off

How Shall We Then Protest?

“Anti-racism is not the Gospel, but the Gospel is anti-racism, and racism is anti-Gospel, hence heresy of the deepest dye,” J. Ligon Duncan III.

First, Should We Protest?

The predominant criticism against the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s from white Christians was its strategy of protest and civil disobedience,[1] as championed most notably by Martin Luther King, Jr.[2] Yet both the example of the apostles and the tradition of the church[3] – especially the Protestant tradition – support the legitimacy of non-violent civil disobedience and public protest on behalf of justice.

Whether we choose to actively participate in the Black Lives Matter protests now or not,[4] we must maintain a clear conscience as both the gift and charge of every believer. We cannot act in good faith without a clear conscience; and we cannot maintain a clear conscience if we are not acting in faith (1Timothy 1:18-20; Romans 14:23 cf. 1Corinthians 8:7-12; 10:25-30). 

With that said we must first address whether the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is consistent with our faith. As John Piper has helpfully elucidated, we need to distinguish the organization, the broader movement, and the slogan itself.

The official Black Lives Matter organization, started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, undoubtedly trumpets beliefs irreconcilable with biblical faith. It is difficult to see how the organization could be unreservedly endorsed by believers in good faith. Regarding the broader movement, how closely we individually choose to identify with it may depend largely upon our reading of history and personal experience. Some find a profound continuity between it and the Christian-based Civil Rights Movement (CRM), while at the same time noting significant differences between the movements.[5] Others have been troubled by the “different spirit” of protest displayed at various BLM demonstrations.

Concerning the slogan, it is unequivocally true that black lives matter (and more than matter), and that this is the direct consequence of biblical doctrine.[6] In the long shadow of our nation’s appalling history of racism and radical discrimination against black people – an historic trauma that continues to be felt today[7] – it is not only right but necessary that we as Christians and as churches[8] bearing witness to the kingdom of God affirm black lives matter. In the face of racial prejudice and violence, we must stand with Black Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, as image-bearers of the divine.

But might not our participation in these protests – at any level – make us unwitting partners, through a sort of guilt-by-association, with unbiblical systems of thought or godless agendas? Possibly. There are risks. And some risks are worth taking for the sake of love.

Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves

Recent calls for “social justice” among evangelicals have been seen by certain Christian groups as a step away from orthodoxy and toward the so-called “social gospel” – an early 20th century movement that often reduced the Christian message to a social-economic agenda. The inclusion of “social justice” in the vernacular of the saints, it is said, can act as a trojan horse, smuggling dubious political agendas into the church.

There is a real danger here that we need to recognize. But such apprehensions might be more paranoid than sober-minded. Throughout the last century, American evangelicals have stereotypically over-reacted against the “social gospel” movement, becoming not only deeply suspicious of calls for social reform, but all too often driving a wedge between evangelism and social action. An integrated ministry of both word and deed has always been the hallmark of faithful Christianity.

In fact, “social justice” is historically a Christian concept, and deeply seeded in biblical theology. Of course, the origins of a term or concept do not necessarily determine their present utility and value. In this case, the biblical foundations and historical precedent of “social justice” do not automatically validate its present use. Neither do present abuses invalidate the term. On the surface “social justice” simply conveys justice at the social level, not merely the individual or personal.[9] More recently it’s been used to address systemic or structural injustices as opposed to discrete or pathological acts of prejudice. An example of systemic or structural injustice in America is our checkered legislative history on abortion and euthanasia, fostering what has been aptly labeled a “culture of death”.

But isn’t “systemic racism” itself a loaded term, freighted with progressive agendas and assumptions? Potentially so. As with “social justice,” we need to define our terms, and some accounts of “systemic racism” betray philosophical or ideological assumptions[10] that run contrary to Scripture.

However, the concept itself need not carry such freight. The Oxford definition of the term is perfectly consonant with a Christian worldview, as is this definition from Wikipedia:

Institutional racism (also known as systemic racism) is a form of racism expressed in the practice of social and political institutions. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, house, health care, political power and education, among other issues.

Moreover, as John Piper has persuasively argued, students of the Bible should be surprised were there not such a thing as institutional or structural racism operating in our fallen world.[11] Read through the lens of Scripture, an honest look at our own history as a nation makes a blanket denial of either a deep-rooted white supremacism or a system of longstanding institutional injustices against blacks difficult to maintain with integrity (see more below under How Should We Protest).

Speaking of history, one thing we see as we look to the past is that things are never quite as simple or clean as we would like. Movements are always “mixed bags” – complex and messy. To uncritically support them is always foolish, and sometimes dangerous. We may find ourselves swept up by the currents of the day, driven downstream, and landing somewhere quite foreign to our native beliefs and convictions. But if we abstain from all just-yet-flawed causes, we will find ourselves betraying our own, espoused convictions. If there are risks in joining the protests, there are also risks in remaining on the fence. Whatever the precise historical relationship between the BLM movement and the CRM, the moral failure of white evangelicals in the 20th century to join with their black brothers and sisters in the fight for justice puts a pressure on us now to consider carefully those costs.

