I’ve been operating under a false assumption. An unexamined theology, of my own making, that I have been forced to confront: The gospel is good news, but it is not good news for all. At least not in the way we want it to be.
"Good news for all" is often understood to mean "we are free to live an unexamined life." Free to prop up our self-serving theology with Scripture, twisted to support any endeavor we pursue.
I have done this. The church as I know it has done this. White Christianity has done this. And I am convicted to say that the gospel is, for many of us, not good news. Its very essence is a message we probably aren’t going to like. But I know with a certainty — beyond my own doubt and fear of repercussion or implication — that it’s a message the white, wealthy, comfortable church in America needs to hear.
For better or worse, this church is my spiritual home, and for too long we have been content with “doing good,” with “service,” with “mission.” We’ve convinced ourselves that we could simultaneously reach out while staying inside our comfort zone. White privilege has convinced us of this, and the gospel is not good news for any type of privilege.
James Cone writes that the gospel message of the cross "is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.”
The gospel inherently discomforts the comfortable, and this does not sound like good news for people who are used to calling the shots and creating a reality that serves their priorities. Yet, it is better news than any system of belief or practice we could concoct ourselves. It is news of kingdom renewal come to earth. It is our participation in the message of the cross: the story of Jesus crucified, a life ended on a cross precisely because this life was not good news to those with power and privilege. It’s a story of life coming from death, of complete renewal in Christ’s kingdom on earth, and of physical, tangible restoration in the here-and-now.
We know about the upside down nature of God’s kingdom: the last shall be first, the first shall be last, death leads to life, and life can mean sacrifice. This is what we must work toward if we are truly to be disciples.
I have never been in a church that failed to recognize the missional nature of faith. But I have also never been in a church that sought to systematically uproot the sources of oppression that caused the need for mission in the first place. If being a disciple means following Christ, then it means following him in his life’s work to invert the power structures of the world.
Being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world is a good place to start, but if our actions don’t follow the heart of his mission we aren’t living the gospel. Too often the church stops short of truly turning our systems upside down because we feel good about the work we’re doing to address the symptoms — and because we’re pretty comfortable in the midst of the system.
Jesus tells us that we must “deny ourselves … (because) whoever wants to save their life must lose it” (Matt. 16:24-25). And yet for most of us, even our denial of self is pretty comfortable. We can decide how and to what extent we give of ourselves. We don’t realize our own privilege in being able to choose to lose our life, in being able to choose to deny ourselves. For many, these are not choices. Too many people are suffering loss of life and denial without any say.
Those of us with the privilege to choose our own self-denial — how we serve, where, when, and to what extent — need to first recognize and then address the systematic self-denial imposed on others around us.
Which can be problematic for the church. All too often our churches are segregated by idealogical, racial, and socio-economic values. Waking ourselves up to the root issues of systems causing oppression is difficult when few in our immediate circles are suffering as a result of these injustices. Difficult — but not impossible.
Homogeneity doesn’t preclude us, or absolve us, from joining Jesus in addressing power and oppression. It just means we have to work a little harder.
We need to hear these messages from the pulpit. I’m a minister, chaplain, and preacher — I know how difficult this can be. Discerning how to call people to action without shaming them or shutting them down is challenging at best, and painful at worst. Holding a faith community together while pushing them to their edges is not for the faint of heart. The stakes are high and the learning curve can be steep. But when the work feels exhausting or demoralizing, I rely on the example of Jesus who never shied away from challenging the status quo.
We need to look to our own communities. I am embarrassed to admit that I preached once on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. day and I did not mention him, or the work we are to continue in his name. My sermon even addressed how we can join God’s work in the world — but I didn’t tie it back to King! One of my colleagues brought it up later in the service, and I apologized for my oversight.
We need to be participating in our cities and neighborhoods so we know what work needs to be done. Faith leaders need to surround themselves with people who are a reflection of what’s going on in the community so they can speak and lead from a place that is informed and relevant. And church members shouldn’t outsource this work to their pastors and ministers. Church leaders can’t see everything that’s happening in the community, and we all benefit from each other’s experience. In short, we need people who help us see our blindspots.
We need to build relationships. In our endeavor to eradicate blindspots, we need to be more than cultural “tourists” — people who only want to swoop in and provide their opinion or advice or “help.” To get to know people, and learning from others who are different from us, is where we begin the important work of addressing systems of oppression. We need to educate ourselves. Relationships aren’t built overnight. Finding people we trust enough to admit our blindspots can be difficult.
Learning to speak the message of the gospel when it is not good news is daunting. All of these things can take time to work toward. But something we can do right now — whether faith leader, pastor, preacher, or congregant — is educate ourselves.
The gospel turns our world upside down. It is not comfortable, but it is good news to those who need it. Let us heed the call to follow Jesus outside our comfort zone, and into a fuller expression of our faith in action.