“What does faith have to do with Justice?”
I wasn’t expecting the question, but the man’s earnest and unwavering gaze told me his query was genuine. I had just finished walking through the lynching memorial and was evaluating the wall of glass jars containing soil samples from every lynching site in Alabama. Still trying to process the scale of violence and grief that this historic site represented, I was caught off guard by this question.
Surely, standing in the city where the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, I shouldn’t have to explain that faith and justice work together. Yet as I struggled to answer, I realized that if one only saw Paula White, James Dobson, or Mike Huckabee as representatives of the Christian faith, it’d be easy to conclude that faith and justice have nothing to do with each other.
I’m an anabaptist Christian and I believe Jesus set a model for what it means to live faithfully. One of the foundational stories in scripture for me is the story of Jesus standing in a synagogue in Nazareth and reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Remember that Jesus belonged to an ethnic group that was socially and politically subjugated by the Roman Empire. By reading this scripture in his hometown, Jesus was announcing an end to the terror and injustice that his community was experiencing.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus responded to injustice. In response to hunger, he fed families. When he encountered disease, he healed. As he saw poverty, he commanded the wealthy to give their riches to the poor. Jesus not only talked about the Kingdom of God, but he showed how God’s reign and realm were in direct opposition to that of Rome. His was a message of liberation.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus responded to injustice.
I fear that message has been lost by many who claim the Christian faith. In the United States, there is an undeniable history of racialized violence against people of color that is well over 400 years old. From the horrors of chattel slavery to the terrorism of lynching; the ugliness of Jim Crow laws and the joint terrors of mass incarceration and police brutality, people of color continue to suffer due to White Supremacy.
If you’re Black in the US, you’re 2-3 times as likely to be killed by police than your white counterparts. In the last 10 years we’ve heard the names of Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jacob Blake, Dreasjon Reed, Sandra Bland, and Laquan McDonald, but they’re just a fraction of those who’ve fallen victim to state violence. Yet day in and day out many Christians remain silent against this injustice and turn away instead of confronting the realities of racism.
For a contemporary example, look no further than the controversy around critical race theory (CRT), which is the idea that law and legal institutions are racist and that race is a social construct designed by white people to oppress people of color. In 2018, a group of pastors led by John McArthur signed a statement that rejects any ideologies based on intersectionality or CRT. In a lengthy statement of affirmations and denials, they undercut the notion that white people hold any responsibility for manifestations of systemic racism such as chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation, or lynching.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the idea that law and legal institutions are racist and that race is a social construct designed by white people to oppress people of color.
In December of 2020, Southern Baptist seminary presidents denounced critical race theory as incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message doctrine established in 2000. In defense of this decision, Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, equated racism and CRT by stating that Christians must fight against both while defending the truth of scripture. It speaks to a brazen moral failure of leadership for someone to name racism and critical race theory (the theory which helps us define systemic racism) as equal threats.
In the summer and fall of 2020, worship leader Sean Feucht traveled the country hosting concerts, some of which masqueraded as protests, in order to oppose the governments’ ban on large religious gatherings during the pandemic. Not only did this potentially expose thousands of people to Covid-19, but by equating these gatherings with protests in order to skirt government regulations, he undercut and made a mockery of the legitimate critique of police brutality that sparked nationwide protests. Feucht says he believes Black lives matter but denounced the Black Lives Matter movement as a fraud and said it supported the denuclearization of the family.
For many white Christians, any understanding of racism that involves an intersectional approach to justice or attempts to hold white culture accountable for the ways it has benefited from the ongoing oppression of people of color is simply incompatible with faith in Jesus. So, rather than accepting the realities of systematic racism, they denounce the theories that undergird it while paying lip service to racial reconciliation.
If white evangelicals are guilty of undercutting racial justice through their theology, white mainline Christians are often guilty because of their silence and inaction.
Lest you lay all the blame at the feet of white evangelicals, I’ve been in progressive, mainline spaces for the last seven years and the silence around racial injustice has been deafening. People put signs in their yards that say “All Are Welcome,” but move from racially diverse urban areas into the suburbs, taking their tax revenue with them. They’ll denounce racism in the liturgy yet move into neighborhoods that are being gentrified. They’ll pray for an end to racism while turning up their nose when protests turn violent. If white evangelicals are guilty of undercutting racial justice through their theology, white mainline Christians are often guilty because of their silence and inaction.
That is why a complete stranger, living in the birthplace of the modern Civil Rights Movement, could ask me what faith has to do with justice. He’d been observing white Christianity for decades, he worked at a museum commemorating lynching victims, and he saw no evidence that faith and justice were connected. As I drove away from the memorial grounds, his question remained with me. In fact, it still remains. Our most recent election saw 80% of white evangelicals support a racist, sexist tyrant. Two months later, that same tyrant incited a mob of white supremacists who stormed the Capitol in an attempted coup that left five people dead. Given all of this, it’s still worth asking: What does faith have to do with justice?