the country who recognize the persistence of racial discrimination, who say they are committed to bringing a biblical perspective to bear on a subject fraught with political controversy, and who seem more determined to do something more than lament over the state of our society.
Last year, I wrote a series of posts on the need for multi-directional leadership in the church. My point was that leaders charged with shepherding their flocks are often, due to their circumstances and their experience, more likely to see dangers arise from one side of the field rather than another.
- If you are attuned to the problems of an encroaching liberalism, you may be ever alert to wolves that would prey on the sheep—predators coming in from the left side of the field, but fail to see how sneaking up behind you are racist voices from the right cloaked in fundamentalism.
- Likewise, if you’ve come to see the devastation to the church’s witness brought about by evangelical complicity in racism and injustice in the past, you may be alert to challenges from the right side of the field, but fail to see how revolutionary, anti-Christian ideologues are now moving in on your flock from the left.
To be a multi-directional leader, rather than just a one-directional leader, means you are alert to challenges and opportunities appearing from multiple places at once. It means that you can, like Paul, spar with the Judaizers who would threaten the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. It also means that you can, like James, fight off those who would claim that saving faith doesn’t necessarily lead to good works. Paul and James are two early church leaders, standing back to back, fighting off opposing enemies.
I used the example of John Stott, who in one setting could chastise an ecumenical gathering of church leaders for losing their passion for evangelism in favor of social action. In another setting, he nearly walked out of an evangelical gathering that would not recognize social action as part of the Christian’s mission. In the first setting, he sounded like a “fiery fundamentalist”; in the second, a “social justice warrior.” My point wasn’t that Stott got everything right in either case, but to lift him up as a leader who recognized dangers to the church from different sides of the field and wasn’t afraid to call out error when his warnings would be for the good of God’s people.
Evil of Racial Injustice
Something similar will be necessary in coming days, when it comes to racism and injustice in American society, and the role the church can and must play in rooting out the evils of what the brother of Jesus condemns as “partiality.”
We must boldly confront not only examples of racism in the present, but also the overly simplistic, whitewashed vision of history that many of us have grown up with. Since these discussions began more in earnest a few years ago, I have been surprised at how many churchgoers tell me they never knew the extent and depth of racist atrocities in American history and the lingering effects of injustice that were commonplace even after the emancipation of slaves. I often recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns because of the way it shows the depth of injustice during the Jim Crow era and its effect on the plight of African American families all over the country (not just the South) as well as the fortunes of their descendants in the years to come.
As Christians with a robust understanding of sin and injustice, we should not be surprised to see the ways in which sinful attitudes affect structures in society, just as we are not surprised to see how laws promoting the sexual revolution help to create a culture in which the unborn are seen as disposable. We should not be surprised to see how easily hearts turned against the love of God and neighbor continue to perpetuate injustice even when the laws on the books demand fair and equal treatment. (And lest we think that racism is a “generational” sin that will pass away with our parents and grandparents, many of the most vicious emails I’ve received for the stances I’ve taken on racial justice have come from people younger than me.)
There’s a lot of emphasis these days on listening to people of color who open up about their experiences of injustice in our society, as there should be. (Here is a good place to start.) Empathy and mutual understanding will matter if we, as God’s people, hope to display the beauty of the beloved community in a fractured world. Surely the church should be dissatisfied whenever we see the world’s commitment to the flourishing of God-given diversity outstripping our own.
As white evangelicals begin to feel more out of step with mainstream society, especially due to our views of marriage and sexuality, what better place to turn than to the endurance of the black church through the centuries, led by brothers and sisters of color who have experience in being a faithful presence in their community and who have expertise in seeking change from the margins of society, not the center?
Problem of Some ‘Solutions’
More and more church leaders appear to be alert to the reality and evil of racism in our society, thank God. But multi-directional leadership will not let us assume that everything opposed to the evil of racism is necessarily good and righteous.
