“I love the religion of our blessed Savior,” Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom. “It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America.”
Douglass, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, observed what many Christians of African descent in America discerned: injustice is incompatible with the Gospel. The religion of Jesus Christ is one in which every human person, created in the image of God, encounters the liberating grace of God. Free from sin and shame, we are reconciled to God and to one another. That so much of American Christian teaching and living throughout the centuries ignored this is a lamentable reality. The black church tradition emerged to reform the broader church in America. Like Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church, black preachers have long protested against those things that betray the Gospel.
The Bible clearly and repeatedly states that God loves justice and that the people who love Him are to seek justice for others. The justice and social concern imperative outlined in Scripture (Luke 10:25-37, James 2:15-16, Isaiah 1:17, Proverbs 29:7) doesn’t reduce the importance of obedience and personal transformation and righteousness. To the contrary, redemptive justice efforts are the outworking or the fruit of Christian transformation in order to bring glory to God. That’s why reading Peter Heck’s article criticizing black Christians for social justice activism is so perplexing. Righteousness and justice aren’t at odds or the subjects of a zero-sum game. They go hand in hand.
While those who believe Christians are bound by Scripture to address injustice should be wary of non-redemptive conceptions of social justice, it’d benefit Peter Heck to consider why we’ve had to be preoccupied with justice issues in the first place. Since issues like slavery and Jim Crow were often unaddressed or perpetuated by white evangelicals, even supported theologically and biblically by them, a better preceding question might be: has a lack of social justice activism led some white evangelicals away from the cross? And what have been the societal consequences of that failure?
Of course we’ve made progress since slavery and Jim Crow, but it is undeniable that injustices still exists that grieve the heart of God, whether it be racial disparities in criminal justice and mass incarceration, or the hateful actions of white supremacists, or the unequal access to quality education. It is all injustice.
Heck’s premise is rooted in a false dichotomy that views personal piety and social justice in conflict rather than as complementary or interdependent. He seems to promote a “pious bystander” posture towards societal problems that simply can’t stand up to biblical scrutiny (think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37). The idea that we should just focus on being pious and let injustice work itself out is plainly bad theology. The Bible is clear that spiritual transformation will result in action (James 2:26). Yes, personal salvation is mandatory, and so is loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:35–40). Christians who spurn social justice wouldn’t sit idly by if a beloved family member was unjustly imprisoned. The Bible calls us to apply that same righteous indignation to people in other families and cultures (Matthew 12:31).
That the black church had to be a Protestant movement in response to the sins of white Christians who enslaved, exploited, and oppressed them is an indictment on how poorly many have understood the Gospel in its fullness, and what God in Christ offers a dark and dying world.
To be sure, not everyone seeking justice today is rooted in the Gospel. Forms of social justice based in the Enlightenment, the sexual revolution and expressive individualism are problematic. None of these things are part of the historic black church tradition.
The primary problem isn’t the pursuit of social justice, though, it’s the lack of social justice that’s necessitated such activism. Granted, some forms of activism are well-intended, but at times incomplete. The church must clearly articulate God’s call for justice to respond to the world’s longing for “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10 ESV). If you have a problem with the social justice activism of the day, then provide society with a more complete and righteous example. That would be a more Gospel-centered response, not rejecting it all together.
Bifurcating mercy and justice from the broader claims of the Gospel is dangerous. This stance on justice is comforting to racists, but damning to our neighbors whose image-bearing is diminished by it. It creates an environment where ethnic sin goes unchallenged, unpunished and can thrive as we see with the alt-right.
But there is good news. A new generation of leaders is embracing both righteousness and justice. They are not mutually exclusive. This vanguard was on display last week at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis hosted by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition. We applaud white Evangelicals like Dr. Russell Moore, Matt Chandler, Beth Moore, and Collin Hansen who joined Black Christians like ourselves, Karen Ellis, Pastor Charlie Dates, Dr. Mika Edmonson, and Pastor Eric Mason in proclaiming Proverbs 21:15 that “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” Biblical Christians are rising up to demonstrate the God of justification is also the God of justice. This multiethnic witness will showcase to the world that in Christ alone can we find true peace and justice, because ours is a witness grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom we “have life and that more abundantly” (John 10:10).
Justin Giboney is an attorney, political strategist and President of the AND Campaign. Dr. CJ Rhodes is the Pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church and the Religious Life Director at Alcorn St.