In short, we should be discerning on both fronts. On the one hand, many who are rightly decrying racial injustice operate from a very different (and often contradictory) set of values and beliefs than biblically-grounded Christians do. As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. But that doesn’t mean we should keep time with it. On the other hand, if the conservative fears of Marxist bogeys[12] hiding behind BLM hashtags sounds familiar to you, it’s because history often repeats itself. The same accusation was leveled against the Civil Rights Movement by white evangelicals then.[13] And the same tactic was used to disparage abolitionism by pro-slavery theologians before them.[14]

Secondly, How Should We Protest?

Learn:

Read history and scholarship on race and justice in America. Throughout this post are numerous endnotes and hyperlinks for your perusal. Our Acts 29 Network has also provided an excellent list of resources. Below are a few highlights I would recommend:

Watch historical documentaries and films on racial injustice and history, such as:

  • 13th (regarding the criminal justice system)
  • Just Mercy (regarding Equal Justice Initiative – though the book might be even better)
  • Selma (regarding MLK Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement)

Listen:

Invite people of color to your table, to coffee, to lunch, and ask them about their stories. Ask them to tell you their families’ stories. Ask them what they think, and why they think the way they do. Be curious. Allow the possibility that their perspective might change some of your perceptions and assumptions. Listen to learn, but please do not put the onus of your education into these things on people of color. Listen primarily to connect personally. Build real relationships. Take up and read first … then keep learning.

Lament:

A call to lament with black brothers and sisters is not a call for white guilt. White guilt is both unhelpful and misplaced. Rather, it is simply obedience to Scripture (Rom.12:12).

Pertaining specifically to the issue that has triggered the most recent protests, some of us are wondering about the statistics of police brutality against black men and women. We understandably want to know the facts before we cry, “racism!” But before we coolly demand “just the facts,” we need to listen to the heartbreak of our brothers and sisters. We are called to mourn with those who mourn first. As it’s recently been said in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, many whites are marching to the proverbial courtroom, while their black counterparts are grieving at the funeral.   

Moreover, we need to hear the whole story –including those facts that give historical context to these protests. The long and troublesome history of law enforcement in America vis-à-vis black people is critical to understanding the present response to modern policing. The record of police brutality in the US is a sober study,[15] and it is striking to note that the American police system is itself rooted in the institution of slavery:

Slave patrols, also referred to as paddy rollers and night watchers, are considered the original institution of policing in the United States (Moore et al., 2016). Established in 1704, slave patrols grew especially prevalent throughout Southern slave-holding states. Composed mainly of adult White males, slave patrols functioned—virtually unchecked—to capture runaway slaves, police the movement of enslaved Africans, prevent slave revolts and escapes, and essentially protect the institution of slavery (Cooper, 2015; Moore et al., 2018).[16]

Having said that, ascertaining the facts of each case is equally critical for the cause of justice. Currently, the data and analysis used to address whether the massively disproportionate experience of African Americans within the US criminal justice system is racially based are incomplete and contested. In time we will likely have a much clearer picture of the current inequalities. For now, the overwhelming picture tells us something is very broken,[17] not just in black communities, but in our present legal and justice systems – and likely many more segments of society. 

Act:

Pray for justice. It’s central to our mandate as the church (1Timothy 2:1-5). And it is powerful.

Protest peacefully, if you feel so convicted. But always speak up for the oppressed.  

Continue Jesus’ revolution, starting at your dinner table.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr describes his method in this way: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” Letter From Birmingham Jail (1963). In point of fact, the disagreements ran deeper than the question of King’s method. Though many white evangelicals, including ardent segregationists, espoused the racial equality of blacks and whites, “in the main, white evangelicals—particularly those in the South,” historian Matthew Hall writes ,“were deeply invested in efforts to either uphold Jim Crow or to try to slow down its dismantling.”

[2] Against this particular censure from his white brethren, Dr. King wrote his first book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958) and, later, his perhaps most famous essay, Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this compelling essay, he takes aim against, “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”

[3] E.g., Marcellus of Tangier, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. To Augustine of Hippo is typically attributed the famous quote King himself often cited, “An unjust law is no law at all.” See also John Calvin (e.g., Institutes IV. xx. 32).

[4] For most whites, this will likely come down to how we perceive 1) present day injustices against blacks and 2) our unwitting complicity in such by complacency or silence. Henry David Thoreau writes, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn,” Civil Disobedience and Other Essays.

[5] As many have pointed out, the religious foundations of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement are vastly different. Al Mohler summarizes, “The CRM emerged from the black church and through the black church, with a hierarchical structure and a core of male-ordained leadership. Virtually every important figure was a “Reverend.” The CRM carefully selected which victims of racial injustice would be set before public attention, playing by a set of moral rules common to the entire culture at the time. By contrast, the Black Lives Matter movement began by arguing there is no need to play by those rules when lives are at stake. It has emerged with a decentralized leadership and is neither led by ordained Christian ministers nor organically related to the black church.” In a private conversation with our church planting resident, Jarrian Wilson told me he has witnessed a persistent discrimination against the black church within segments of the BLM movement.

