The Urgent Need for Justice-Oriented Churches in the United States: Embracing Sankofa at the Margins | Sojourners

The Urgent Need for Justice-Oriented Churches in the United States: Embracing Sankofa at the Margins

Profound political, social, and economic divisions characterize the United States at a pivotal juncture. The Church’s role becomes more crucial as the nation grapples with systemic inequities and historical injustices. Churches that are intentionally justice-oriented, that honor the Sankofa principle, and that focus on the marginalized are desperately needed to foster healing and transformation. This article explores why such churches are essential, how the country’s divisiveness stems from Christian nationalism and distorted historical narratives, and what changes we might see if more churches embraced a justice-oriented approach.

The State of the Nation: A Divisive Landscape

Much of the current divisiveness in the United States stems from several factors, including the rise of Christian nationalism, the propagation of narratives that erase the true history of America, and a lack of robust discipleship in our churches.

Christian Nationalism: This ideology conflates religious and national identity, often promoting a vision of America as a divinely ordained nation with a unique role in God’s plan. This perspective can lead to exclusionary practices, marginalizing those who do not fit this narrow definition of American identity. Christian nationalism often downplays or ignores the systemic injustices that we have seen perpetuated in the nation’s history, such as slavery, segregation, and ongoing racial discrimination.

Distorted Historical Narratives: The narratives taught in many American schools and perpetuated in public discourse frequently sanitize or omit significant aspects of the country’s history. The true stories of Indigenous peoples, African Americans, and other marginalized groups are often minimized or ignored. This erasure perpetuates ignorance and hinders the nation’s ability to address the root causes of contemporary injustices.

Lack of Discipleship: Many churches in the U.S. have focused more on personal salvation and less on biblical justice, which God also cares about as evidenced in His sending Jesus to set the captives free. The narrow personal salvation approach to discipleship neglects the biblical mandate to seek justice and care for the marginalized. As a result, congregants may need more awareness and motivation to engage in justice work within their communities and on a broader scale instead of presenting these issues as human-made and not something God cares about as well. He cares about it all—righteousness, salvation, the widow, and the immigrant. 

The Sankofa Principle: Learning from the Past

The Sankofa principle, derived from a Ghanaian proverb, emphasizes the importance of looking back to learn from the past. A bird with its head turned backward while its feet face forward, carrying an egg in its mouth, symbolizes this principle. For churches, embracing Sankofa means acknowledging and learning from the historical injustices that have shaped the current landscape. It requires a commitment to truth-telling and reconciliation, recognizing that understanding and addressing past wrongs remain essential for building a just future.

Justice-Oriented Churches: Serving the Margins

Justice-oriented churches actively seek to address systemic injustices and serve marginalized communities. The biblical command to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) guides these churches. By prioritizing justice, they embody the teachings of Jesus, who consistently uplifted the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. 

However, many of the organizations training church planters in the U.S.—operated chiefly by cis white males, who do not have the margins on their radar most of the time because of their own social location—hardly ever address this issue head-on. They are excellently training for the business of starting and operating a church, but not focusing so much on the church’s role in civic engagement and justice initiatives. 

Three Changes We Would See with More Justice-Oriented Churches:

1. Increased Advocacy for Systemic Change: Justice-oriented churches would engage in charitable acts and advocate for systemic changes to address root causes of injustice. Advocacy could involve lobbying for policy reforms, supporting grassroots movements, and partnering with organizations that fight for racial, economic, and social justice. Such advocacy would help to dismantle structures that perpetuate inequality and create more equitable systems. Agustin Quiles is helping in this effort through his organization, Mission Talk, training Pentecostal and other Latiné evangelical leaders to learn the true history of the U.S. while educating them on what they can do at the local level through their churches. 

2. Greater Emphasis on Inclusive Narratives: These churches would prioritize inclusive and truthful storytelling, ensuring that the histories and experiences of marginalized communities are acknowledged and honored. This might look like incorporating diverse voices in worship services, educational programs, and public events. By doing so, they would foster a more accurate understanding of the nation’s history and promote reconciliation and healing.

3. Enhanced Community Support and Empowerment: Justice-oriented churches would empower marginalized communities through initiatives that address immediate needs and build long-term resilience. This could include providing resources for education, healthcare, housing, and employment and creating spaces for community organizing and leadership development. By investing in the well-being and empowerment of marginalized individuals, these churches would help to create more just and thriving communities.

The Path Forward: A Call to Action

For churches to become beacons of justice, they must undergo a paradigm shift that reorients their mission toward justice and reconciliation. I suggest the following for consideration:

  • Commitment to Continuous Learning: Churches must commit to ongoing education about historical and contemporary injustices. Partnering in tangible ways with scholars, activists, and organizations dedicated to justice work is a good start. Subscribe to podcasts and magazines [like Sojourners], follow thought leaders on the justice issues close to your heart, and show them the money with one-time donations or monthly support. 
  • Cultivating a Theology of Justice: Church leaders should develop and teach a theology that integrates justice as a core faith component. This includes preaching and teaching that emphasize the biblical mandate for justice and Jesus’s ministry as an example.
  • Building Diverse Coalitions: Churches and church leaders should seek to build and join diverse coalitions with other faith communities, social justice organizations, and marginalized groups. One such group is the Council for Holistic Christian Churches and Ministries, founded by Liberty to the Captives author, activist, community, and education leader Bishop Raymond Rivera, who is hosting its first conference on September 13-14 in NYC with Drs. Robert Chao Romero and Vince Bantu to name a few. This council brings together like-minded leaders committed to the Spirit and holistic, justice initiatives. Such affiliations and partnerships can amplify efforts to address systemic injustices and create broader, more impactful change. 
  • Supporting Passion2Plant: One tangible step toward birthing more justice-oriented churches is supporting the work of Passion2Plant. This organization, established at the beginning of the pandemic, is dedicated to educating and training global majority planters to start holistic, justice-oriented churches. Founded and led by an Afro-Boricua woman, Passion2Plant is unique in its mission and approach. To date, the only major organization that has supported its work is Urban Strategies, a social enterprise also started by a Latiné woman in addition to one monthly donor and a handful of one-time donations. By investing in initiatives like Passion2Plant, we all can help cultivate a new generation of leaders committed to justice and reconciliation, ensuring that these values are embedded in the DNA of new faith communities across the country.

We do not have to look far to see that the need for justice-oriented churches in the United States remains more urgent than ever. By embracing the Sankofa principle and keeping the marginalized at the forefront, churches can help to heal the nation’s divisions and build a more just and equitable society. The transformation required is profound, but with education, commitment and faith, it is within reach.