All around the world — whether in Minneapolis or Paris — cries for justice are ringing as thousands of people take to the streets to protest that black lives do, indeed, matter. Countless new allies have abandoned the chants of #AllLivesMatter and have now joined the choir of voices demanding that police brutality against the black community be addressed.
As a black clergyperson, I am particularly encouraged by the number of Christians who have finally spoken out against police brutality. For years, black people of faith have waited to see if “Christian celebrities,” especially white pastors with large black followings, would acknowledge the injustices that plague the black community. Their silence was particularly offensive considering that many of these pastors have benefited, at best, and plagiarized, at worst, from the black Church tradition. However, since the recent murder of George Floyd, a large number of Christians who were formerly silent on issues of racial injustice have made the decision to speak out. Although numerous Christians have finally chosen to name racism, I am woefully skeptical of new allies who have rushed to protest without examining the ways in which their own theologies continue to nurture it. The failure to address theological racism will cause new allies to come to this moment believing that the fight for justice is merely theologically adjacent to their brand of evangelism as “the real work of ministry.” For some, this is still just a societal issue, and not a theological one.
Prior to this moment, new allies have preached a gospel of Jesus devoid of justice. They failed to make the theological connection that Jesus and justice are, in fact, mutually inclusive. To invoke Jesus and then to invoke justice is redundant. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the ministry of justice. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we declare the psalmist’s decree that justice and righteousness are the foundations of God’s throne. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we summon the messianic prophecy that the spirit of the lord was upon Jesus, to preach the good news to the poor, to set the prisoners free from the Roman industrial complex, and to proclaim liberty to those who were oppressed. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we remember that Jesus was convicted of a crime he did not commit, received an unfair trial, and was sentenced to a state-sanctioned lynching on a tree. The ministry of justice is the ministry of Jesus. We cannot divorce our theology from the ministry of justice. To do so is to divorce ourselves from Jesus himself.
Something majestic is taking place in the midst of this struggle. However, in order for us to seize the moment, we must avoid the path of safe and easy allyship that doesn’t require theological transformation. Truly understanding that #BlackLivesMatter means doing the work, and doing the work means returning to the work, and returning to the work requires us to pick up where Jesus left off. Over this past week, I’ve seen a number of people attempt to explain this current moment by reposting a viral cartoon of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The 99 sheep hold up #AllSheepMatter signs, while Jesus leaves them for the one sheep who has strayed away.
While well intentioned, the ethos of the cartoon is theologically inaccurate. The Parable of the Lost Sheep is about the 99 who got it right, and the one sheep who strayed and got it wrong. For new allies, to now state that black lives matter is to also confess that you were the lost sheep who strayed away from the truth — not one of the 99 who stayed true to Jesus. Stating that #BlackLivesMatter means understanding that justice is at the heart of God, and your failure to address it requires you to return back to the fold. In order to return back to the fold, you must choose to see justice as ministry and not as a moral extracurricular. In order to return back to the fold, you must abandon your obsession with campus expansion and renew your commitment to community revitalization (and not gentrification). In order to return back to the fold, you must desert a gospel of nationalism that pledges its allegiance to an earthly king, and embrace a gospel of liberation, that kneels in solidarity with all souls and bodies that are disinherited.
So, although there are many new Christian allies who are speaking out, there are not enough who are saying the right thing. Every church that preached, “We don’t have a race problem; we have a sin problem,” needs to apologize to their congregation for their failure to name systemic racism as the sin. Every church that settled for teaching the Christian trope of “turning the other cheek” in a way that only addresses isolated moments of individualized hate, must acknowledge their complicity in propagating institutionalized racism.
An individual’s need of repentance will never be enough to redeem or rectify an entire system that is in need of salvation. It is insufficient for your church to say, “We can no longer be silent.” It is time to say, “We got it wrong.” Before your church decides to go out and protest, consider protesting your own theology that continues to intentionally and unintentionally do harm to black and brown bodies. Before taking a knee and holding a prayer vigil, consider this — there is no real substantive difference between a racist bigot holding a Bible in front of a church and a Christian holding up a #BlackLivesMatter sign with no plans to parse out the practical implementation of the holy truth of justice. So, pray for the spirit to move, and pray for the movement to start in you. Preach the resurrection, and preach the injustice of the crucifixion. Protest inequality, and protest your own theology. Beloved, this is the real work of ministry, and Justice is her name.