[6] J. Ligon Duncan is blunt when he writes against the racist theology of his distinguished predecessors: “They denied the imago Dei (the image of God in man), or at least its implications, in black people. Their embrace of white supremacy, the root of racism, was an anthropological heresy, and a departure from the Bible and the Reformed tradition, despite their “biblical” arguments.”

[7] One of the blind-spots among white evangelicals has been our consistent failure to understand the broad and far-reaching impact of racism in our context today. According to Barna research, only 42 percent of white Christians believe that the enslavement of African Americans for centuries continues to affect them negatively today. In many ways, it seems our failure to nationally lament and repent of the sins of America’s past has only complicated the enduring, negative impact of their stain, and prolonged our collective healing.

[8] As Abraham Kuyper wrote, “Let whatever is oppressed have the church’s support; may the poor find the church to be a place of refuge, and may the church become a messenger of peace.”

[9] This is in accordance with its historic sense. E.g., The Federalist Papers, Paper 70: “…we reasonably infer that, in similar cases, under other circumstances, a war, not of parchment, but of the sword, would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.”

[10] As conservative philosopher Roger Scruton observes regarding the current usage among many advocates, “…the goal of ‘social justice’ is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship …[but] a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged.  …behind the goal of ‘social justice’ there marches another and more dogged egalitarian mentality, which believes that inequality in whatever sphere – property, leisure, legal privilege, social rank, educational opportunities, or whatever else we might wish for ourselves and our children – is unjust until proven otherwise.”  Relatedly, though critical race theory can be a helpful analytical tool for Christians (see the SBC’s resolution on the matter), without a biblical framework, the snake eats itself.

[11] Another weakness of 20th century evangelicals has been our tunnel vision regarding individual conversion over against the corporate dimensions of righteousness (that is to say, social justice). “A classic Protestant understanding of sin,” Matthew Hall writes, “might have helped [evangelicals] recognize the ways in which sin infects not only personal individual choices, but also social structures, economic systems, legal codes, etc. But by relegating sin only to the realm of individual choice, it allowed white evangelicals to denounce anything broader as political entanglement that had no connection to Christian ethics or witness.” Billy Graham, while championing the cause of the Civil Rights Movement at various points, also faltered in this area. It is striking that where Graham’s crusades saw the most “fruit” in American soil, there also remained the greatest opposition to desegregation and racial reform. For more on evangelicalism’s proper but myopic focus on regeneration, to the detriment of a communal discipleship and holistic approach to obedience, see James D. Hunter’s To Change the World.

[12] One favorite boogeyman among conservatives recently is so-called “cultural Marxism.” Despite popular expositions to the contrary, this vaguely-denominated phenomenon is more often conspiracy theory than intellectual history. For more, see Andrew Lynn’s Cultural Marxism. Having said this, like many conspiracy theories, there is some degree of truth in the reconstruction. In particular, there is compelling connections from Gramsci, to the Frankfort School, to the peculiar, cultural waters in which we currently swim. As Professor Robert S. Smith concludes, “… there is no denying that the first generation of the Frankfurt School (in general) and Marcuse (in particular) have played a significant role in shaping the contours of the current Western civilizational divide. Political correctness, the new intolerant-tolerance and ever-increasing erotic liberty are part of their legacy. Similarly, Gramsci’s ideas have also borne very real (and not particularly appetizing) fruit—not least in the arena of identity politics, intersectionality and the rise of victimhood culture (today’s versions of “class consciousness”), as well as in the fact that, in the fields of media and academia (and politics too), the “long march through the institutions” is virtually complete.”

[13] For a chilling and uncanny experience of déjà vu, read this account of the conservative Presbyterian race debate in the 60s.

[14] E.g., the brilliant (but spectacularly wrong on race) theologian, James H. Thornwell, lambasted supporters of abolitionism as “atheists, socialists, communists and red republicans.”

[15] “The modern police system is in spirit the most inhuman in history, and its evil belongs to an age and not to a nation,” wrote G.K. Chesterton. Yet, as an Englishman visiting America, he observed, “some American police methods are evil past all parallel; and the detective can be more crooked than a hundred crooks.”

[16] “Reducing Police Brutality in African American Communities: Potential Roles for Social Workers in Congregations,” unpublished paper by Betty L. Wilson and Terry A. Wolfer.

[17] Numerous studies have shown a marked, racial difference in police brutality, including fatal encounters. Even studies that differ, showing no substantial racial difference in lethal shootings by law enforcement, demonstrate significant racial difference in non-lethal use of force. There are also clear racial differences in sentencing for the same offenses, etc., etc.

About the Author