Last year, as part of our church’s efforts to
promote racial reconciliation, the congregation was
encouraged to read the book Divided By Faith
by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.
In my review of that book,
one of my complaints was that the authors were not
up front about their own theological leanings.
This year, one of the books our church has recommended is Woke Church by Eric Mason. Right off the bat, I found myself more favorably disposed toward Woke Church than toward Divided By Faith, because Mason makes no bones about where he is coming from. In the very first chapter, he states his commitment to evangelicalism, and further clarifies the meaning of evangelical by quoting from the website of the National Association of Evangelicals, which lists four primary characteristics: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. Although Mason touches on all four characteristics, it is activism that is his main focus in this book. He explains the title of the book as follows.
My desire in this book is to encourage the church
to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake
to the issue of race and injustice in this country.
Pan-Africanists and Black Nationalists use the term
“woke” to refer to no longer being naïve
nor in mental slavery. We have borrowed the term and redeemed
it to be used in the context of being awakened from
sin’s effects and Satan’s deception (Eph. 5:14).
Thus, the believer is able to be aware of sin and
challenge it wherever it is.
Woke is a word commonly used by those in the black community as a term for being socially aware of issues that have systemic impact. This social awareness doesn’t come from just watching the news or reading history through a traditional lens. Being woke has to do with seeing all of the issues and being able to connect cultural, socio-economic, philosophical, historical, and ethical dots. A similar term is conscious.
I found myself exegetically at home with my conservative family on the doctrines of grace, but ethically at home with my liberal family on issues of race and justice. I wasn’t comfortable with conservatives’ silence on ethical issues during virtually every major wave of injustice in America affecting blacks. But I also balked at liberals and the unclear place of conversion in their teachings.Throughout the book, Mason is careful to begin by laying a biblical foundation for the case he is arguing, focusing on Jesus Christ and the gospel. But he does not stop there, and proceeds directly to the practical implications of the theoretical truths he has just expounded.
One of the first of his many jobs was as a worker in a dry cleaner
where he learned tailoring and dry-cleaning during this time.
On one occasion, eight suits came up missing. The owners of the
business blamed my dad.
That night, the police came to my grandfather’s home and snatched my father out of bed. They told my grandmother that if she got in the way they would kill her. Her pleas went unanswered as they whisked him away and put him in jail. They beat him to force a confession, but to no avail. My grandmother ran to the home of her white boss. He went to the police station with her, and she almost collapsed when she saw the condition my father was in. He was so brutally beaten that she had trouble recognizing him.
Her boss asked the sheriff what was going on. They explained that they believed my father had stolen eight suits. The gentleman took one look at my father, noticing his age and size, and asked, “How can someone this boy’s weight and size carry eight suits?” The policemen stood dumbfounded. The boss then exclaimed, “What would he do with them?” After hearing the reasoning of my mother’s boss, they let him go with no apology or explanation. Some of these men were likely seen as upstanding men in the community, keepers of the law, even leaders in their churches.
This is the gospel mandate. And we dare not truncate it or reduce it to one of its parts. The danger of reductionism is that it attempts to focus on a single aspect to the neglect of others. That is not the goal of this book. The goal of this book is to shine a spotlight on one of the aspects of the gospel that has been neglected and dismissed as inappropriate for discourse.That neglected aspect, says Mason, is justice. Mason emphasizes the etymological connection between justice and justification, explaining that justification is not just a position, but a practice—a practice of making right what is wrong in the world. He traces the theme of justice through the whole Bible, showing how justice is part of the character of God and should therefore be part of the character of the church.
We can’t miss what Paul is doing. Paul is calling on
Philemon—in front of everybody—to exalt Onesimus,
his former slave, as a spiritual sibling and co-laborer in
the gospel! You know that word would have traveled. What would
that do to the other slaves that were under Philemon’s care?
Do you think they would be content? They would all be getting saved!
And what would that have done to Philemon’s friends? There would be a lot of conversation over wine, tea, and coffee, where he’s sitting down and hearing, “You let him do what? Who does that? Who has slaves that run away and come back and you reward him? Where does that come from?” Philemon could say, “I’m glad you asked. God has been dealing with my heart about slavery.” “Dealing with your heart? What about your pockets?” “No, man, if I lose, I lose, but God is able to reward even when you give stuff away. Not only did I send him away; he had to get there. He was broke, so I had to give him some resources so he could get there. We took up a church offering for him.” And his friends would have to be thinking, This is weird. I need to meditate on this. Now, that’s how you change a system. You change a system by converting the poor and the elite at the same time.
White evangelicalism’s lack of involvement in the [civil rights] movement as a whole hurt our long-term relationships with one another. Even to this day, the black church has never forgotten the brash disconnect of Christian conservatism’s silence or verbal support of segregation.The white church’s eagerness to “move on” without taking time to acknowledge and grieve the past remains a sticking point in relations with the black church. This attitude drives many blacks to turn towards black power movements. Mason says, “Many African Americans have experienced more affirmation of our dignity from black power movements than we have from the church of Jesus Christ.” For this reason, Mason devotes an entire chapter to “Things for the Church to Lament.” Here is his list:
In John 6, the people were hungry, and Jesus fed them because He didn’t want to send them home hungry. That was the part of His message—He wanted to communicate His care for them and then present Himself as the Bread of Life. It’s always connected to the gospel! This is a crucial reminder for intervening justice. We must meet needs and share the gospel. Without the gospel we are no more than social service agencies.In the category of prevention, Mason talks about providing biblical manhood and womanhood training.
We will need to have biblically based sex education and biblical discipleship of these young women so that we’re not just telling them “Don’t have sex” or “Here’s a condom.” We don’t do that. That doesn’t work, because a condom can’t shield you from the wrath of God, even though it can shield you from STDs. We will need to teach them that they are created in the image of God and have worth and dignity and so much more.On the topic of systemic justice, one of Mason’s top concerns is education, and breaking what he calls the “school-to-prison pipeline” that ensnares so many blacks, especially black boys.
I’d love our church to be a place where trained, paid professionals educate kids who fall through the cracks, and then reintroduce them back into the school system. That would require the judge to commit them here to stay and submit to our policies. This is a huge gap that the Woke Church can begin to fill.For predominantly white churches, Mason’s recommendation is to develop partnerships with black churches. As an example, he cites his own church’s partnership with Village Church and its pastor Matt Chandler. A wealthy businessman from Village Church learned of a need for a playground in the neighborhood of Mason’s church (Epiphany Fellowship), and donated tens of thousands of dollars to make it happen. “Kids play a lot out there, and neighbors view it as their playground, not just Epiphany Fellowship’s. We named it Diamond Street Community Park to reinforce the idea that it belongs to the community, not just the church.”
Government officials, based on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:14–17,
are appointed by God as ministers, whether they’re saved or not.
This means that God appointed them sovereignly, no matter what happened
in the voting booth. Ultimately God appoints leaders for a particular
reason. Whether they’re good or bad, they’ll be held
accountable for their actions. But the people of God are supposed
to be active and engaging in the midst of all of this.
The vision for change calls the church to pray mightily for the government of our country. Pray for each leader that God has sovereignly put in place. And then speak truth boldly to those leaders without compromise or watering down the message. Believers in the Bible prayed for leaders they disliked. They prayed for them, but then they challenged them about what was right. I like the way John the Baptist did it. John got in front of Herod and blasted him. And Herod said he liked to listen to him (Mark 6:20). He had everybody go out of the room and said, “John’s about to talk to me.” That’s the disposition of a great prophet who’s willing to speak into and challenge what’s wrong in the culture.