Waking Up to Wokeism
I was taught that the word “woke” is the past tense of the verb “wake,” as in: “I wake up most mornings at 7:30, but I woke up yesterday morning at 5:30.” However, I’m learning that a growing segment of American culture now uses “woke” as an adjective, as in: “Woke churches are politically active and attracting younger members.” Merriam-Webster defines this new, repurposed use of “woke” as “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.”
“Wokeism,” “woke” politics, even “woke” Christianity have become divisive. But perhaps there’s a way to bridge the “woke” divide. If there is, Christ followers should be the bridge builders.
Heart of the Matter
There’s a lot about this justice-focused redefinition of “woke” that Christians should feel comfortable embracing. After all, there are 130 references to “justice” in the NIV Bible. In Exodus, we are commanded, “Do not deny justice to your poor people.” In Deuteronomy, we are warned, “Do not pervert justice.” Proverbs tells us, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Isaiah counsels, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Indeed, using the very words He inspired Isaiah to write, Jesus explained that His mission was — and is — focused on justice: “to proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And Jesus taught us that “the more important matters of the law” are related to “justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
Add it all up, and our God is deeply concerned about justice. He even calls on us to be instruments of justice at times.
As to those specific issues of race, class and social standing, scripture makes it clear that the Lord “looks at the heart” — not outward appearance — and that we should do the same. Consider Jesus’ interactions with the broken-down Samaritan woman and the powerful Roman centurion, with the high-standing Nicodemus and the lowly leper, with the wealthy Jairus and the outcast woman suffering from bleeding; or Peter’s embrace of Cornelius; or Paul’s soaring declarations to the Galatians and Colossians: “In Christ Jesus…there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female…circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian.”
Christ followers, in short, are called to look beyond the superficialities of class and color, race and ethnicity, social standing, and upbringing — and to look into the heart. When we do that — if we do that — we are awakened to the challenges and burdens confronting our neighbors, awakened to the wounds of those in need, awakened to the cries of a broken world full of broken people, awakened to injustice.
Over and over, the Bible admonishes believers to be awake. The psalmist shouts, “Awake, my soul!” Isaiah cheers, “Awake, awake, Zion, clothe yourself with strength!” Paul admonishes us, “Be awake and sober.” Peter, as if grabbing a drowsy faithful by the shoulders, urges us multiple times to “be alert and of sober mind…alert and fully sober.” Jesus begs us to be awake and ready for His return. He even scolds the disciples — and us — for slumbering when we should be awake to what’s happening around us.
Destinations and Definitions
All of this suggests that Christ followers need to be open to that aspect of “wokeism” related to being awake to injustice and injury, hatred and hurting. But we need to offer a different destination and a different definition than what the world offers. Indeed, if “woke” can be redefined by the world, it can be re-redefined by the Church.
By all means, let the Church pursue justice in the culture around us. But let us not be confused, led astray, or seduced by the world’s incomplete notion of justice and redefinition of that word “woke.” God has always cared about the impact of culture on His people. In Exodus, God implores His people, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong.” In Leviticus, He commands His people, “Do not follow any of the detestable customs” of neighboring nations. In the Gospels, He describes His followers as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” Ponder that imagery: Salt helps preserve and protect things from rotting. Light chases away darkness. The Church cannot do those things if we imitate the world by focusing on superficialities, addressing the symptoms rather than the causes of injustice, flouting the law, replacing one form of racism with another, embracing moral relativism or rationalizing certain sins. Yes, we are called to share Christ’s message of sins forgiven and new life, but an essential part of His message is seeking forgiveness and leaving the old life. “Woke” Christianity tends to focus on the former and ignore the latter.
By all means, let the Church advocate for justice in the public square. But let us do so with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — not with riots, mobs, violence or fits of rage, not with hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, or envy. Let us never forget that justice pursued through unjust means is not just, that lawlessness in response to lawlessness doesn’t bring about justice, and that faith is essential to administering true and genuine justice.
By all means, let the Church, as Christ’s ambassadors, work toward a more just world. But let us not put our trust, faith, or hope in the princes, politicians, or programs of this world — in “human beings who cannot save.”
By all means, let us extend justice by promoting human rights, standing up for civil rights, and ensuring that the weakest among us are cared for and protected. But let us remember who the weakest among us are — and let us secure for them the last frontier of human rights and civil rights: the right to life.
By all means, let us work toward a more just economy. Let us address the shortcomings of the free market. Let us deploy our tithes and offerings to help those in need. Let us maintain a social safety net for those left behind by the market. But let us recognize that there is no better system for empowering individuals to use their God-given talents, for combatting poverty, for organizing an economy, for allocating resources, for stewarding creation than the free market.
By all means, let us build a more just, more perfect union by examining ourselves and our country with a critical eye. Self-reflection can drive people toward repentance. In a similar way, self-criticism can drive a nation toward self-correction. But let us not confuse healthy self-criticism that leads to necessary course corrections with moral relativism that results in a belief that America is no different than — or perhaps worse than — other nations. Let us recognize — as Christians and Americans, in that order — “our noble capacity for justice and love and brotherhood,” in the words of Rev. Martin Luther King. In this never-ending pursuit of a more just, more perfect union, let us never forget, as King put it, with words that would trigger today’s disciples of “wokeism,” that “God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world,” that the Declaration of Independence “is a dream…a great dream,” that “never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”
The Church needs to be awake, rather than “woke” — awake to the needs of neighbors, awake to the influence of the culture around us, awake to the injustice of a broken world full of broken people, and awake to the only answer to our problems: Jesus.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.