I’ve been a Christian 52 years this Summer. Since coming to Christ in the Summer of ’69, in my early teens, my life in Christ has been a fascinating ride. I’ve been in both fundamental and modern evangelical fellowships, engaging in local church, missions, and apologetics ministries across both theological and ethnic lines. The learning experience has been a rich one.
I see a lot of positives. Churches are engaging civic issues while, for the most part, avoiding partisan ones. They want to make government, at all levels, work the way it was intended. They engage school boards to keep curriculum from being turned into political indoctrination, and they participate in coordinated civic relationships so that the world might see and hear more easily the gospel of redemption in Christ. These are good things.
There have been some bad things as well. What is termed “emergent” theology and its sibling movement namee “woke,” has been a corrupting influence. But before delving into it, there’s a bit of history that might be helpful as to our perspective on the situation.
In decades past, the liberal denominations moved into D.C. to act, as a voice, for public policy changes. They were change agents. It didn’t happen all at once. There was not a move one day of a bunch of faculty members to the schools in D.C. as a planned action to implement change. Instead, as theological liberalism grew in time and in relationship with progressive ideals, the relationship developed over time so that their voice was closely tied to people in power. That’s the influence of a change agent. They’re not writing policy; they are influencing policy by having their voice heard through interpersonal interaction.
Of course, they’re not alone in this. The colleges, universities, and seminaries behind both these influencers and the politicians themselves, and their staffs, share this influence. There is no single action taking place but rather a consensus of opinion that reinforces and refines the progressive worldview.
Fast forward, now, the 1970s and 1980s. If you recall the Moral Majority what you saw was evangelicals and fundamentalists making an attempt to become change agents. The method was to mobilize people to influence political and social change in a world of unrest. For better or worse the church was engaging the world around it. Though the method be questionable they were at least starting to move outside the four walls of the church and be seen and heard both as Christians and as citizens. This was the first major shift since the withdrawal of the fundamentalists from social impact in the early 20th century. It came welcome, at least in principle, even though the practice had its problems.
The rise of the public pro-life movement happened at the same time. Through the influence of Francis Schaeffer the evangelical church worked as a change agent on a matter serious to all. (Yes, the Roman Catholic church had and maintains the largest influence in this movement, but it was through men like Schaeffer that the evangelical was drawn into this battle.) One can find a large number of evangelical groups, sometimes in partnership with Roman Catholic groups, that work as change agents to affect policy changes and see lives saved.
In this 21st century we have the emergent movement. This might be considered the first refining of a postmodern theological development. Though it was not a monolithic movement they all shared the drive to do something different than what the traditional church was doing. That’s not a bad idea in and of itself. It is also not a novel idea. It is, in principle, the complaint of Bill Bright in forming Campus Crusade, declaring the failure of the local church and his desire to do right where the church failed. Similarly, the emergent movement worked to correct the perceived failings of the historic church by altering both content and structure.
These structures and content worked to make the church relevant (Dan Kimball, Don Miller), to alter the function of the system (Cole, Frost, Hirsch), and sometimes to introduce liberal theological revisions into church teaching (McLaren, Bell, Claiborne). Though the structural results are many and varied they are identified by the language of “missional” and “relevant” so as to separate the movement from any association with historic church efforts.
Now to the present. The emergent theological conversation has died down, at least with regard to its self-proclamation. Fewer and fewer books are coming out from this arena but their influence continues.
Ok, back to today. If you have heard the term “woke” then you have heard of a modern theological trend that is influencing churches everywhere. “Woke” is a socio-political-theological conversation. It is short-hand for the older term “social justice” that arose from the social gospel of the 19th century. It means to be aware and responsive to the wrongs of the past and to put forth efforts to correct these perceived injustices in the present. This movement goes to all aspects of society and is not just about race. It encompasses all of the liberal identity politics. All of the declared disaffected groups are then brought under the umbrella of social justice protection.
How does this affect the church and its theology? Let’s talk about just one thing here. What is “white privilege” and how does it affect church theology and life?
White privilege is the assertion that, in the U.S., if one is white then one has an automatic advantage over other groups and persons. This advantage may be expressed in promotions where the more-qualified minority person is rejected on account of race. It may be expressed in more ease at obtaining loans for home or business. It may be expressed in the subjection of minority people to police brutality. It is founded on the assumption that the U.S. was created as an enslaving nation with the intent to subjugate people of color (The 1619 Project).
The assessment of what is called white privilege comes in two manners that I’ve observed. The simplest is the observation, that white people are the majority and as such operate most of the institutions of American culture and business. That’s simple enough. All nations have a dominant culture. The problem with this complaint is that it is non-transferrable. Nobody is saying that Nigeria is too black, that China is too Chinese, that Japan is too Japanese. It is a selective observation and avoids, I will suggest intentionally, a broader examination of the human condition.
What seems to be observation and sentiment appears as a mask for the ideals that are being pursued. White privilege is really (this is its second expression) an indictment of the U.S. as a nation. It is “the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white.” With white privilege comes this sense of white guilt. Privilege becomes an inherited sin, akin to the Christian concept of original sin, so that all white people, even the poor in Appalachia, bear this mark while the minority group members, though they be wealthy media elites, do not bear this mark. All white people bear this guilt.
That’s the theological problem. White guilt is an inherited sin (especially since this is a novel, relatively contemporary sin) for which there is no redemption. There is nothing one can do to find forgiveness. There is nothing one can do to be reconciled. The only thing one can do is to admit that one is inherently racist and then live a life in guilt.
This is contrary to the gospel. If the Christ of the gospel cleanses of sin then that understanding of sin must be that it may and can be covered by the blood of Christ. If guilt persists for a sinful condition then the blood of Christ is not sufficient to cover it. This places a socio-political construct above the gospel message. That’s a damnable heresy. It has no place in church life. A pastor who teaches white privilege and white guilt thus falls outside of orthodoxy. This is the fruit of a woke theology.