For example, just as we must challenge a vision of history that whitewashes the past and valorizes people undeservedly, we must also confront revisionist attempts to tailor the past to fit within overly simplistic, materialist philosophies, where all the key individuals are placed in categories of “oppressed” or “oppressor,” or where everyone is determined to be “racist” or “anti-racist” based on contemporary definitions. Revisionist histories of this sort, instead of doing justice to the complexity of previous generations of Americans and showing them in all their complicated mix of vices and virtues, intend to delegitimize the American project altogether.
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton pointed out a problem with both the optimistic and also pessimistic look at history. The conservative tends to whitewash the past out of love for what has come before, but such love can become blindness, leading to the defense of the indefensible. “My country, right or wrong” is not really patriotism; it’s like saying “I love my mother, drunk or sober,” when in reality, the more you love your mother, the more you’d decry her drunkenness and want to see her sober. You have to love something enough to want to see it be the best it can be.
The pessimist on the other hand takes a cynical view of history that fails to cultivate love or a sense of loyalty. It’s one thing to reveal flaws in order to learn from the past and beautify the present; it’s another thing to approach the past in a way that despises one’s history. In order to seek reform, Chesterton says, you have to love something enough to invest the time and energy into making it better. The pessimist of today, however, often appeals to concepts and ideologies that would lead not to reform, but revolution.
The civil-rights movement, at its best, was motivated by love for others, including white neighbors enslaved to their racial prejudice. The move toward justice stemmed from love, not hatred. Multi-directional leadership means we will be alert to the conservative tendency to preserve a false but pristine view of the past that would defend the indefensible and also the revolutionary tendency to dismiss the world that has come before us and fall prey to disdain and hatred.
Multi-directional leadership means that we will look to expose and eradicate racism, work for structural reforms that bring about real change, and charge the church to lead the way in pursuing harmony in society. We must not succumb to the counterfeit gospel of quietism that would lead us to silence when God calls us to speak.
At the same time, multi-directional leadership should lead us to reject voices and proposals put forth by people who, while laudable in their stand against racism, are motivated by an agenda that is anti-Christian in both its root and aim. One of the major differences between the historical period of the 1960s and organizations like Black Lives Matter today is the presence of the church. Mika Edmondson, in a prophetic address several years ago on Black Lives Matter, points out the similarities and contrasts in these movements. This is why, on the one hand, Christians should be championing most loudly the theological truth of the slogan Black lives matter especially in a culture that has routinely and regularly devalued black lives and bodies. It is also why, on the other hand, Christians should lament and oppose the anti-Christian and anti-family views of BLM as an organization.
Likewise, white Christian leaders are right to seek not only not to be racist personally but also to be anti-racist in the sense of joining the cause of ending racial discrimination wherever it is found. But “anti-racist” can also have the sense that authors such as Ibram Kendi give it, which assumes any inequity in outcomes among people of different ethnic groups must necessarily stem from racism and would best be resolved by a Department of Anti-racism that would, like Big Brother, loom over all policies and politicians at every level of society in order to enforce “equality.” As Andrew Sullivan has observed, only a totalitarian regime could pull that off, and not surprisingly, signs of soft totalitarianism (with the rise of “cancel culture,” and moments eerily reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution’s “struggle sessions”) have already appeared.
I realize that calling for multi-directional leadership in a moment like this opens one up to criticism. This is not the time to show dangers on different sides, Trevin! Not all dangers are equal, that’s true. It’s the history of white supremacy in our country that has left black people hanging from trees. And yet history also shows us how attempts to fight real injustice can lead to even greater injustice. The Bolshevik Revolution is just one example.
Nothing I’ve written here should mute the white Christian leaders who are just now (finally) finding their voice in these matters. My aim is simply this: to remind church leaders that the noble fight against racial discrimination will not be won by being intellectually indiscriminate—adopting any proposal or advocating any voices who may share a common diagnosis but have radically different goals or worldviews. Multi-directional leadership requires discernment, carefully sifting what is biblical from what is not, so that our unified action stands out in a world filled not with love but with disdain.
Editors’ note: Check out Trevin Wax’s new book The Multi-Directional Leader (TGC, 2021), available now for preorder. We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed and Ivan Mesa’s Before You Lose Your Faith. Learn more.